It’s All about Reputation

No, the Pope Center has not completely gone off its rocker or discarded its commitment to serious education. We were, in fact, disappointed that the chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte decided last month that the school needs a football team.

But complaining about that decision is not the topic of this column. The topic is: “Why does UNC-Charlotte feel that it must have a football team?”

The answer can help us understand the state of higher education today. The argument for a football team reveals how schools seek the glory of reputation, more even than commitment to quality education. That reputation may come from a variety of quarters.

UNC-Charlotte is a latecomer in the race to be a major university. Its origins are recent and somewhat humble. The school began in high school classrooms in 1946 to provide college courses for GI’s returning from the war and didn’t move to its present campus until 1961.

Yet today UNC-Charlotte finds itself to be a large university in a vibrant and growing Sunbelt city (the largest between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta). Charlotte is an important regional banking center (at least it was until the future of the banking industry turned topsy-turvy), and it is located in the state that, according to one survey, in 2007 had the greatest net in-migration of population of all the states in the country.

Such a city should have great schools, and it’s natural that one of those schools should be part of the University of North Carolina system.

But UNC-Charlotte has image problems. The biggest is the lack of connection—physical or emotional—between the university and the movers and shakers in the Charlotte business community. For one thing, although the school is an urban university, it is not located downtown. Indeed, the chancellor has gone to extraordinary lengths to promote a publicly-funded transit line that will link the school with downtown Charlotte (known as uptown in Charlotte), on the somewhat questionable theory that light rail will enhance that connection.

In a broader sense, UNC-Charlotte lacks full “ownership” by the Charlotte community, a point that Chancellor Philip Dubois made in the statement announcing his decision. By and large, the business leadership is not composed of UNC-Charlotte graduates but of graduates of UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State, Clemson, and other long-established schools.

In spite of these drawbacks, UNC-Charlotte, under Dubois and his predecessor, James Woodward, has been steadily expanding—in student population, doctoral degrees, and physical plant. The chancellors brought in some distinguished professors, and construction is a constant on campus. A $57 million project to train engineers in the energy field was approved by the North Carolina legislature this summer. UNC-Charlotte is now the fourth-largest university in the UNC system and aims to grow to 35,000 students.

Yet UNC-Charlotte doesn’t really stand out. That is, it doesn’t have much of what every school covets—a reputation. It doesn’t have a strong academic image and it doesn’t have any obvious distinctions suited to its size and location. By one common academic measure—graduation rates—the school is doing quite poorly. Its six-year graduation rate is 49.9 per cent, well below the flagship schools and lower than the 56.4 per cent of East Carolina University, the state’s third-largest school.

And while the academic ability of its freshmen, as measured by SAT scores, is better than East Carolina University (14.4 per cent have SAT scores above 1200, compared to ECU’s 9.4 per cent), UNC-Charlotte comes in well below the flagship schools on this measure (42.2 per cent of N.C. State’s freshmen and 77.6 per cent of Chapel Hill had scores above 1200).

On the positive side, however, UNC-Charlotte tied for number nine on the 2008 U.S. News and World Report list of “up-and-coming” schools, ranking with the University of California at Riverside, the University of South Carolina at Columbia, and the University of San Diego.

So how to lift this school to prominence, which is the goal that most presidents and chancellors apparently have for their schools?

Chancellor Dubois does not believe that Charlotte can do it by investing “solely in its academic enterprise.” For most public institutions, that simply won’t work, he said in his formal statement. It especially won’t work for a “relatively young public urban” university like UNC-Charlotte. Only a “few well-endowed private institutions” can rely on their academic quality to build the school’s reputation. Presumably, he means schools such as Washington University in St. Louis, which used large faculty salaries to move up the U.S. News and World Report scale.

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 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.

Remember, UNC-Charlotte tied for number nine on the U.S. News “up-and-coming” list, a new list based on a survey of the administrators and other experts who complete the usual U.S. News peer assessment survey. Supposedly, these schools are “up-and-coming” because of “striking improvements or innovations.” It is possible that UNC-Charlotte got on the list because it built seven new academic buildings in three years.

But the two top “up-and-coming” schools—George Mason University on the “national universities” list and Davidson College on the “liberal arts” list—share a distinguishing feature. They received national attention for remarkable upsets in the NCAA basketball competition over the past two years. That may be why they are “up-and-coming” (a point noted by U.S. News with respect to Davidson). Although neither has a nationally recognized football program, their greatest fame comes from sports rather than their impressive academic achievements.

And so, unlikely as it seems, and wrong as it may be, a football team could elevate the reputation of UNC-Charlotte. Yes, it will take money, time, and other resources away from the academic enterprise (and, for all that, it will start out as only a I-AA team and not necessarily a good one). But in the opaque world of higher education, Philip Dubois may be placing the right bet.

To read George Leef’s attack on UNCC football, All the Substance of Cotton Candy, click here.