Sports magazines have had a field day this summer writing about the “winners” and “losers” of college conference realignment, as if it were a game.
What they ignored by focusing solely on athletics is a more substantial question: Which state will benefit most from schools changing conferences?
On that score, there is no place like Nebraska.
A great many long-term benefits to the Nebraska economy come from Creighton University joining the new Big East Conference and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln being part of the Big Ten. And most of those benefits have nothing to do with what happens on the basketball court or the football field.
They have to do with what officials at both universities describe as “the halo effect” on the universities and their hometowns. They can help people elsewhere see Omaha and Lincoln as destinations, not just regional outposts competing for jobs.
For Creighton, that means moving to a new conference neighborhood that includes similar top-rated private universities in places like Washington, Philadelphia and New York.
For UNL, it has meant joining a group of top-flight universities and being able to take advantage of the Big Ten's unique academic arm — the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, a well-funded office that connects the schools' researchers and scholars.
These conference changes mean our small-population state has two schools with enhanced academic reach and reputation, plus opportunities to expand their roles as net importers of future employees, employers, taxpayers and leaders.
“We are one of those rare states that needs to be an importer of employees and entrepreneurs,” says Ellen Weissinger, UNL's senior vice chancellor for academic affairs. “I want them to get jobs, buy houses and stay. That is what will pay off greater than anything.”
Officials at both universities say the conference changes expand their national footprints. Many new students will come from east of the Mississippi River, markets that once were hard to recruit.
These students and their families may hear first about Creighton and Nebraska through basketball or football, but that familiarity over time will help sell a Philadelphia pre-med student on Creighton or a Chicago business major on UNL.
Applications to UNL from the other Big Ten states already are rising dramatically. Nearly half of Creighton's students already come from 400 or more miles away, but the Big East move exposes a significant, heavily populated part of the country to a top-ranked regional university in the Midwest.
“Those of us who know Omaha love Omaha,” said the Rev. Timothy Lannon, Creighton's president. “Imagine the number of people who will be coming to Omaha from New York City, Washington and the Providence-Boston area. I think it's a great thing for us in terms of exposure, once people get to know Omaha, Nebraska and Creighton better.”
Creighton leaders are looking at opportunities in marketing and branding, enrollment and philanthropy, Lannon said. And the excitement is palpable. A recent alumni gathering in New York drew more than 100 people, more than twice the usual crowd.
Lannon says he has broached the idea with other Big East presidents about creating an academic cooperation arm similar to the Big Ten's CIC. Close cooperation is possible because most Big East presidents and faculty members already know one another from their relationships as Catholic and Jesuit institutions. “We need to take advantage of our academic strength and find a way to model ourselves after the CIC. The great thing about this conference is that athletics is very important, but academics is more so,” Lannon said.
Two years after joining the Big Ten, Nebraska's goal is to leverage that membership and academic prestige to increase its number of students, graduation rates, top faculty and research, Weissinger said.
“There are a small number of athletic conferences that are built around the notion of a shared reputational standard, academically,” she said. “Really, it comes down to the Ivy League, the Big Ten and a very small number of conferences like the Big East. The historic assumption is that when the presidents of those universities gather to consider expansion, they gather and consider the academic trajectory and reputation of the institution.”
That's why sports fans who complain about the Big Ten adding Rutgers and Maryland are missing the bigger picture. It's more than millions of new TV sets for the Big Ten Network. It's two great universities and better access for Big Ten graduates to two of the nation's largest markets for internships and high-paying jobs, New York-New Jersey and Washington-Baltimore, Weissinger noted.
UNL and its students already are seeing advantages of the school's Big Ten membership. The university has had the good fortune of hiring new deans of law, business, engineering, fine and performing arts, agricultural research and Extension at a time when its academic trajectory is rising. The school is getting stronger applicants and more notice. A study-abroad effort through the CIC gives students access to more than 400 opportunities. UNL had offered 80.
“For a state of our size to have two universities of this quality, and with this kind of reach,” Lannon said, “is really something.”
Something that goes well beyond sports.