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The George Mason Effect

March 28, 2006

With its glass slipper firmly in place after a win over the office-pool-favorite University of Connecticut Sunday in the NCAA tournament, faculty members and administrators at George Mason University hope that being the toast of this year's big dance will lead to tangible gains.

In the past, the effect of athletic success on donations and applications -- the so-called "Flutie effect," in reference to Boston College's legendary come from behind football victory over the University of Miami in 1984 -- has typically been tiny and fleeting. But experts suggest that George Mason, a Virginia institution that wants national exposure but didn't empty its coffers to push basketball, could be a rare  exception to that rule.

The question of how much successful sports teams can help a college and university is common fodder for supporters and critics of big-time college sports alike. Many a college administrator has contemplated hitching his or her institution's star to sports teams, either pouring money into a football or basketball program or signing off on the easing of academic standards in the hope of greater visibility and hoped-for admissions or fund raising gains. But skeptics warn that that greater visibility can cut both ways, blowing up when athletes or coaches run afoul of rules or otherwise misbehave.

Scholars and others have sought, with mixed success, to gauge whether tangible effects actually follow from sports visibility and/or on-the-field success.

One 1987 study published in the Journal of Political Economy attempted to isolate "big time athletic programs" as a factor influencing applications, and found that institutions with big time sports programs could expect a freshman class with about a 3 percent higher SAT score, than if the institution did not have a big time program. But when the authors looked at incoming classes as they varied over good and bad seasons within an institution, no real difference emerged.

J. Douglas Toma, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Georgia, said that institutions with big time programs often have a lot of other resources that draw students, and that it's impossible to really quantify the direct effect of athletic success.

In a 1996 paper, Toma and a colleague tracked undergraduate applications at 13 institutions that won a Division I football championship, and 11 institutions that won a basketball championship between 1997 and 1992.  Applications to the University of Miami shot up 33 percent after its 1987 football win, and six other institutions had increases between about 10 and 20 percent. Two institutions had application drops in the three years after a championship. Ten of the 13 basketball champions had application increases.

When the authors looked at SAT scores and high school grade point averages, however, to try to gauge the quality of the incoming students instead of just their quantity, they found that the institutions did not get a boost after a championship. A national championship may have "more impact on the search phase," the authors wrote, "and less on the choice phase." (Others speculate that students that might be drawn to an institution largely because its teams win might not be the sort who would raise its academic
profile.)

One other popular belief is that athletic success leads to a windfall in alumni giving. But research has not found that to be the case, outside of contributions to athletics departments themselves. "I don't think [athletic success] is what drives the kind of person you name a building after," Toma said.

Because George Mason is a young -- 34-year-old -- aspiring research university, Toma said that if it plays its cards right, it could turn its historic upset into its first real national exposure. "In the popular imagination, prominent athletics is associated with research universities," Toma said. "[The State University of New York at Buffalo] is an exceptional research university, but it's never really thought of as being as good because it didn't have those trappings, including sports." (Buffalo moved into the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I several years ago, but its football team has been a perennial doormat.)

Toma added that sports success probably won't do much for George Mason by itself, but that the university has a chance to highlight some of the other research-institution trappings it is developing. In a press release the university issued after the Patriots made the "Sweet 16," the confluence of success in basketball, research, and physical plant expansion was referred to as a "perfect storm."

The release advertised Mason's two Nobel Prize winning faculty members; the biggest grant in university history, recently awarded by the National Institutes of Health; and ongoing construction of research facilities and dorms at an institution where only about 5,000 of the 30,000 students live on campus.

Andrew Flagel, the dean of admissions and enrollment development at George Mason, has in recent days been quoted in publications in states where many people probably haven't heard of the university, such as South Dakota and Kentucky. "Nothing at an institution can dominate the media the way athletics can," Flagel said. "If you have a story to tell, it gives you an opportunity."

In his interviews Flagel has been emphasizing things like George Mason's proximity to Washington. "If I didn't get to talk about things like our Ph.D. program in bioinformatics, or our dance program, which is one of the best in the country, then all the interest wouldn't help." Flagel said he has no idea exactly where this "magic carpet ride" -- as Connecticut's basketball coach, Jim Calhoun, called George Mason's run through the tournament -- will take the institution. But, Flagel said, "the phones are ringing off the hook" with calls from students, parents and guidance counselors.

One thing that all the experts agreed on is that, because Mason has not made any particular resource push to ramp up its athletic program program, as university officials noted, it really has nothing to lose from a winning streak. "There might be problems at some other universities where athletes are not really academically prepared," said James F. Sanford, an associate psychology professor and chair of faculty matters on George Mason's Faculty Senate Executive Committee. "But we're not a football factory." In fact, Mason doesn't even have a football team.

Richard A. Hesel, co-founder of the Art & Science Group, a higher education marketing and consulting firm, said that George Mason, which hasn't had a lot of success building national awareness, should benefit from the exposure if its officials keep pegging the publicity to their academic developments.

In some cases, Hesel said, athletics success can create "healthy skepticism" among prospective students regarding an institution's academic seriousness.  When the Art & Science Group polled 500 high school seniors, only 10-15 percent of them said that intercollegiate athletics was a factor in their choice of college.

In some cases, Hesel said, institutions "distort their priorities," and spend money to bolster athletics because they think that a rising athletic tide will lift all of an institution's ships. But spending directed toward athletics often comes at the expense of other priorities, Hesel said, because they usually "just don't have the resources." Because Mason officials say they made no stretch, "this is just a happy occasion for them," Hesel said.

As a sign of George Mason's magic ride this spring, it has managed to turn even a potential taint into positive publicity. Tony Skinn, a George Mason basketball player, lost his temper and punched an opposing player in the last game of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. Jim Larranaga, Mason's coach, suspended Skinn for the first NCAA tourney game, which Mason was expected to lose. Todd Zywicki, a George Mason law professor and season ticket holder, posted a comment on the law blog Volokh Conspiracy suggesting that the big win was karma for Larranaga "being willing to do the right thing with Tony Skinn." In an interview, Zywicki said that the winning streak has generated "a sense of unity" and identity at an institution "often described as a suburban commuter school."

Toma said that sustained participation and success in big time sports is one piece in a big puzzle that can generate loyalty for an institution, but that he doesn't think one good year for the George Mason basketball team will have a huge long term effect. George Mason officials aren't planning any sort of protracted athletics drive, but they seem content to at least let students and others on the campus bask in the glory for now.

Yesterday, George Mason's provost, Peter Stearns, sent an e-mail to faculty members saying that "lots of our undergraduates had an exciting time yesterday in response to the basketball victory. Without in any way wishing to distort our priorities, I write to urge a bit of leniency in response to any absences from undergraduate classes today."

 

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