Pursuit of prestige

After reading the post about Centenary repositioning from Division I to Division III, I could not help but think of the constant effort schools put forth to remain successful at the Division I level, especially at small private schools such as Centenary. So why do schools struggle to remain competitive and provide resources to support a Division I program?

Authors Charles Goldman, Anthony Brewer and Susan Gates suggest it is in order to gain prestige by competing and winning in the most competitive division in college athletics. After performing case studies at 26 institutions and conducting over hundreds of interviews with administrators, faculty, and staff, the authors discuss their findings in the book, “In Pursuit of Prestige: Strategy and Competition in U.S. Higher Education”.

The book is an analysis of the strategies implemented by institutions to succeed in the business of higher education. As part of the examination, the authors explore three “prestige generators”: student quality, research, and sports. Among other valid points, the authors point out the dangers of investing in status. Frankly stated, it is a risky investment because the outcomes of the investment are hard to measure, it can take years to see any benefit, and perhaps the most important, improving prestige is a zero-sum game. Therefore, as one school rises in prestige “rankings”, another institution must drop. In the case of sport, improving your standing comes from defeating the competition. In order to consistently generate public attention and affect perception, schools have to invest heavily in sport programming to win often and protect their place in the rankings. Prestige is a result of winning, not playing. In the case of Centenary, the last successful season in men’s basketball (arguably the most public sport program) was in 1989-1990. Apparently at Centenary, administrators felt they could no longer afford the investment of the prestigious Division I brand.

With the uncertain economic times, resources provided for generators of perceived prestige on college campuses are limited and being more aggressively scrutinized. This is of particular importance for athletic administrators because there is no guarantee that there will be a return on the investment. Thus, it begs the questions:

How much is an institution willing to invest in status?

How much do rankings really matter?

Quick hits: Cornell recreates brand to attract students
Listen to this NPR clip from May 2006 about Cornell University’s efforts to gain in prestige. One of the concerns of Cornell’s administrators is that the school had dropped out of the top 10 in the US News & World Report. At the time of the report, Cornell was 14th. Three years later, the school’s current ranking: 14th.

Centenary: Division I prestige is important to some
"Once we are D-III, I will not support Centenary College in any manner in the future," said Timothy W. Wilhite, CFO and general counsel of Wilhite Electric Co. Inc. "I will not buy a T-shirt, attend a game, donate money, take part in an alumni function. And I now have to change my last will and testament. I would rather Centenary College close its doors than be compared to East Texas Baptist or Louisiana College. Today, a long tradition was destroyed. Therefore, I weep."

The author of this posting was Tony Weaver, Assistant Professor of Leisure and Sport Management at Elon University. Tony has agreed to occasionally provide research summaries. Prior to teaching at Elon, Dr. Weaver was an athletic administrator at Iona College, Siena College and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.


A. G. Dube said…
Thanks for the topic. First, I find it pretty hard to believe that a school with 938 total students is participating in Division I athletics. One has to wonder how many of the students there are on athletic scholarships. That makes this move a risky decision given that a large number of prospective students will not look at Centenary now. Of course, a large chunk of their alumni base is probably also athletes.

On the other hand, they will still attract athletes (paying ones) and their friends and family even with Division III sports. I applaud the board for thinking of the college as an institution of higher learning rather than a sports club that has to justify their existence as a college by having classes. Hopefully this will help save/create faculty positions, programs, and students over the long haul. I can understand why their fans are upset, but those withdrawing all support of the college really aren't supporters of the college to begin with. Yeah, I know their money is just as good, but I wonder if their money is going to the college as a whole or just to the athletics department.

Just as a side note, I don't live far from Centenary's campus (less than 250 miles away) and yet I did not even know about them until their men's basketball team came to play my alma mater. To that extent, I did learn about the college through sports. That said, I watch a lot of sports and it still took a very long time before their name ever grabbed my attention. I still did not know much about the college other than their name and the fact that they lost (I think). Obviously this is just an anecdote, but I would not be surprised at all if very few people where I live (much less nationwide) knows about Centenary. Perhaps this will free up money for them to target and market the college to prospective students.