Few would argue that the University of Maryland's decision earlier this week to join the Big Ten isn't about the money — $24 million a year in television revenue.
But university officials are helping to sell the deal with what they argue is a significant academic benefit to joining the athletic conference.
University of Chicago, constitute an academic consortium called the Committee on Institutional Collaboration. Joining the conference will allow Maryland students to study abroad through 1,700 programs, perform research on other campuses and access millions of books online.
"The academic component of this is just as significant in the short term and the long term for the University of Maryland," said University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh. "We are a great university that is now part of a super university."
The member schools of the Atlantic Coast Conference, to which Maryland has belonged for 60 years, are also highly regarded as academic institutions. Four ACC universities — Duke, Virginia, North Carolina and Wake Forest — rank among U.S. News & World Report's Top 30, compared with two in the Big Ten.
The ACC also has a collaborative academic effort, but the ACC International Academic Collaborative focuses more narrowly on international study and research opportunities. Its website says its "strategy is to sponsor activities and programs that cannot be accomplished by any one university, and are best supported by universities‐acting‐in‐concert." Attempts to reach the ACCIAC on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
When Notre Dame announced in September that most of its sports would join the ACC, it promoted the conference's academics.
"The ACC is composed of some of the most highly respected universities in the country," Notre Dame President John I. Jenkins said in a statement released by the ACC. "With a mix of institutions — many of which are also private, similar to Notre Dame in size, and committed to excellence in research and undergraduate education — the ACC is an exceptionally good fit for us academically, as well as athletically."
Yet Maryland officials say that the Big Ten's consortium will burnish the university's reputation and open doors for students.
"There's no question that outside of the Ivy League, the Big Ten is the most prestigious conference in terms of the academic reputation of its institutions," said University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan. "There's probably not an institution outside the Big Ten that plays big-time sports that wouldn't want to be in the Big Ten."
B. David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports administration at Ohio University, scoffed at the notion that Maryland's move to the Big Ten was about academics in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, a higher education website. "I don't think anyone can think, when stuff like this happens, that academics or what's best for the athlete is even in the conversation," Ridpath said.
As part of the Big Ten consortium, Maryland students, both undergraduate and graduate, will have new opportunities to study at the other members' campuses. Undergraduates can take part in summer research programs at the other universities; graduate students can study or conduct research for up to a year at another university for no additional cost.
"If you're at Maryland, and you know a researcher at Iowa or Purdue who's studying what you're interested in, you can go to that campus for up to a year," said Barbara McFadden Allen, the consortium's executive director.
In addition, Loh promised Monday that he will reinvest athletics money gained from joining the Big Ten into Maryland's academics.
Maryland, slated to join the Big Ten in July 2014, would need the official approval of the consortium's executive board to join, but that is largely a formality.
Both Kirwan and Loh have ties to the consortium. As provost of University of Iowa, Loh served on the consortium's board for many years. And Kirwan, the former president of Ohio State University, was "very involved" in the program, Allen said.
Maryland professors said they already work closely with Big Ten schools — which are primarily research-oriented public universities in the Midwest — and are eager to foster more partnerships.
"The Big Ten schools are more of our peer institutions," said William O. Lamp, a College Park professor of entomology, who studies insect pest management and plants.
Lamp ticked off his collaborations with researchers at Big Ten universities. He has worked with plant biologists at Purdue, teamed up with University of Wisconsin researchers, published a paper with a University of Nebraska professor and was about to dial into a conference call with a researcher at Ohio State.