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Gina Scott Ligon: Move to Division I enhanced UNO’s brand

Gina Scott Ligon: Move to Division I enhanced UNO’s brand

In my six years as a faculty member, I have never seen as many students proudly supporting UNO shirts, hats, jackets and jerseys as I have this last year.

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The writer is an associate professor of management in the College of Business at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. These are her personal views and do not represent the official position of UNO or the University of Nebraska system.

As an organizational psychologist who is trained to measure a firm’s return on investment, I noted key performance indicators of strategic innovation omitted from a May 28 World-Herald article about UNO’s athletic budget after moving to Division I athletics: faculty recruitment, student engagement/retention and economic impact.

On faculty recruitment: I acknowledge my bias as a current UNO employee, but I also have a perspective that speaks to this important change for the university.

I left a position at Villanova University to join UNO’s College of Business in 2011, and a significant reason for this change was the brand UNO offered — Division I athletics is an indicator of that brand.

Much as moving to the Big Ten anchored UNL’s academic programs with greater prestige, Division I athletics signal high-level performance.

In the College of Business, we had 11 open faculty positions in 2016 and filled all of them in no small part due to that vision of a campus on the move.

Our faculty search committees strategically timed recruits’ campus visits to coincide with hockey home games at Baxter Arena; the atmosphere on Scott Campus was electric, and we successfully recruited all of our top choice candidates — in part thanks to the environment these events created.

On student recruitment and engagement: UNO is growing significantly. Since fall of 2010 (the last fall prior to the move to Division I), we have steadily increased from 14,665 students to 15,627 students.

Our retention rate is 77.9 percent, up from the 71.8 percent it was before the move (most schools in the MIAA, the conference we were in prior to the Summit League, have retention rates of 71 percent).

This retention is at least partly driven by student engagement with the brand of UNO, as evidenced by our students’ brand identity.

It may be anecdotal, but in my six years as a faculty member, I have never seen as many students proudly supporting UNO shirts, hats, jackets and jerseys as I have this last year.

On economic impact: I was most disappointed with the lack of detail about the economic impact of UNO athletics on Omaha and throughout Nebraska. In a study conducted by Christopher Decker, professor of economics at UNO, key findings indicated that UNO’s economic impact in 2015 was $1.8 billion. Given that the total state appropriations that year were $64.3 million, this figure indicates a sizable return on investment.

This is the result of more students coming to UNO, high-quality faculty recruiting from UNO and a growing pride in what UNO means to this city and this state. In fact, faculty and staff spending alone accounted for $257.7 million of Omaha’s gross domestic product, while student spending accounted for $299 million in 2015.

There is no reason that a state as vibrant as Nebraska can’t support multiple outstanding collegiate athletic programs. In times when other tax revenue is shorted, these programs may be even more important because of the solidarity they can provide to a college campus and loyalty to its state.

I invite readers to come to the UNO campus and experience the brand recognition that the move to Division I athletics has afforded us; come to a hockey game on a Friday night and see the Maverick Maniac student section that topped hundreds of other Division I schools to win the best student section of 2017.

Come see Coach Derrin Hansen’s men’s basketball team that was one shot away from the Big Dance in 2017. Come see the only Division I FIFA 2-Star certified soccer pitch at Caniglia Field.

Come see why I became a Maverick and left a respected Big East university to teach in UNO’s AACSB-accredited business school alongside world-class faculty.

As someone who has spent years researching organizational effectiveness, it is clear to me that moving to Division I was a strategic, innovative move for UNO, and one that has and will continue to elevate our whole state.

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