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Perspective: In conference realignment, academics — not athletics — are king

Some Power 5 conferences value a school’s ‘institutional profile’ over its football program

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Texas and Oklahoma logos are seen on the Cotton Bowl field in Dallas.

The Red River Showdown logo is displayed on the field of the Cotton Bowl, prior to an NCAA college football game between the University of Texas and Oklahoma in Dallas on Oct. 10, 2020. Texas’ and Oklahoma’s boards of regents unanimously accepted invitations to join the Southeastern Conference, the schools announced on July 30, 2021.

Michael Ainsworth, Associated Press

Now is an unbelievable time in higher education and Division 1 sports. In my three decades in higher education, I’ve never seen anything like it. Student athletes can now profit off of their likenesses and images. Even amid a pandemic, college athletics is a multibillion dollar industry. And with the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 Conference for the Southeastern Conference, the world of college sports will again be jolted amid the tectonic shifts of conference realignment.

But often, the speculation about realignment focuses too much on sports and too little on the academic institutions themselves. What about Texas’ in-state football rivalries in the Big 12? Will the Big 12 and Pac-12 coordinate a football scheduling agreement? What about basketball — how does this move help the SEC? Such questions are important. But the two biggest brokers in these conversations, and ones that are often overlooked, are the role of academics and a given school’s “institutional fit.” And, I would argue, this should always be the case. 

Ask any athletic director, university president or conference commissioner — one of the most-uttered phrases in conference realignment talks is “institutional profile.” Even in the money-crazed world of college sports, academic prestige is extremely important, especially for several Power Five conferences. Call it what you will: academic elitism, Ivory Tower egotism, scholarly snobbery. But a school’s institutional profile — what it can bring to a conference, in terms of its academic offerings, research profile, faculty awards and memberships, and reputation — is absolutely essential.

Take the Big Ten Conference, for example. Recent reports suggest that the Big Ten may expand, with a caveat: Potential schools must form part of the Association of American Universities. At present, all Big Ten schools are AAU members, except the University of Nebraska. Although Nebraska was a member when it joined the Big Ten, it was voted out in 2011, the first school to have AAU status revoked in a century. Also in 2011, Syracuse University — then a member of the Big East Conference — chose to voluntarily leave the AAU and Big East, and moved to the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013.

In talks of conference realignment, the AAU is the real “power conference” — it has all the power. The Big Ten won’t even consider non-AAU schools, and may have its eye on members in other leagues (like Kansas elected to the AAU in 1909 or Iowa State, chosen for membership in 1958). The Pac-12, if it ever chose to expand, would likely focus on AAU schools, too — nine of its 12 schools are AAU members, including all four California schools and the University of Utah, as of 2019.

The AAU is perhaps the most prestigious — and most exclusive — organization of American universities. To join, a school is evaluated by four criteria: competitively funded research support; membership in national academies (like the National Academy of Science, for example); faculty awards and fellowships; and research citations. Three-fourths of the AAU’s 66 member schools must vote in favor of a potential member institution for it to receive an invitation; membership can later be revoked, as Nebraska discovered (due to a decline in research funding and an emphasis on agricultural research, which is not “considered as highly,” per an AAU spokesperson).  

In talks of conference realignment, the AAU is the real “power conference” — it has all the power.

Yes, the academic elitism is palpable, and those from the outside looking in might criticize the AAU for its perceived pretension. There are nearly 4,000 degree-granting institutions in the United States and the AAU’s 64 American members represent 1.6% of that population. But the scholarly work stemming from AAU institutions, and the value of that research, is both undeniable and astonishing. Sixty-one percent of the total research funded in the U.S. government, or $25.6 billion annually, is performed by AAU faculty. Thirty-eight percent of all Nobel Prize winners are faculty members at AAU institutions. And researchers at AAU schools, like Johns Hopkins University, have been at the forefront of tracking the spread of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

It was Daniel Coit Gilman, the first president of Johns Hopkins, who spearheaded the formation of the AAU in the late 19th century, alongside William Rainey Harper, of the University of Chicago; Seth Low, from Columbia University; Charles Eliot, at Harvard University; and Benjamin Ide Wheeler, at the University of California. Three of the five had spent time in Europe learning about that continent’s system of higher education; at the time, America’s system, and its international reputation, was lagging. Their goal, they wrote, was to “raise the opinion entertained abroad of our own Doctor’s Degree; and raise the standard of our own weaker institutions.” Invitations went out to nine other institutions, including Princeton University, the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin and Stanford University, among others.

The effect is clear. Today, 14 of the top 20 universities worldwide are in the U.S., according to the 2021 Times Higher Education World University Rankings. In many ways, our universities are the envy of the entire world. 

When I worked for President Bernie Machen at the University of Utah, he insisted that two things could happen at Utah (and he believed they were very close): A faculty member would win a Nobel Prize, and that Utah’s emerging research profile would someday land it within the ranks of the Association of American Universities. Machen came to the U. from the University of Michigan, where he was the provost; in 2007, a Utah faculty member, Mario Capecchi, won a Nobel Prize in medicine in 2007. In 2019, long after Machen and I left the U. (and nearly a decade after its admittance to the Pac-12), the University of Utah was welcomed into the AAU. Credit belongs to all the faculty, staff and students who helped the university achieve this singular accomplishment. 

The value of college athletics is undisputed. It brings notoriety and a sense of pride to many of our universities. Our student athletes dedicate themselves to their craft, and they perform at the highest levels, representing our schools. But when talks of athletic conference realignment heat up, forgetting the “academic” in “academic institutions” is a major blunder — and one that conference commissioners (and their bosses — university presidents and chancellors), I assure you, have not forgotten.

When talking conference realignment, don’t forget the real “power conference.”

Michael T. Benson is president and professor of history at Coastal Carolina University. His book, “Gilman at Hopkins: The Birth of the Modern Research University,” is a biography of Daniel Coit Gilman, a founding member of the Association of American Universities. It will be released next year by Johns Hopkins University Press.