URBANA – Fifty years ago, the Big Ten presidents formed an organization to promote academic collaboration among their member universities.
They didn't want to be known solely as athletic enterprises or "football factories," according to Barbara Allen, director of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, a consortium of Big Ten schools plus the University of Chicago.
"Other presidents talk about it, but the Big Ten presidents have an enduring commitment to it," Allen said Friday.
The conference's newest member, the University of Nebraska, should be a "good fit," said interim UI President Stanley Ikenberry, who joined the other Big Ten presidents Friday in unanimously accepting the school. And he expects faculty to feel the same way.
Even though Nebraska doesn't have the cache of upper-echelon Big Ten schools, it is an important research university, administrators said.
Another Big Ten president, Sally Mason of the University of Iowa, praised Nebraska's addition to the conference.
"Nebraska will dramatically strengthen the Big Ten in a variety of ways. The university is an outstanding public research institution with academic values that mirror current Big Ten member schools," she said.
"I expect the overall benefits of Nebraska's addition to the Big Ten will be mutually shared and will bring considerable added value and prestige to our conference academically, athletically and culturally – all of which are essential outcomes when considering adding any university to the conference."
Together, the Big Ten schools carry huge academic weight, combining for $6 billion in research every year – almost twice as much as the Ivy League. Its members all rank near the top academically, ranging from 12 (Northwestern) to 71 (Iowa, Indiana and Michigan State) in the U.S. News and World Report's "America's Best Colleges."
Nebraska ranks 96th, though it's highly rated in areas such as actuarial science and agriculture.
Like Illinois, it is one of 12 university programs in the U.S. designated as a "Center of Actuarial Excellence" by the Society of Actuaries (the largest professional U.S. actuarial society).
"Having (Nebraska) a part of the Big Ten will solidify the conference's pre-eminence in actuarial science," said Rick Gorvett, director of the Actuarial Science Program at the UI.
"In the U.S., the Big Ten (including Nebraska) will have five of the 12 current 'Centers of Actuarial Excellence': Illinois, Nebraska, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. In addition, several other Big Ten schools – e.g., Purdue, Penn State and others – also have quality programs," he said.
Several UI academic leaders contacted by The News-Gazette said they were reluctant to compare the Urbana campus' reputation with Nebraska's. English department head Curtis Perry, for instance, said it is difficult to judge scholars outside of one's individual specialty.
Sheldon Katz, the head of the mathematics department, noted that Urbana has the 20th-highest-ranked department in the nation, and Nebraska's is 68th, lower than any other Big Ten school or the UI-Chicago, so the department "probably won't help" improve the Big Ten's reputation.
Ikenberry said he hadn't discussed the school's academic credentials with the Big Ten's faculty representatives or other professors on campus, but added, "The level of compatibility is sufficiently high that I think there are unlikely to be any serious questions.
"They have reasonable geographic proximity that is useful both academically and athletically," he said. "I think they will be well-received."
As far as the rankings, Ikenberry said, "There's a diversity within the Big Ten, and they're within range."
Big Ten presidents have said they would want any new partner school to belong to the Association of American Universities, a group of the 63 leading research universities in the United States and Canada. All Big Ten schools are AAU members.
Nebraska is on that list and has been since 1909 (a year after the UI joined). So are Texas, Missouri, Rutgers and Syracuse – all rumored to be in the mix for Big Ten expansion. The University of Notre Dame is not, though it ranks 20th on the U.S. News list.
UI education Professor Nicholas Burbules, a member of the campus Senate Executive Committee, believes all those schools are "academically consistent with the Big Ten overall." So expansion could help existing Big Ten schools, he said.
"As we grow toward more shared courses and degrees within the CIC network, additional schools ... provide more options," he said in an e-mail to The News-Gazette.
"On the flip side, I'd be curious to know if the academic standards at those schools IN their athletic programs is consistent with the Big Ten culture of relatively high academic expectations. For some of these schools – Nebraska, Texas – I wonder if they do share those values."
The Big Ten's website notes that Nebraska tied with four other universities at 43rd for public national universities in the U.S. News and World Report ratings.
Nebraska's total research funding has increased 146 percent since 2000, to $122.5 million, with nearly $84 million of that coming from federal sources.
The Big Ten schools, by comparison, average more than $313.7 million in federal research funding each, second only to the Pac-10 ($366.9 million), according to the Big Ten website.
The Big Ten also leads all conferences with the highest number of top-25 graduate school programs in the U.S. News 2010 rankings.
Ikenberry said potential academic collaborations with Nebraska haven't really been explored yet, but he noted that the school is strong in agriculture and technology.
Ikenberry helped engineer the addition of the Big Ten's other newest member, Penn State, in 1990.
"They're both large, public universities. They're both land-grant universities. They both have a high-profile, national reputation in intercollegiate athletics. And yet they're quite different. Penn State is at the interface between the Midwest and the East Coast. Nebraska is out in the plains."
Nebraska's membership in the Big Ten has been referred to the academic consortium, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation. Approval is not "automatic," Ikenberry said, but added, "I expect that will happen." The CIC board is made up of provosts from member schools.
Allen wouldn't comment on the credentials of Nebraska or other schools.
"We've only added two universities in the entire time we've existed, so we haven't had a lot of experience," Allen said. Penn State was "a natural fit by every measure," she said. "You hope lightning strikes twice."
The CIC has no official charter or bylaws outlining who can be members, she said.
It promotes collaboration among the 12 schools through 100 different committees or "peer networks" – deans of the arts and sciences colleges, for example, or the chief information officers, or librarians.
The schools also use joint purchasing to save money – buying test tubes or paper products in bulk, for example – and co-own a very large fiber network that links information technology on all the campuses, she said. Their purchasing power is huge, worth $8 billion a year, and their operating budgets total $28 billion.
The UI received a $200 million grant to build Blue Waters, the world's fastest computer, in part because it will have built-in connections to other CIC schools, thus engaging more researchers from other institutions, Allen said.
Some conferences, such as the Colonial Athletic Alliance, have a counterpart to the CIC, which is based in at the UI's Urbana campus. But most aren't as extensive, Allen said.