When you think about the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's move to the Big Ten Conference, you probably think about the impact on Husker football. The conference switch will impact other UNL students and faculty as well. That's not immediately apparent, though, to some of the students who recently returned to campus for the fall semester.
"The first thing I wondered was, What's the Big Ten?' said Omaha freshman Evan Schultz. "I found out it's mostly just a sports thing."
Oumar Diof is from Senegal and shared those sentiments. "The Big Ten? Isn't it about football?" Schultz said. Mandy Winterstien, a student from Lincoln, said the conference switch was all about "football - and hopefully winning."
UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman contends all students and faculty will be winners with the move to the Big Ten, not just the athletic teams.
"Our students now are going to be graduates of a Big Ten university and that will mean something. It will mean something," Perlman said.
UNL's membership in the Big Ten Conference became official July 1st. The school joins eleven other universities mostly located in the Midwest and eastern half of the country. Nebraska previously had been a founding member of the Big 12 Conference, and before that the Big 8 Conference.
Perlman says the decision to join the Big Ten, and the conference's decision to recruit Nebraska, had something to do with its athletic success, but there was more to it.
"Certainly, if we had not been a marquee athletic program, they wouldn't have considered us, but I think also if we hadn't experienced the success over the last ten years on the academic side, particularly in research and student performance, we probably wouldn't have been invited either. So it's a mixture," Perlman said.
UNL has seen successes in academics, including increasing ACT scores for incoming freshmen. The school, though, still ranks near or at the bottom of many academic categories when compared with other Big Ten universities, including ACT admission scores and graduation rates. Perlman says those other schools also have a larger population base and can be more selective in the students they admit.
"I think we feel a particular responsibility to be accessible to the students of Nebraska. So I'm not going to try and compete with Ohio State and Wisconsin on the basis of the quality academic credentials of the student body coming in. We do fall below in terms of graduation rates, as measured by the federal government. In part, that's attributable to the credentials of the student body, but we may be able to compete there, to go above what is expected of us in those terms," he said.
Graham Spanier knows all about the challenges Nebraska faces. He used to be UNL's Chancellor - now he's the president of Penn State University, a Big Ten Conference school.
"I think there may be some areas where Nebraska would feel that it needs to catch up," Spanier said. "Many of the Big Ten institutions are actually larger in terms of the number of students and faculty. Have larger and more advanced physical plants in some areas. The budgets are bigger. So Nebraska wouldn't be in the top half in terms of resources that it has available. And of course, this is the state of Nebraska. It's a smaller state than Pennsylvania or Wisconsin or Illinois or Michigan. So in some ways, you might say Nebraska needs to take the stairs to the top. It's not going to take the elevator there. But clearly, it's a peer institution of the other Big Ten institutions."
At the same time Nebraska was accepted into the Big Ten Conference, the school was also invited to join the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, which includes all twelve Big Ten universities and the University of Chicago. The group works together on projects including research opportunities, shared course offerings, study abroad collaborations and joint purchasing agreements.
"That is what has set the Big Ten Conference apart from the others is that they have a significant organization run by the chief academic officers of the institutions that is engaged in collaboration and engaged in trying to elevate the academic performance of those institutions," Perlman said. "You don't see that replicated at any other athletic conference."
UNL is also hoping to attract more research funding with the construction of its Innovation Campus, a private-public partnership to be located in Lincoln. Perlman says the concept, though, could also spread to other parts of the state. The idea is to attract research firms to the area, bringing with them jobs and economic benefits for the state, as well as opportunities for students and faculty. Increased research could also help UNL compete with other programs in the Big Ten Conference.
"When we walk into a federal agency, we're as competitive as Michigan and Wisconsin and we're beating them in some places," Perlman said. "Certainly our trajectory has been faster than theirs over the course of the last ten years. There will be other areas where we will collaborate with them, where we can use their assets to fill in gaps because of our smaller size and be competitive against other institutions."
As this new Big Ten era begins in Nebraska, people are going to watch to see how UNL stacks up with the rest of the conference on the athletic field - and in the classroom. The biggest hurdle may be getting UNL students to think about more than football when they hear the words "Big Ten."
"Which is terrible because you should be thinking about how we're going to be getting better chances to learn and stuff," Omaha freshman Mariah Arnold said.
Editor's note: By way of full disclosure, NET Television is a licensee of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which has a financial interest in the Big Ten Conference.