Less than a week after Big Ten leaders chided reporters and sports fans for overlooking the importance of academics in college football conference expansion, the Big Ten introduced its newest member in Nebraska, which will become the worst-performing academic member of the conference, according to several academic measures.
Following a June 6 meeting in Chicago of the Big Ten's Council of Presidents/Chancellors, Michigan State president Lou Anna Simon, the council's chairwoman, told reporters that academics was purposely at the top of a list of four criteria that guided the Big Ten's expansion search.
"I've facetiously said that at the start of this process, if we had given fifth-graders the criteria, the list of institutions would be essentially the list of institutions that have been bandied about for quite a while by [the media] with much more sophisticated analysis of the sense of fit," Dr. Simon said. "But as I look at your analysis, academics hasn't been much of the conversation. That's an important component of this."
Nebraska scores poorly academically when compared with its peers, according to the Center for Measuring University Performance, which compares the country's top research institutions. The center publishes an annual report, comparing universities on nine different criteria, such as research expenditures, doctorates awarded and endowment size.
When compared with their public or private peers, four of the 12 Big Ten schools -- Illinois, Michigan, Northwestern and Wisconsin -- were ranked among the top 25 schools nationally in all nine categories, and each current member ranked among the top 25 in at least four categories.
Nebraska was not ranked among the top 25 in any category.
Penn State University was ranked in eight categories. The University of Pittsburgh, a Big East member long considered a candidate for Big Ten expansion, was ranked in all nine.
Other schools rumored for Big Ten expansion fared better than Nebraska in the center's analysis. Maryland was ranked in four categories while Rutgers and Notre Dame were ranked in three.
U.S. News & World Report, in its annual list of America's top colleges, ranked Nebraska 96th among national universities. No current Big Ten school was ranked lower than 71. Penn State is 47th, and Pitt is 56th.
Notre Dame is 20th, Maryland is 53rd, Syracuse is 58th and Rutgers is 66th. Missouri, which is 102nd, is the only rumored Big Ten candidate ranked lower than Nebraska.
Nebraska awarded fewer doctorates than any Big Ten university in 2008, and in 2007, the most recent data available, Nebraska invested fewer dollars in research than any Big Ten school other than Indiana.
Academic concerns are noteworthy in Big Ten expansion because, in addition to athletic competition, Big Ten schools collaborate on research projects and other academic endeavors in the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, a consortium of research universities that pools resources to enhance academic collaboration.
Before Nebraska announced it was joining the Big Ten, Dr. Simon said the conference was looking for new members that would actively participate in the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, composed of Big Ten schools and the University of Chicago. The committee was created in 1958 so that the University of Chicago -- an original Big Ten member that left the conference in 1946 -- could continue to share academic resources with Big Ten schools.
The Big Ten's presidents and chancellors listed competitiveness, institutional fit and fiscal responsibility as the three other criteria that will guide expansion.
Nebraska's move to the Big Ten could also strain the conference's student-athletes, who will have to travel farther to compete and will likely miss more class time as a result.
At a news conference announcing the school's move to the Big Ten, Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne sounded unsure if the departure from the Big 12 would mean more travel time for student-athletes.
"We may have to fly a little more," he said, "[but] the connections will be a little bit better."
The Big Ten's academic leaders defended Nebraska's scholastic reputation.
Rodney Erickson, Penn State provost and chairman of the committee, said the consortium will be stronger with the addition of Nebraska and dismissed any notion that the school was a sub-par academic institution.
"I have no concerns personally. ... We think they would be a strong addition to the group," Dr. Erickson said.
Nebraska has a "strong academic profile" in areas that are already well represented by Big Ten schools, such as agriculture and engineering, Dr. Erickson said.
Since 1909, Nebraska has been a member of the Association of American Universities, an invitation-only organization of the nation's top 63 research institutions. Every Big Ten school is an AAU member, but five current Big Ten members, including Penn State, joined the association after 1909, which Dr. Erickson also cited to credit Nebraska.
Jean Landa Pytel, chairwoman of Penn State's University Faculty Senate, said the school's faculty has not been consulted about conference expansion.
"This is an athletic issue," Dr. Pytel said. "We're the academic arm. That is purely a business decision. ... We haven't been involved in the conversation, so I guess I have to have faith in the president that he knows what he's doing."
Barbara Allen, director of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, said the consortium's staff is "curious" about Big Ten expansion and that "questions will come up" about the academic acumen of any potential member. But she, like Dr. Pytel, has faith the conference's presidents and chancellors will keep academics in mind as the Big Ten continues to explore expansion.
"What I believe is they'll make the best decisions that will benefit the whole spectrum of our universities," she said. "I don't need to sit and armchair quarterback their decisions."
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1722.