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The Academic Considerations of Conference Realignment

The schools currently at the heart of conference realignment news and rumors are large public institutions, most with operating budgets of a billion dollars or more and enrollment figures in the tens of thousands.  The decision and follow-through required to move one of these schools to a new conference is made by presidents, chancellors, trustees, and government officials, all of whom have distinct personal beliefs and agendas in steering their entrusted institution.  Getting beyond personal bias and mission interpretation, there are some more tangible academic factors when it comes to changing conferences. 

Networking

Even in the internet age, personal proximity builds relationships, and that’s as true for college administrators as it is in any other profession.  Conference discussions require the participation of presidents and chancellors from each member institution, which not only provides opportunity to discuss all matters of running a university, but can spark ideas for educational collaboration.  This is only helped when a realignment candidate has weak bonds with national organizations and is entering a conference with better geographical cohesion and proximal partner schools.  Major grants from the NSF, NIH, DOE, NEH, and other federal funders look favorably on multi-school proposals, so the concept of collaboration isn’t ephemeral by any stretch. 

Admissions and Instruction

An institute’s academic quality is tied to the quality of its students.   Put roughly, a prominent football program will impact this connection by directly leading to an increase in admissions applications and improving median metrics such as SAT/ACT scores and entering GPA, but won’t suddenly make a school more competitive with upper echelon students.  It’s also a reality that high-level athletes often have academic backgrounds, strengths, and goals that aren’t conducive to excelling in higher education, and needs of ethnic and cultural association that can go unnourished on the modern Division 1 campus.  With this in mind, competing in a conference stacked with talented teams might be made easier by lowering admissions standards, cutting curriculum requirements, or (more drastically) by altering the school’s academic offerings. 

Lowering admissions standards (or maintaining while peer institutions elevate requirements) doesn’t seem to have a tremendous impact on overall admissions quality, but it does require more faculty and tutor support to keep student athletes enrolled and progressing.  Conversely, eliminating a first-year math requirement might lead to having a redundant cadre of math instructors, or take away a teaching opportunity for grad students.  And when it comes to changing core curricula, the effort is a massive undertaking that brings with it a host of side effects.  For this reason, structural changes such as adding degrees and minors can be aided by football-minded reasoning, but rarely initiated by it.  Georgia Tech, for example, could never have instituted its expansion of liberal arts offerings as a way of attracting football players; that said, if these efforts to attract the female students needed to stay relevant in higher ed also improve recruiting, then it’s a winning situation for everyone (with the exception, perhaps, of nostalgic alumni.)

Faculty Retention

Most public schools generally have some low-level grumbling among faculty regarding the “beer and circus” environment (to use Murray Sperber’s phrase) of their employing institution.  Conference realignment has a way of magnifying this discontent, which can cause subtle, long-term problems.  Retaining key faculty (and recruiting new ones) is important to an institution’s academic rankings and performance, especially since faculty are the ones who pay for their research by writing grant proposals that bring millions of dollars into school coffers every year.  Faculty are a bit like recruits–it’s important to snag and keep the 4 and 5 stars.  Even your average liberal arts department can have several salaries offset every year by grants.  Lower-level adjunct faculty constitute a vital resource since their positions are relatively low-paying, which limits schools’ abilities to reach beyond the immediate community for employees. 

Tenured and tenure-track faculty rarely leave over sports-related environmental issues (full-blown meltdowns of corruption such as seen at Georgia and more recently UNC being the exception), but they will get their peers to consider staying away.  When these educators perceive that a school is losing its focus on education in favor of entertainment, the result can be human resource difficulties as they begin airing their discontent through professional networks and publications, and in public outlets like editorial sections.  The Methusulas who’ve outlasted football coaches, presidents, and even buildings on campus can have enough pull to turn their academic concerns into full-blown PR problems. 

As far as retaining adjuncts, I’ve heard stories from colleagues and administrators about the pressures that can come with teaching first- and second-year student athletes, and in particular the pressure to keep them elligible.  Considering that these educators essentially prep thousands of less-prepared first-year students for college, losing them to local newspapers and high schools seems to have the potential to cause problems with student progression, though I’m not aware of any research on the matter. 

Fundraising

For the schools involved in realignment rumors, football programs are their public faces and the embodiment of school pride.  An exciting football program can improve donations from prospective donors in every facet of university operations (the effect seems to be more of factor for programs that are new on the scene), and almost always serves as a concurrent marketing campaign for the university as a whole.  Success in football also brings in non-alumni donors and boosters, starting with the average ticket buyer and going all the way up to the families who have buildings named after them.  Non-alums are important not just for the absolute value of their money (most of which goes towards athletics), but because they free-up alumni to support academic expenses including the endowed professorships and maintenance endowments that are critical to operating costs manageable.  And given the aging of the general population, many years of stewarding donors towards making large planned gifts will be reaching fruition or falling apart in the near future. 

With the current economic conditions, slashed state budgets, and what seems to be mounting public backlash towards the expense of attending college, having a self-perpetuating asset base is extremely important.  These factors are why Florida State’s awkward public flirting with the Big 12 seems so strange.  It probably deserves a series of articles, but FSU is about to publicly kick-off a billion dollar fundraising campaign; they’re probably already a good ways towards this goal, but not enough to go public.  Given that their budget’s been annually cut by the Florida state legislature since FY 2007-2008, this is a pretty important fundraising effort.  A successful campaign needs to demonstrate the university’s leadership and potential enough to help stanch the bleeding.  Meanwhile, the Big 12 overtures are revealing hot-headed leaders, emphasizing how far the football program’s fallen, and embarrassing the athletics department.  If the campaign opens with FSU still firmly stuck in the ACC, I think a lot of development people are going to be paying attention.

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3 Responses to "The Academic Considerations of Conference Realignment"

  1. SteveA says:

    Thanks, very interesting stuff!

  2. Sean Breslin says:

    Great read!

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