The recently released MediaBuzz 2012 university rankings reveal the sometimes hard to believe, but very real connection between athletic affiliation, national exposure and academic reputation. They also provide a glimpse of the potential positive impact of joining the Pac-12 for the University of Utah.
MediaBuzz ranks colleges and universities by "Internet brand equity," one metric of Internet exposure and perceived quality. As might be expected, Ivy League schools dominated the top 20 spots, with six of the eight schools ranked, followed by the Pac-12 with four schools and the Big 10 with three.
In all, 13 (65 percent) of the top 20 spots were filled by universities from three athletic conferences. If you have any doubt that universities are routinely clustered and reported by athletic affiliation, last year's headline read "Big 10 Beats Ivies".
The importance of national exposure in driving academic branding and the slippery construct of academic reputation should not be underestimated. Students certainly don't select a university based on athletic conference and experts don't evaluate academic quality based on sports. But it's interesting that athletic affiliation plays such a large role in the eventual outcomes.
Let me provide a few examples. The Ivy League is a brand that's synonymous with academic excellence despite the fact that it's simply an athletic affiliation. Actually, the league considered expanding in 2010, with the chief concern being not to dilute the quality of the academic brand. It's a brand that's based in substance, with all eight of the Ivy League schools ranked in the top 15 by U.S. News and World Report, in addition to other more substantive metrics.
Two other athletic conferences have similarly strong academic brands the Big 10 and the Pac-12 with each having five universities ranked in the top 50 by USNWR and the Big 10 having 10 schools in the top 100 worldwide, and the Pac-12 eight (according to the "Academic Rankings of World Universities"), with the University of Utah one of the schools ranked in the top 100 worldwide. Not surprisingly, the MediaBuzz rankings mimic these subjective academic-quality rankings.
The connections between athletic affiliation and academic reputation don't stop there. There are other, more objective measures. These three conferences have the largest average research budgets nationally, exceeding the nearest competitor by a considerable margin. Naturally, the Ivy League led the way. But according to 2010 numbers, the Big 10 average was over $570 million, the Pac-12 over $450 million, with the next closest competitor being the ACC at $320 million.
A review of student selectivity data (i.e. admission rate) paints a similar picture, as do figures on the number of doctoral degrees granted annually, both important variables in determining academic quality. You can consider scientific impact, with national rankings of the most-cited institutions including four Pac-12 schools in the top 10, exceeding the Ivy League, which had two. You can add in average private fundraising and average faculty salaries, with the trends being consistent.
Again, students don't pick schools based on athletic conferences and experts don't rank academic quality based on sports, but it's hard to deny the connection between the remarkable exposure afforded by athletics and the inevitable impact on academic branding and perceived quality.
The national stage provided by Pac-12 membership allows the university to highlight what have long been remarkably strong faculty, programs and students across campus. That membership is already having an impact on the University of Utah, with applications up 27 percent in two years. The university hosted two Pac-12 meetings this year, including the annual provosts meeting and the annual arts and sciences deans' conference. Many participants had never had the chance to visit the U or the state of Utah; all left thoroughly impressed.
The meetings never would have happened without the athletic affiliation. The arts and sciences deans conference has proposed a faculty exchange program for next year, a program that will help develop new relationships and provide additional exposure to the great work already being done here.
The University of Utah fell well outside of the top 100 in this year's MediaBuzz rankings. However, it's my guess that with the additional exposure provided by Pac-12 membership we'll see a steady climb upward as people become more aware of the great work that's been done here for decades, as well as steady improvement in many of the objective metrics referenced above.
In a world increasingly driven by technology, the importance and impact of exposure will only increase, with athletics providing a unique stage to highlight our academic mission, the very reason we're here.
M. David Rudd is dean of the College of Social & Behavioral Sciences, University of Utah, and scientific director, National Center for Veterans Studies.