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.
The 12 universities that make up the Big Ten Conference, plus the 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.
The consortium also fosters collaboration on a larger scale, such as a major initiative launched last year to look at head injuries in sports. More than 50 researchers at Big Ten schools have teamed up with Ivy League colleagues to study how to prevent and treat such injuries.
Loh said he was eager for Maryland engineers, who are working to design a better helmet, to join the project.
Phillip T. Evers, a supply chain management professor in the Robert H. Smith School of Business, said that he felt that most leaders in his field were at Big Ten schools.
"In my discipline, many of the top supply chain schools are Big Ten schools," Evers said. "Within the business school, a lot of what we consider our peers are the Big Ten schools, with the emphasis on research and undergraduate and graduate education."
Evers said that Maryland has more in common with the Big Ten schools than the ACC members, which include a broader mix of schools, including more private institutions like Duke University and Boston College.
The Big Ten consortium also allows members to share resources. Through a partnership with Google, the schools are scanning the books in their libraries and sharing them with the other universities, Allen said. So far, more than 6 million books have been entered into the electronic archive.
"We could never do this with Google on our own because the cost would be prohibitive," Loh said. "The only way you can do it is if you do it as part of a consortium."
The consortium also has seized on the growing popularity of online courses, allowing students at one campus to take Internet-based courses offered elsewhere. This, Loh said, will enable Maryland to broaden its offerings without increasing costs.
One of the most exciting changes for undergraduates will be the expansion of study-abroad opportunities. Maryland students will be eligible to enroll in about 1,700 international programs offered by consortium members, Allen said.
"On a student level, the study abroad is going to be great," said Samantha Zwerling, a junior environmental science and policy major and College Park's undergraduate student body president. "We already have an extensive study-abroad program, but this will allow us to collaborate with other students when studying abroad."
Peter McPherson, the president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said Big Ten schools benefit not only from the network of shared services and cooperation between leaders but from competition within the conference.
"The schools tend to measure themselves against the others and that creates constant improvement," he said.
The schools also team up on lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill — Loh noted that many powerful legislators hail from Big Ten states — and benefit from bulk purchasing deals on supplies.
The consortium schools, which include more than 300,000 undergraduates and 100,000 graduate students, make up a sort of "super university," Loh said.
"The whole is really larger than the sum of the parts," he said.