In the contest to attract and retain the best students, people often overlook the competitive advantage provided by, well, competition. One of the things that students increasingly look for in a campus is an up-to-date athletics environment with sufficient facilities to serve the campus population.
Although UW–Madison is a powerhouse in varsity athletics, it has not been particularly competitive in terms of its recreational athletics options. Its newest rec-sports building — the Southeast Recreational Facility, or SERF — was 34 years old. In the 2010s, it was serving about 3,800 people a day: roughly twice as many as in the early 1980s.
“Anyone who goes into our recreational-sports and fitness facilities will immediately notice that they are old and overcrowded,” wrote Chancellor Rebecca Blank. “UW–Madison is lagging behind its peers in this area. We are behind our peers in the Big Ten conference for space devoted to fitness, with just 15,000 square feet. By contrast, the leader — Ohio State — has 49,000 square feet.”
A gift from the Nicholas family helps replace the SERF with the Nicholas
In the fall of 2017, UW–Madison shut down the SERF to replace it with a larger, more modern structure, assisted by a $20 million lead gift in honor of the late Albert “Ab” Nicholas ’52, MBA’55 made by his wife, Nancy ’55, and their family. The new facility will bear their name: the Nicholas Recreation Center, or “the Nick” for short.
“The main thing is that we wanted to do something that supports many students, says Nancy Nicholas, noting that she and Ab had been strong proponents for the value of exercise in academic achievement. “We certainly believe in the importance of both physical and mental health for young people,” she says.
According to John Horn, the director of Recreational Sports, the gift includes $15 million toward the construction of the Nick, and another $5 million goes to the UW’s Division of Athletics to build an Olympic-sized pool at the Nick. Rec sports will share the pool with the UW’s varsity swimming team.
“Students have told us that fitness plays a vital role in their choice of schools,” Horn says. “Physical well-being is important to them. It’s not healthy to spend 100 percent of their time in the classroom.”