University Presidents make the final decisions on conference realignment decisions. This face matters. I know and have written how money and markets drive decisions to move from conferences. The realignment continues unabated as this wonderful diagram from College Athletics Clips makes clear. The lines point to how many school decisions gravitate around the most desired targets--the five money/football power conferences—SEC; Big 10; ACC; Big 12; PAC12. But just as Presidents have to think about the economics and competitive status of programs; they are driven by another set of factors that do not worry athletic directors, recruits or coaches—the academic reputation of their university. A college President’s long-term agenda focuses on increasing the academic quality and profile of their university far more than the athletic economics.
This desire to increase academic stature enters into all the decisions made by Presidents and often conferences on realignment.
First a quick word about academic prestige. Academic reputation in the United States hinges largely on scholarly production, academic quality of students and range of PhD, and professional programs. Three groups of indicators dominate here.
· The American Association of Universities is the gold standard for American universities. It covers an exalted 62 schools and is by invitation only; schools can enter the club or be moved out of the club on a regular basis. AAU membership represents the highest academic imprimatur in the United States.
· The second designation is R1. This is a Carnegie classification that clusters universities by the range and depth of their professional and graduate school. It acknowledges that a university has reached a national class critical mass to invest and sustain an internal research process that produces professional and doctorate expertise.
· The last set of standards are recent creations that rank world universities, the most widely known are the Shanghai rankings that emphasize research output. This tracks the size and scope of a university’s biomedical and medical research. The Times of London rankings also rank worldwide and cover a more holistic range of assessments. The rankings focus on academics and research. Students and admissions officers obsess about the U.S. News and World rankings but they are easily manipulated and not the focus of long term reputation.
University Presidents take these rankings seriously. Their career paths often follow a rising level of size and prestige at the institutions. This academic reputation provides a powerful independent weight in their decisions. To take a quick example, the recent decision of Louisville to move to the ACC had a no brainer academic component. The rumor mill spotted the Big 12 as interested in Louisville, but for Louisville moving to the ACC had a huge advantage, not in money or competition per se, but in academic prestige. The ACC remains one of three athletic conferences that have a strong academic pedigree and the conference sees academics as part of its own identity. Louisville is not an R1 institution and is not an AAU institution, so for them being invited to the ACC involved a huge gain in their academic status beyond any competitive athletic issues.
Given these yardsticks, three of the big five conferences have a strong academic patina and a self-conscious academic filter in their decision-making. (The Ivy League remains in a different academic and athletic universe and many of the country’s top AAU schools such as Chicago, MIT, Johns Hopkins or Carnegie Mellon do not even bother with athletics).
The Big 10 has self-consciously seen itself as both an academic and an athletic community. It possesses a long tradition of senior academic officers meet together as well as functioning as an athletic conference. In its expansion efforts it has been very self-conscious with its academic filter for new admissions and simply rejected outright a number of schools for academic reasons.
The academic cache of the Big 10 makes it a prize destination for presidents. Missouri deeply wanted the Big10 for academic prestige reasons. It ended up in the SEC, and as an R1 and AAU school helped the SEC’s academic profile. Two decades ago the Big 10 brought in Penn State an AAU and R1 school. Two years ago it brought in AAU Nebraska as a great athletic school with a strong R1 reputation; in a huge irony, Nebraska lost its AAU affiliation the year it entered the Big 10. No less than ex Michigan President Duderstadt commented upon the declining academic standards of the Big 10 when they brought in non AAU Nebraska.
When the Big 10 suddenly expanded to the east coast, it raided both the academically nondescript Big East for Rutgers, an AAU and R1 school who jumped at the chance. It also gathered in Maryland from the ACC, also an R1 and AAU school. For Penn State, Nebraska and Rutgers, the decision to join the Big10 involved great academic status gain. Maryland was a closer decision, but in the end concluded that the combination of money, market and affiliation with a conference in which every member but one was an AAU member made sense.
The ACC has always had a strong academic core of AAU schools such as Duke, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia Tech. The Big10 has twice seriously thought about trying to go after the North Carolina/Virginia axis of the conference. The conference has largely cemented its academic status with R1 institutions like North Carolina State, Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech. When the ACC expanded, they brought in University of Pittsburgh both an R1 and AAU school. They added a strong private school in Syracuse to match the strong profile of Boston College. While much more diluted than the Big10 academically, they still present a profile that emanates academic credibility based from their core institutions. When Maryland left for the Big10 for a huge academic gain, Louisville, despite the early anger of their AD at the leaving of Pitt and Syracuse, leapt to move to the ACC. Neither R1 nor AAU, like Boston College and Syracuse, they gain real academic credibility from the move.
The PAC 12 with its west coast monopoly stands as the last of the strong academic conferences. The conference has become much more self-conscious about its academic status under Commissioner Larry Scott. With a core of eight AAU and R1 universities anchored by Berkley, Stanford, UCLA and Washington, the conference added AAU and R1 Colorado and academic up and coming Utah. Both schools outranked several of the academic existing schools in the PAC12. When the PAC12 looked hard at trying to expand beyond the Rockies, one thing that held it back was a concern about diluting the academic identity of the conference.
Leaving aside the disintegrating Big East, the Big12 possesses a unique status. It has become the poaching ground for many expansions, and most of the schools that left have been both AAU and R1. The reason lies in Texas. Texas towers over the conference with its immense wealth, R1 and AAU status and immense academic prestige. Its sheer glamor drove the PAC 8/10/12 to three times try to bring Texas into the fold. Each effort failed because as an old fried and AD told me, “Texas does what Texas does. They have to control it all.” So the Big12 exists in a parallel universe of Texas with its own network and payouts and everybody else. Missouri (SEC), Texas A&M (SEC), Nebraska (P12) and Colorado (P12) were incredibly relieved to escape Texas hubris. When they left the Big12 they took four R1 and four AAU schools out of the conference, leaving it in academics, Texas and the rest.
The SEC remains strong in R1 institutions but few AAU schools and few ranked in the international standings. They also struggle with raising academic standards for their programs that have traditionally been among the poorest academic performers in the country the inverse of their athletic prowess. Interestingly getting Texas A&M and Missouri doubled the number of AAU schools.
Getting into an academic prestige conference such as the Big10, PAC12 or ACC has an independent value for a university and university President. I am not going to pretend the money and media visibility do not drive the alignment decisions, but do not underestimate the draw of academics for the Presidents.