All the Substance of Cotton Candy

My colleague Jane Shaw has written about Chancellor Dubois’ case in favor of starting a football program at UNC-Charlotte (UNCC). She concludes by saying that he “may be placing the right bet.”

I disagree — the Chancellor’s case for football has all the substance of cotton candy. The right way to view this matter is that it entails very heavy costs in pursuit of airy intangibles such as “ownership” feelings and “reputation.” The money will unquestionably be gone, but how would we ever know if there had been any gain regarding those fuzzy objectives, much less that they were worth the cost?

Chancellor Dubois contends that his university suffers from the alleged lack of sense of “ownership” the city has toward the school. An abstraction (the city of Charlotte) can’t actually feel anything. Only individuals have feelings, so what he’s saying is that he doesn’t think that enough residents of Charlotte have emotional ties to the school as he would like. Now it’s probably true that a smaller percentage of Charlotte residents are wound up in the affairs of UNCC than Chapel Hill residents are wound up in the affairs of the flagship university there, but so what? Does anything important depend on these feelings?

As Jane’s piece mentions, UNCC has been steadily growing. Therefore, it’s difficult to understand just what the problem is, and even more difficult to see how having a football team would solve it.

The school does have a comparatively low graduation rate. In higher education circles, it’s usually assumed that having a high graduation rate is good and it’s a sign of weakness for a school not to be right near the top. The graduation rate at a school mainly depends on the academic quality of the students who enroll there and the state has a limited number of students who are sufficiently interested and capable of completing college degrees. Naturally, the well-established “flagship” institutions attract more of those kids than do the other UNC campuses. Having a 50 percent graduation rate hasn’t kept Charlotte from growing and even making the U.S. News & World Report “up-and-coming” list. (Some of the schools on that list have big-time football, but others don’t.)

And more to the point, how will having football improve graduation? Adding a lot of athletes to the student body is not an obvious way of increasing any academic-related statistic.

Like most university presidents, Dubois is pursuing the Holy Grail of institutional Reputation. Champagne corks often pop when a school moves up in the fabled U.S. News rankings (which the Pope Center has criticized here), but reputation is no more substantial than “ownership” feelings. There is no way of measuring what people think about the academic strength of a school, and certainly there is no reason to believe that it depends on the success or failure of sports teams. Consider these two fairly well known universities – Marquette and Boston University. Marquette dropped intercollegiate football back in 1960; BU did so in 1997. Is it possible to demonstrate that people who contemplate their academic quality deflate their opinions because of the lack of football? I don’t think so.

Chancellor Dubois says that the academic reputations of other North Carolina universities such as Chapel Hill, NC State, and Duke are improved by “the prestige of their athletic programs.” I doubt that very much, but in any case it doesn’t follow that just because UNC, State, and Duke have all won national basketball championships and compete at the top level in other sports, UNCC would enjoy any reputational gain if it began a football program. It’s easy to think of universities that are very successful in football (Florida State, for example) that have poor academic reputations. In part, that’s due to the pressures to recruit top football players, many of whom are very weak academically. Florida State actually has some splendid academic departments (especially economics and chemistry), but they’re overshadowed by the notion that it’s just a sports and party school.

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.

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte is a thriving school. Its campus is in good condition. Enrollment is growing. Judged by such metrics as student SAT scores and graduation rates, it looks to be better than many colleges and universities but not as good as many others. Let’s face the fact that not every school can be on top. So what’s the problem?

Chancellor Dubois really has only one complaint — that he doesn’t think his school has enough “prestige.” Worrying about prestige is the preoccupation of many college leaders these days and it has led to an “arms race” of spending on various things in pursuit of it. We can only hope that the trustees will tell him to stick to academics. If he makes good moves there, the school will earn a better reputation.

To read Jane Shaw’s qualified defense of UNCC football, It’s All about Reputation, click here.