If i didn't fear that the UConn administration bungled their pitch to the ACC, I would feel terribly bad for UConn President Susan Herbst today. As it is, I only feel slightly bad, because she has to face the media, put on a brave face and lie through her teeth, even though everyone knows she's lying. That leads to comments like this, which are laughable on their face, but you can at least understand why they were made:
Susan Herbst: "The joy we've had for past couple decades has been in Big East. I think everybody should try to keep that in mind."— Jeff Jacobs (@jacobscourant) November 28, 2012
That's fine, and I'll forgive her that comment because it's her job to make it, but she said something else that caught my eye, because it included an idea that was far more insidious than the usual PR fluff:
Dukie Herbst: "I'm dead serious about academics first. Academic reputation is forever."— Jeff Jacobs (@jacobscourant) November 28, 2012
Now, it's normal for school presidents to wrap themselves in the flag of academics in tough times, but that disguises the real problem here: missing out on the ACC is an athletic and an academic disaster.
Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma have never taught a class -- and for all I know they've never stepped in a classroom at UConn -- but they are, far and away, the biggest reasons for UConn's academic success. I had plenty of classmates -- smart people who found success at UConn -- who came to the school from New Jersey, or Massachusetts, or New Hampshire, because they wanted to go to a school with big time sports. The year after UConn won the 2011 basketball title the Storrs campus had a mind-boggling 30,000 applications. The acceptance rate last year at UConn was below 50 percent, which is absurd. And if you want a control, just look up the road to Amherst. Without big-time athletics UConn is UMass, and you'e out of your mind if you think that would be a good thing.
And Herbst is just wrong that academic reputation is forever. That might be the case if you're Princeton, Harvard, MIT or Yale. But it's simply not like that for a big public university. And hell, it's not clear that it's true for anyone who's not one of those four schools. I like to think I have a somewhat unique perspective on this because I've complemented by UConn education by attending the University of Chicago for a graduate degree. Now UChicago is a fantastic school -- it's one of the top 5 in the US and one of the top 10 in the world -- and it has a pristine academic reputation, but it has very little name recognition because of its choice to abandon college athletics in the 1930s. Compare that to Duke, a comparable academic institution (and Herbst's alma mater), which gets to sell itself based both on its academics and its athletics. And I don't think it's any big jump to think the average person probably thinks of Duke before UChicago when talking about universities.
Now that kind of mindshare hit may not hurt UChicago -- not being known by the average high school senior isn't going to stop it from recruiting nobel laureate after nobel laureate -- but it could be a crippling blow to a school like UConn, that cannot rely on a history of world-changing academic accomplishments. UConn has a lot of fine selling points, but the best is easily athletics, and athletics are also the best avenue to promote everything else good about the university. The school can't sell tens of thousands of tickets to watch someone research time travel.
UConn has built itself into a fine academic institution -- one its alums can be more than proud of -- but that growth has been built on the back of athletic success. And though UConn will continue to exist as a university, if it isn't able to maintain its big-time athletics I have a hard time imagining that it will be to maintain and improve on the impressive growth it has seen over the past 25 years. I think it's great that Herbst is dead serious about academics and wants to keep them first, but to do that UConn needs to have a strong athletic program.