Big stage for Loyola: 'Today' show brings national spotlight to Baltimore campus

When administrators at Loyola University Maryland learned America's favorite weatherman, Al Roker, would be visiting the campus, they recruited peppy students, a cappella singers, and even the ukulele club to ensure a clamorous welcome for the Today show crew when they land at the airport Wednesday.

The university's marketing staff have spared no effort in their preparations to host the popular morning show, which is scheduled to film live Thursday morning from the campus in North Baltimore. The Today show brings a rare opportunity for the 165-year-old Jesuit college to showcase itself to a national audience as the fourth stop on Roker's wild, week-long tour of American campuses: "Rokerthon 3: Storming Into The Madness."

Never mind that the highlight of the broadcast will be the gathering of nearly 400 students and professors attempting to break the world record for the largest formation of people "crab walking." Loyola administrators see being featured on network television as an opportunity to increase the visibility of the campus and attract new students at time when the university is struggling to sustain its liberal arts identity

Viewers across the country will see whooping crowds wearing green and gray, watch a segment on the Loyola tradition of midnight breakfast, and take in a Loyola-themed music video.

University leaders make no bones about the need to grow Loyola's appeal.

"We cannot pay for this kind of publicity," said Sharon Higgins, the university vice president for marketing. "It's a big day, and it couldn't have come at a better time. We're hoping a lot of prospective students and parents will be watching."

May 1 is the deadline for many high school seniors to to commit to colleges where they have been accepted.

"In a case like this, where you've got basically positive exposure in conjunction with a well-loved media figure and a national TV show, it's tremendously valuable," said David Bass, senior director of research at the nonprofit Council for Advancement and Support of Education. "It validates the decision of current students; they see themselves on TV. ... It introduces the institution to a national pool of prospective applicants who may not know about Loyola and Baltimore."

University staff spent two weeks preparing for the promotional windfall after they learned the 6,000 student campus was chosen from more than 100 state universities and colleges

Each campus being featured on the tour must try to break a Guinness World Record. In a nod to Maryland's official crustacean, Loyola will attempt the crab walk. The campus has been swept up in crab-walking enthusiasm ever since. The staff printed crab T-shirts. Students practiced scuttling along dorm halls. Professors postponed Thursday morning exams.

"This is a marvelous opportunity," Loyola's president, the Rev. Brian Linnane, told faculty members after Mass last week. "The enthusiastic involvement of every member of our community — student, faculty, staff member and administrator — will help share the story of Loyola with people around the nation."

The spotlight comes as Loyola has seen its liberal arts identity slacken amid diminishing interest nationally in the humanities as students become increasingly career minded. Though Loyola is ranked each year among the best schools in the region, earning high marks for its Sellinger School of Business, the number of students majoring in arts and sciences declined considerably. The percentage of accepted students who actually enroll in Loyola has stalled at around 13 percent in recent years — about half the national average for liberal arts universities, according to U.S. News and World Report.

The university known for its business school, lacrosse team, and alumnus Tom Clancy (Class of 1969) is often overshadowed by its prestigious neighbor, the Johns Hopkins University.

"Loyola University Maryland is at a crossroads. Loyola cannot, and should not, be everything to everyone," administrators wrote in a five-year strategic plan published last October. "Instead, the university must home in on the specific areas in which it does succeed,"

The university's efforts will be boosted when NBC cameras pan the crowd in the quad, said Kristen Campbell McGuire, executive director of Baltimore Collegetown Network, a nonprofit that works to promote the city's universities.

"The Today show, with its reach, really could make a difference," she said. "A lot of times, news about Baltimore is so negative. So to be able to have a positive story reach a national audience is really important."

It will take 377 Loyola students, faculty and alumni to scuttle for two minutes on their hands and feet to beat the Guinness world record. In practice, that was no easy task for sophomore Jennifer Sporysz.

"I was stepping on my hands awkwardly; it hurt," she said. "It's harder than you think."

Sporysz will be watching the event on TV from her dorm room instead. Her roommate Hannah Flury has practiced her crab form nightly.

Thursday couldn't arrive soon enough for her.

"It's like Christmas morning, maybe a little better. I'm not sure if Santa is as good as Al Roker," she said.

tprudente@baltsun.com

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