This is not an announcement. It’s something most already know, at least on one level. It is common knowledge that the University of Utah was invited a few years ago to be a member of the Pac-12 athletic conference. My purpose is to explain what this means beyond the obvious ramp-up in athletic competition. I would like to present a rationale as to why the U. belongs with this group of universities.
Most people are familiar with the term “Ivy League.” It is a mark of distinction to say that an individual received an Ivy League education. The eight private universities that make up this group (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Dartmouth, Pennsylvania and Cornell) are among the most distinguished in the nation. What is often overlooked is that the Ivy League is actually an athletic conference. The schools in this conference share common academic characteristics and so formed a league to play each other in their various sports.
The Pac-12 is an athletic conference whose member schools also share common academic characteristics: they are all research universities. Membership is not based on football or basketball prowess alone. The member universities must play major college sports, but that by itself will not qualify an institution to receive an invitation. The 12 schools in the Pac-12 (10 public and two private) offer Ph.D.s in hundreds of disciplines and are homes to numerous professional schools. Also, between them they receive billions of dollars annually in research funding and are at the forefront of expanding knowledge in science, engineering, medicine and numerous other disciplines that make life better, healthier and safer.
So how does the University of Utah stack up against these august institutions? In short — very well. The U. is in the middle of the 12 in the number of doctorates offered and granted each year. Six of the 12 have schools of medicine, the U. is one of them. The U. is one of 10 that has a law school. The U.’s pharmacy school is one of five. And the recent opening of the dental school makes the University of Utah one of four. In annual research funding, the U. in right in the middle. For the most recent year that figures were easily available (2011), the U. received $410 million. Six universities had more, led by the University of Washington at $1.1 billion. Five received less with the University of Oregon bringing up the rear at $87 million. (Oregon was a distant last with the next lowest university, Washington State, coming in at $227 million.) For comparison, BYU clocked in that year at about $30 million. I realize that research and graduate education is not the end-all and be-all of quality higher education. However, for the Pac-12 it appears to matter a great deal.
There was a lot of hand-wringing among the BYU faithful in 2011 when the U. received an invitation to the Pac-12 and the Y was left out. Athletically, the Y would be a great match for the conference and the caliber of students enrolled, and especially the quality of undergraduate education would match up well with any of the other schools. Will BYU ever be invited? You can never say never, but in terms of its overall institutional mission and profile, the answer is probably no. The problem in the mind of many critics of this seeming snub is that they confuse institutional quality with institutional type. There are many high quality universities in the West that don’t match the Pac-12 type.
In my opinion, the two Western schools not currently members that most closely resemble the Pac-12 in institutional profile are Colorado State University and the University of New Mexico. Both are research powerhouses. New Mexico has schools of medicine, pharmacy and law; Colorado State has a highly regarded school of veterinary medicine. And both play big time football (in the Mountain West Conference).
Another school that is rising fast and is quickly gaining the profile of a Pac-12 institution is — are you ready? — Utah State University. USU has about twice the research output of the University of Oregon. In addition, its sports teams are becoming more competitive every year. Is this a prediction? No — only the presidents of the Pac-12 universities can make the decision to add schools. My bottom line is that the University of Utah is a Pac-12 type school. What makes this even sweeter is that the University of Utah is a Pac-12 school.
Paul Browning is a former Church Education System employee and a former special assistant to the vice president for student affairs at the University of Utah.