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For Nebraska, Big Ten Will Be An Academic Game-Changer, Penn Staters Say

on June 18, 2010 11:03 AM

Twenty years since Penn State joined the Big Ten, Jack Selzer still recalls the move as a euphoric moment for the university faculty.

"It really indicated that Penn State had its sights set on a different level academically," said Selzer, an English professor and former associate dean in the College of the Liberal Arts.

Almost immediately, Selzer said, the university's group of contemporaries changed. No longer did Penn State see itself as an eastern public university. "All of a sudden, our peer schools were universities that consider themselves the best public institutions in the land. ...

"It made us much more of a national university rather than a regional university," Selzer said. "Our student body changed very quickly," roughly doubling its proportion of out-of-state students within 20 years.

Now that the University of Nebraska is set to become the 12th member of the Big Ten by 2011, a variety of influential Penn Staters said they are waiting to see whether the Cornhuskers will follow an academic trajectory similar to the Nittany Lions'.

University President Graham Spanier aired enthusiasm about the addition.

"I think Nebraska is a great fit for the Big Ten," Spanier wrote in an e-mail message. He served as chancellor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln before being named Penn State president about 15 years ago.

Spanier noted that Nebraska maintains "exceptionally high graduation and retention rates" in its athletic programs. Nine Nebraska teams have maintained Graduation Success Rates higher than the Big Ten average of 82 percent, according to data from the university.

And academically, Spanier wrote, Nebraska fits "the profile of a large, nationally respected, (Association of American Universities-member) university with a commitment to excellence."

The AAU is a group of 63 top research universities in North America. Nebraska has been a member since 1909.

"They are similar in so many ways to other Big Ten schools," Spanier went on. He wrote that he foresees no special challenges in integrating Nebraska into Big Ten athletics or into the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, the academic-collaboration arm of the conference.

In fact, Spanier noted, academics were among the reasons Nebraska sought to join the Big Ten. Nebraska ranks 96th on the current U.S. News and World Report list of the country's best national universities, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported this week.

All of the other Big Ten schools rank more than 16 positions higher on that roster. Penn State ranks 47th.

Membership in the Big Ten and the CIC will immediately connect Nebraska with the other universities' faculties, administrators and students, said CIC Director Barbara McFadden Allen.

She said member universities share substantial resources, such as Penn State's vast library collections and dramatic supercomputing capabilities being developed at the University of Illinois.

"It just helps you to have a connection with peers who are looking at the same problems you are," McFadden said.

The CIC is governed by the provosts of Big Ten member universities, including committee Chairman Rodney Erickson. He is the provost and executive vice president at Penn State.

Erickson said membership in the CIC sets high academic benchmarks for a university. Penn State's academics have improved as a direct result of its CIC affiliation, he said.

Statistics included in the U.S. News rankings may illustrate the point. They show Penn State-University Park graduation rates went from 57 percent in 1990, when the university joined the Big Ten, to 85 percent in 2008. The average University Park freshman's SAT score is up, too -- between 1,100 and 1,300. Before 1990, the average had been just below 1,100.

Erickson said students benefit especially from the Big Ten members' joint work on curriculum development, research and support functions, such as the creation of higher-speed computer networks and digitized library collections. They're also collaborating on better study-abroad, leadership-development and joint-purchasing programs, he said.

He said the Big Ten distinguishes itself, and draws so many students, "because we're comprehensive research universities. That's what students expect to find here: the latest information coming out from the faculty and their scholarship."

To that end, several Penn Staters said, it's important that Nebraska is a well-established member of the AAU. Its academic credentials are vital to maintaining the image and reputation already burnished by the Big Ten, they said.

"I don't think anyone in a position of authority would say Penn State entered the Big Ten for athletic reasons. But you and I both know that's why we entered the Big Ten," said John Nichols, an associate dean in the Penn State College of Communications.

"But we benefited academically," he added. Nichols, a former chairman of the university Faculty Senate, said he expects Nebraska will follow the trend, "that it will enter primarily for athletic reasons and benefit academically as a result of it."

Likewise, Penn State Professor R. Scott Kretchmar said that "I think Nebraska has more to gain than the Big Ten does academically."

Kretchmar, who works in kinesiology and represents the Penn State faculty within the Big Ten, called Nebraska good fit for the conference.

Still, he said Big Ten professors, including the faculty at Penn State, had "very little" input in the conference's expansion discussions.

"I think it's partly due to the nature of the negotiations," Kretchmar said. " ... Leaks (of information), I think, could have a highly negative effect during the negotiation process."

Asked whether he is comfortable with how the process unfolded, he said: "I understand the need for confidentiality and a lack of broad public consultation given the nature of the negotiation.

"I guess the best way I could describe it is, it would have been nice if more consultation had occurred," Kretchmar added. "But I understand the reasons for it having been limited."

Selzer, for his part, said he's skeptical about whether Nebraska has the same academic potential that Penn State offered when it joined the Big Ten in 1990.

He said he would welcome the University of Texas, Notre Dame or the University of Virginia to the Big Ten. All maintain top-notch academic reputations, Selzer said.

"Leave athletics out of this," he said. " ... From the faculty's point of view, a school's job is to make its diplomas valuable. That's really what our job is on the academic side. ... That's why we don't want to water down our league. It would water down our diploma."

Presidents of the current Big Ten universities decide whether to admit a new member. Spanier reported that the conference "will pause at 12 schools for now."

But the group "will continue to look at the landscape of conference alignments, and we have left open the option of additional expansion in the future," he wrote.

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