Mack-rophone: Perhaps research is needed on reputations based on research ...

By MACK SPENCER

There is a considerable amount of snobbery in academia.

My former chorus director at Mississippi University for Women had a story that illustrated this most aptly.

When J. Bruce Lesley was the choral director at Tupelo High School, he took his choir to sing at Carnegie Hall in New York City on several occasions. His choirs did well in their performances, and the New York concerts were no exception.

At the reception following one concert, some of the New York concertgoers fawned over the choir’s performance and asked where he received his training. They obviously expected to hear “Julliard” or “Eastman.”

Instead, they almost spilled their drinks and swallowed their teeth when he grinned and said, “North Alabama.”

That kind of looking down noses has played out in grand scale with the recent conference alignment drama that played out in the NCAA’s Division I during the summer and into the fall, and which may yet continue.

Texas A&M University started the falling of dominoes by withdrawing from the Big 12 Conference and joining the Southeastern Conference. That gave the SEC a hard-to-manage slate of 13 teams to plan for, and an informal search for Team No. 14.

A&M suffered slings and barbs from many because it was moving from the Big 12, with five Association of American Universities members — including A&M — to the SEC, which then boasted only two AAU members, the University of Florida and Vanderbilt University.

This after the Big 12 (now with 10 schools, while the Big 10 has 12 schools, but that’s another column) had boasted seven AAU members among its 12 constituents, until the University of Nebraska and the University of Colorado bolted for the supposedly even more academically prestigious Big Ten and Pacific-10 (now Pacific-12), respectively. Nebraska has since been voted out of the AAU.

In the meantime, the also better regarded Atlantic Coast Conference raided the Big East Conference for the University of Pittsburgh and Syracuse University. That gave the ACC another AAU institution in Pitt and a prestigious name in Syracuse.

When the University of Missouri became a serious contender for the SEC’s Team No. 14, it started getting the same slings and barbs about slumming it in the SEC that Texas A&M received. Missouri’s decision to move and acceptance by the SEC presidents gave the SEC four AAU schools among its 14 members to three AAU schools among the Big 12’s 10 schools (when Texas Christian University and the University of West Virginia join).

It might be noted that while other Big 12 schools reviled the reputations of the schools in Texas A&M’s and Missouri’s new conference-mates, neither of those schools was replaced by another AAU member.

While there is a focus on academics in these moves, it must be put in proper perspective. These are athletic conferences, after all. As several observers noted in the midst of the realignment brouhaha, none of these teams were clamoring to join the Ivy League; and none of them were trying to recruit Harvard or Yale to jump up to the Football Bowl Subdivision of the NCAA’s Division I.

What really matters here is money through athletic prowess, geography and television viewing attractiveness, even though the athletic conferences have also joined in academic compacts — the Big Ten schools have long participation in the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (along with the University of Chicago), while the SEC has its own, newer Academic Consortium.

Just for comparison’s sake, here are the major conferences’ AAU members, placing schools in their new conferences:

ACC — Duke, Georgia Tech, Maryland, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Virginia; six of 14 schools.

Big East — Rutgers, one of 13 schools overall, one of five football-playing schools.

Big Ten — Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin; 11 of 12 schools.

Big 12 — Iowa State, Kansas, Texas; three of 10 schools.

Pac-12 — Arizona, Cal, Colorado, Oregon, Southern Cal, Stanford, UCLA, Washington; eight of 12 schools.

SEC — Florida, Missouri, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt; four of 14 schools.

Even the Ivy League does not have 100 percent membership in the AAU. Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Yale are AAU members; Dartmouth College is not.

AAU membership is a point of prestige, and the member institutions are quality institutions. That marker does not, however, automatically mean that schools with AAU membership are appreciably better than non-member institutions overall.

Admission to the AAU leans heavily on institutional research. The more research conducted, the more favorably AAU is likely to view a member or prospective member.

If research is the benchmark for educational quality, no wonder the Southeastern Conference schools aren’t considered to be as prestigious as the Big Ten or Atlantic Coast schools.

Through most of their histories, states hosting SEC schools have had smaller and poorer populations, and the state governments have had fewer resources to put into their universities. The funding that did go to universities went into physical plant, faculty and students.

Some research was and is done at the SEC schools, particularly at the land-grant schools that have research as a mandate of their missions — but not on the scale of the richer schools, and certainly not at the turn of the 20th century when the AAU was founded, while the Southern schools were still climbing out of the destruction of the Civil War and the punishment of Reconstruction.

This helps to explain why, though the AAU was founded in 1900, Vanderbilt was not added until 1950; and Florida did not gain admission until 1985. Despite the glut of money to burn brought about by Texas’ 20th-century oil boom, Texas A&M and its research programs were not invited until 2001 — though Texas was admitted in 1929.

SEC schools have little to be ashamed of these days. Their enrollments are growing, and their academic profiles are climbing.

LSU has been adversely affected the past several years by declining funding in Louisiana’s budget crunch, but the school is still one of the few universities that is both a land-grant and a sea-grant institution. The Baton Rouge school conducts important research on both of those fronts.

Mississippi State is an acknowledged leader in agricultural research fields, also has a research center for furniture manufacturing and a program in veterinary medicine research.

The University of Mississippi is recognized in pharmaceutical research on marijuana compounds for the treatment of cancer, hosts the National Center for Physical Acoustics and has a top program on space law. Ole Miss was also singled out by researchers recently for its learning environment.

Alabama has one of the top Southern law schools as well as a top graduate program in journalism and communications. Kentucky, naturally, is a leader in horse medicine research.

Most of the SEC schools have focused on students more than research, and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, though research is important, that’s as it should be.

So, more power to the SEC, which should revel in the snobbery lobbed in its direction, just because its schools concentrate on their students.

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