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College football and academic reputation

2008 October 9
by Skip Sauer

The chancellor’s decision at UNC Charlotte to compete on the college football field has generated some local controversy. Is the expense and institutional effort involved in starting up a football program consistent with fulfilling the educational mission of the institution? Here are two views from North Carolina’s Pope Center for Higher Education. Both are worth reading in their entirety.

First, Jane Shaw writes a “qualified defense” of football at UNCC:

Schools that have been around for many years (especially the Ivies, which are centuries old) are well ahead in the reputation game. Because of the difficulty of measuring quality and because reputations are entrenched by time, those reputations are extremely durable, even if they are based on inaccurate information. Upstarts are always trying to catch up.

To break into the circle of eminent institutions, a school must triumph in a mysterious competition that involves the opinions of peers (who funnel their views into the U.S. News rankings), national publicity, and evidence of having money (whether from an endowment or state coffers).

So, will a football team contribute to the process of building UNC-Charlotte’s reputation, bringing it up from the also-ran level where it appears to be now? Given enough time—and [Chancellor] Dubois is planning for the next 25 years, not the next five—Dubois bets that it will.

In fact, Dubois not only argues that it will improve UNC-Charlotte’s reputation, he specifically stated that a football team will boost the academic reputation of UNC-Charlotte.

“Within North Carolina, does anyone doubt that the excellent institutional and academic reputations enjoyed by Chapel Hill, N.C. State, Wake Forest, and Duke have been strengthened by the prestige of their athletic programs?” he asked. He even cited research by two Charlotte faculty members confirming that a strong football program provides “measurable benefits to the academic reputation of a participating university.”

Odd as this seems, it is not entirely unrealistic. As long as we don’t know what actual education is going on (and even research is difficult to evaluate), then academic reputation depends on this smoke-and-mirrors competition that could be influenced by almost anything.

Here’s the view of George Leef:

All the substance of cotton candy

Instead of trying to feed the sparrows of academic reputation through the horses of intercollegiate football, why not spend resources on programs that have a direct bearing on teaching and scholarship? With but a small fraction of what it would cost to compete in football, the school could establish several academic centers such as the James Madison Program and the Alexander Hamilton Institute. Initiatives like that would enhance the atmosphere of scholarship and debate at UNCC. That would do much more do make people think positively about the school as an educational institution than would a costly foray into entertainment.

My take is that if they didn’t play football, colleges would be competing for reputation through orchestras, operas, etc., and the market void would be filled by minor league teams. I don’t much like opera, and prefer college sports to the minor league form in the U.S., where even AA baseball teams threaten to pack up and leave town in search of a stadium subsidy.

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