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  • High-profile athletic programs contribute to the collegiate ideal andare used by many institutions to provide connections to their internaland external constituents.

    The Collegiate Ideal and the Tools ofExternal Relations: The Uses of High-Profile Intercollegiate Athletics

    J. Douglas Toma

    Colleges and universities devote substantial resources to the concurrent tasksof constructing a positive institutional identity and raising their external pro-file. Capturing the attention of important outside audiencesmajor donorsand annual fund contributors; legislative appropriation committees and tax-paying citizens; prospective students and tuition-paying parentsis often dif-ficult. Nevertheless, it is necessary if the university is to portray itself as worthyof support from these off-campus constituents.

    One aspect of the university that often does garner significant notice is theon-campus spectator sports program, particularly the marquee football andmens basketball programs at large institutions. These are the teams that gen-erate and receive so much of the attention and revenue associated with inter-collegiate athletics. Spectator sports are commonly portrayed as the front doorto the university; they are what many people on the outside see and what even-tually gets them inside. Especially at larger institutions, these sports are enter-tainment spectaculars that build and fill enormous stadia and arenas, enticetelevision networks to broadcast games to eager national audiences, and attracthundreds of national and local journalists to campus on game day.

    The magnitude of these events not only contributes an aura of impor-tance to the campus, but they are the aspect of the university that is most vis-ible to those outside of the academic community. The marquee sports haveevolved into the key point of reference to the university for many importantaudiences, an outcome that the university has fostered through its use of col-lege sports in campus life and external relations. High-profile sports assume

    NEW DIRECTIONS FOR HIGHER EDUCATION, no. 105, Spring 1999 Jossey-Bass Publishers 81


    an often substantial role in the personal identity of individualsparticularlystudentswithin the university community. They are also an essential part ofthe personal identity of a large group of external constituents who associatewith the institution primarilyif not exclusivelythrough teams and games.The often intense institutional identification that results from engagementwith spectator sports provides the university with a critical tool in garneringsupport. At schools with high-profile teams, administrators involved in exter-nal relationsadmissions, advancement, alumni relations, community affairs,development, governmental relationsorchestrate through college sports theinvolvement in campus life of key constituents that is so important in advanc-ing various institutional ends.

    My baseline contention is that college sports are significant in defining theessence of the American college and university. Higher education in the UnitedStates has never been just about the classroom or laboratory, but has embodieda romanticized collegiate ideal where academic endeavors coexist with the pur-suit of campus community through customs and rituals, events and activities,and residence life and recreational facilities. Particularly at institutions with asubstantial number of full-time, traditional-aged studentslike most flagshipstate universities and large private institutionsinstitutional life is often asmuch about student activities and residence life as it is about the productionand dissemination of knowledge. On larger campuses, football and basketballgames serve as a surrogate for the more intimate community-building activitiestraditionally found on smaller residential campuses that are the basis of the col-legiate ideal. Moreover, college sports have particular meaning as carriers of cus-tom and tradition across generations and other social divides.

    At the turn of the last century, although some American colleges becameuniversitiesgrafting the European foci on research and graduate educationonto the idea of the residential campus imported from Oxford and Cam-bridgethey did not adopt the European concept of a university being merelya faculty within an academic building. At the same time, financial support forAmerican higher education remained primarily a local matter. As a result,Americans continue to relate to higher education institutions on a very personallevel. Our conceptualization of the university is both as a community itself andas part of a broader community. Not only do colleges and universities assumea place of great significance in the professional lives of students, faculty, andadministrators, but institutions are important in their personal lives as well.Meanwhile, there is an often intense civic engagement with institutional life.Local external constituents provide institutions with needed financial support,and institutions provide a touchstone for the surrounding community.

    What results from our definition of the university as both a communityitself and as part of the broader community is a pronounced affinity for insti-tutions by both internal and external constituents. In Nebraska, for instance,citizens support the state university in Lincoln through their tax dollars, andtheir civic pride in that institution becomes part of who they are as Nebraskans(particularly on Saturday afternoons in the fall). As members of broadly defined


    university communities, both those on and off campus assume a personal andintense investment in something perceived to be significant. In short, institu-tions become part of our individual and collective identities.

    Spectator sports provide a bridge between external constituents and thecollegiate ideal. Many external constituents essentially experience the univer-sity through its football and basketball teams. Intercollegiate athletics not onlyentertains many of the external constituents who are so important in main-taining the university, but also involves them in institutional life in a way thatis meaningful to them. If we are to understand our largest and most prominentuniversities, we must ask how on-campus spectator sportsparticularly thehigh-profile sports of football and mens basketballcoincide with the identi-ties that institutions construct for themselves and the identities that individu-als derive from their institutional affiliations.

    I limit my argument here to the high-profile intercollegiate athletic pro-grams at large universities that are the exception rather than the rule across thewhole of American higher education. Most participation in intercollegiatesports occurs with little fanfare. Except for the so-called revenue-producingmarquee sports, varsity teams at larger schools typically receive little attention,even though they account for the bulk of participation at the varsity level. Atthe smaller colleges that represent most of the participation in intercollegiatesports overall, the situation parallels the typical non-revenue sport at a largerschool. None of this is to say that college sports are not meaningful to campuscommunities at smaller schools or that non-revenue sports are not importantat larger universities, particularly for the student-athletes who compete inthem. The difference is in scope. At State U., football and basketball are aregional and national phenomenon, not merely a campus or local one. Smallcollege and non-revenue college sports are rarely the window to understand-ing the campus that the marquee sports are at the flagship state or large pri-vate universities on which I focus.

    The work of Dutton, Dukerich, and Harquail (1994) on organizationalidentification provides a conceptual framework for understanding this phe-nomenon. In their model, the strength of the positive connections that peopleform with organizations are a factor of (1) the attractiveness of what they per-ceived to be distinctive, central, and enduring about the organization; and (2)the degree to which they believe others view the organization favorably. Per-ceived organizational identity and construed external image are positivelyinfluenced by the level of contact that one has with the organization and thevisibility of ones organizational affiliation (Mael and Tetrick, 1993; Sutton andHarrison, 1993; Dutton and Dukerich, 1991).

    In a study of eleven campuses that are representative of the different typesof universities that make a substantial institutional investment in intercolle-giate athletics, I found that a high-profile college sports program is perceivedby external constituents to be something distinctive, central, and enduringabout the institution, as well as something that is viewed favorably by others.Both outcomes enhance institutional identification, causing people both to be


    drawn to campus and to come to know something about the institution, oftensomething positive. These factors represent the collegiate ideal serving thegoals of institutional advancement by increasing the level of contact that exter-nal constituents have with the institution and motivating them to want toenhance the visibility of their organizational affiliation.

    Drawing People to Campus

    It is essential for institutions to draw external constituents to campusbothliterally and figurativelyif they are going to assemble the resources necessaryto survive and prosper. The difficulty is capturing the attention of the rightaudiences for the right purposes. One particularly effective tool for reachingthese audiences is through the collegiate ideal in the form of high-profile inter-collegiate athletics. Football and basketball teams ga


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