LINCOLN — It's the Midwest's unquestioned power conference, a collection of tradition-rich universities that jostle for position in the Top 25 and haul in staggering amounts of money.
Oh, and the Big Ten plays decent football, too.
While Husker fans are fixated on the pigskin potential of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's rumored conference courtship, it's worth pointing out that the conference in question is even better academically than it is athletically.
The Big Ten's academic and research prowess has some UNL professors and researchers quietly hoping the university does jump conferences. And if Penn State University — the last university to join the Big Ten — is any indication, the rumored conference move could be just as lucrative for the academic campus as it could be for Tom Osborne's athletic department.
“Simply put, it's very fancy company,” says John Nichols, a Penn State associate dean and former faculty senate president, recalling his university's move to the Big Ten two decades ago. “The academic payoff can be huge.”
The Big Ten's list of 11 members reads like a who's who of top U.S. universities.
Northwestern is an Ivy League-caliber private school just a notch below Harvard and Yale in national rankings.
The University of Michigan is arguably the nation's premier public research university, and its professors hauled in nearly $600 million in federal research funding — five times as much as UNL — in the latest government calculations.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison can claim the discovery of Vitamin A and Vitamin B, the world's first bone marrow transplant and the world's first synthetic gene. It's also the flagship school of a public university system that's the envy of nearly every other state in the country.
And the rest of the Big Ten universities aren't exactly slouches. In fact, every one of the conference's schools is rated among the nation's top 30 public universities in the latest U.S. News college rankings.
Compare that to the Big 12, a conference that boasts only two schools — Texas and Texas A&M — among the top 30 public universities.
UNL is ranked lower academically and brings in fewer federal research dollars than any school currently in the Big Ten.
“A number of (Big Ten universities) have physical facilities and infrastructure that's pretty substantial compared to Nebraska,” said John Janovy, a longtime UNL parasitology researcher and author. “Some also have an intellectual climate that's a little less fettered than Nebraska.”
Simply associating with the Big Ten could pull up UNL's academic reputation, making it easier to attract top students and win federal research grants, several professors said.
But there are also concrete ways UNL could be improved by a move to the Big Ten.
Chief among those is the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, a group of the Big Ten universities and the prestigious University of Chicago, which doesn't play NCAA Division I sports. The CIC leads a slew of collaborations between its members.
The group shares more than 60 specialized undergraduate classes. For example, students at Michigan can easily take a foreign language course not available at Michigan but offered at Minnesota, said Thomas Sullivan, the University of Minnesota's provost.
It shares a fiber-optic network that drives down the cost of computing, and a Google partnership will eventually result in the complete digitization of each Big Ten university's library.
The CIC also makes it easier for doctoral students and university researchers at various Big Ten schools to partner, said Barbara Allen, director of the CIC — research collaborations that bring in some of the gigantic federal grants that every university wants.
“It's great to play on Saturday, but all the rest of the time we're working on curriculum, research, infrastructure,” said Sullivan, the University of Minnesota provost. “It's much broader than the sports we see on TV.”
The possibility of partnering with prestigious Big Ten universities is catnip to high-powered UNL researchers such as Charles Wood, director of the Nebraska Center for Virology. The University of Wisconsin-Madison and Northwestern University have outstanding programs in virology and cancer research, he said.
Collaborating with those and other Big Ten schools “would probably enhance the (UNL) academic program, not only for virology but for other academic programs as well,” he said.
Penn State University is proof positive that associating with the Big Ten would most likely enhance any university, professors and administrators there say.
In 1990, when Penn State joined the conference, the university's professor salaries were lower than those of their new counterparts. Penn State also brought in fewer top-notch students and fewer federal research dollars than many other Big Ten schools, said Nichols, the former faculty president.
Now the college is virtually indistinguishable from other Big Ten schools. It collected and spent some $400 million in federal research money in 2008 — the 15th highest total in the country — and was rated the 15th best public university in the country last year.
Professor salaries have increased. So has the quality of faculty hires, incoming students and virtually every other measurable characteristic, Nichols said.
“I think at Penn State we said, ‘Well, we're a Big Ten university now. Let's act like one,” he said. “It raised the bar.”
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