While Husker sports teams write the opening chapters of their Big Ten legacy, their university's academic departments already are leaving lasting marks on their new conference.
Academic leaders at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln welcomed the school's July 2011 entry into the Big Ten, including its affiliated academic arm, for reasons having little to do with athletics. Because so many conference members have strong academic and research reputations, UNL leaders anticipated positive influences from their new peers.
That indeed is happening, they say — but the benefits are flowing both ways. Several UNL academic initiatives have caught the attention of Big Ten members, including a nationally known center that digitizes and organizes literary and historical documents and new institutes on rural communities and worldwide food production.
The deepest influence of UNL's new conference can be seen in classrooms and research labs, said university spokeswoman Meg Lauerman. “What we do on the ground in research and teaching has everything to do with us being in the Big Ten,” she said.
Two veteran graduate students agree.
Doctoral candidate Kathryn Kruger, a Galt, Iowa, native who teaches English literature and composition, cites UNL's success since the conference switch in recruiting several nationally renowned professors. Entering the Big Ten also raised the profile of UNL faculty members who already had distinguished resumes.
If UNL touts such professors in recruiting graduate students, “Nebraska will have high-quality graduate students in assistantships helping to teach the undergraduates,” said Kruger, 33.
Kruger and post-doctoral student Justin van Wart both began graduate studies at UNL about five years before the conference switch. Van Wart, 30, said he has seen greater “excitement and passion” among professors and researchers since UNL's entry into the Big Ten and the Committee on Institutional Cooperation.
Conference schools formed the CIC in 1958, in part to enable the University of Chicago, a former Big Ten member, to re-establish academic ties. Chicago had no football team from 1939 to 1969 and left the Big Ten in 1946.
When the Big Ten and the CIC accepted UNL in June 2010, “it was a real boost to the academic self-esteem,” said van Wart, a Lincoln native who received his doctorate in December 2011.
Several years of research by van Wart and UNL agronomy professor Kenneth Cassman is coming to fruition in the Global Yield Gap and Water Productivity Atlas. It's one of the first products of the Water for Food Institute, one of the two internationally minded institutes founded under UNL's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
The atlas, available at www.yieldgap.org, will point out crops around the world that have the greatest potential for increased yields in particular countries. Other early Water for Food research projects have studied last summer's drought and the performance of the three-state Platte River Recovery Implementation Program.
Water for Food hopes to influence food-production policy well beyond Nebraska's borders, said founding Executive Director Roberto Lenton. The institute's annual Water for Food Conference, which started in 2009, has regularly attracted local, national and international experts.
“I am not familiar with any other initiative with the degree of ambition and boldness of this one,” said Lenton, a native of Argentina who arrived at UNL last February after three years as inspection panel chairman at the World Bank.
Though Big Ten schools have not formally partnered with Water for Food, conference members have shown extensive interest in UNL's Rural Futures Institute, said IANR Vice Chancellor Ronnie Green.
Rural Futures, formally launched in September, seeks to build on a decade of UNL research and many more decades of statewide concern about Nebraska's rural areas. Both Rural Futures and Water for Food are offering competitive grants to faculty members across the University of Nebraska system whose teaching and research interests are related to the institute's specialties.
IANR expected about 200 people to attend Rural Futures' first conference last May, Green said, but nearly 500 showed up. Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue and Illinois sent representatives, but Penn State, Wisconsin and Minnesota also have discussed the new institute with UNL. Expressions of interest have come from Canada, Australia and Europe as well.
“What this said was that nobody's doing this (work),” Green said. “If we do a good job with it, we can make a mark for the university.”
UNL's Center for Digital Research in the Humanities became a Big Ten leader as soon as the university joined the new conference. Kruger has helped to digitally record and systematize Civil War-era documents and poet Walt Whitman's letters for the center, which began to develop in the 1990s.
The center not only converts aged paper documents to digital form but also develops advanced databases so researchers and genealogists can gather information more readily, said Kruger and Katherine Walter, who co-directs the center with Kenneth Price.
Databases available at cdrh.unl.edu include sites dedicated to Whitman, Willa Cather, the Lewis and Clark Expedition and William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, as well as Kruger's “Civil War Washington” project.
At present, only UNL, Michigan State and Illinois have significant digital humanities programs, Walter said. Maryland, which will enter the Big Ten and the CIC next July along with Rutgers, also has done extensive work in the field.
All existing CIC members except Chicago sent representatives to a “digital humanities summit” that UNL hosted in April Attendees agreed that “we want the most talented scholars and graduate students to look to the CIC universities as the best place to pursue their work,” Walter said.