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Big Ten Expansion and the CIC: Are the Academic and Research Benefits of Joining the Big Ten Overblown?

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One of the recent, influential memes that's appeared over the last few weeks in the Big Ten expansion discussion is the allure of membership in the Big Ten's  Committee on Institutional Cooperation, or CIC. The purported benefits are pretty tough to ignore. The CIC's website trumpets their successes in bringing home the bacon to their member institutions. As I mentioned yesterday:

Further, the super-conference model also points to gargantuan revenue sharing that even mighty Notre Dame can't turn down. As Corn Nation points out, the Big Ten's Committee on Institutional Cooperation receives 12% of federal research funds, a number that will only increase as the Conference adds additional research based schools. With NotreDame's recent re-dedication to research and graduate education, this is a pool of money that the school would be foolish to turn down because its football team wants an independent schedule. At a certain point, athletics don't matter in this equation, it's the research money that does. A slice of that research money pie may very well dwarf whatever payout a cable or network television contract provides. And just so we're clear, the CIC received $3.5 Billion in federal funding in 2006-2007.

Upon further reflection, however, the CIC's impact on the expansion discussion maybe greatly overblown. I spoke with a institutional research expert about the CIC, and what is being trumpeted in the media seems to differ greatly from what actually goes on.

One of the first big misconception (at least one that I had), is that the CIC is directly soliciting grants from the federal government. This isn't the case. The CIC is really just a club, comprised of the Big Ten's members and the University of Chicago. The Club, per se, doesn't go out and solicit grants or distribute money in any way.

What the CIC does do is four fold. First, it acts as a library exchange between it's member institutions, allowing almost instantaneous access to each member's extensive libraries. This is a big benefit is you're doing research on a subject that hasn't been covered at your particular institution, and it's a tremendous asset to your student population. Second, the CIC facilitates a scholar exchange. This allows member schools to solicit, borrow or in some ways "trade" faculty for set periods of time to allow their various departments to benefit from their expertise. It's an underrated aspect of CIC membership in that it allows schools to obtain teachers and researchers at limited cost and limits interconference pilfering of staff, allowing for greater continuity on those staffs.

Third, and this is really just a thing for students, there's total credit reciprocity between the schools. If you've got credits at IU, they'll take them fully at Michigan, Ohio State and the University of Chicago. That's not bad. Finally, the CIC works actively to network its member institutions. The CIC works to bring together similar projects, funding opportunities, and other things like academic cooperation among the members.

Is there a benefit to this? Of course. But it's more of an indirect benefit than a direct one. The CIC isn't holding a big bag of money for everyone to dig into. The member schools actually directly obtain their funding from the government, and the CIC as the umbrella organization can rightfully claim that it "obtained" X dollar in grants, as the school is one of their members. There are times where CIC members are in direct competition for grant money, but the CIC works to prevent these inter-conference conflicts from flaring up through its networking.

The above is not to say that the benefit to new CIC members is totally overblown. It's not. The CIC can rightfully point to the growth of Penn State's research and graduate programs since it's inclusion in the Big Ten, and I'm sure that Penn State would agree the CIC has benefited them greatly. But is this as big a deal to schools like Notre Dame, Maryland, Rutgers, Missouri, etc. when you're not talking about a giant grab bag of money?

Yes. Even without the grab bag. Whenever you have a mutual aide society set up with the resources of the CIC, it has tremendous benefits to all parties involved. The level of available talent, the early warning system for research projects, the streamlining of competition, the interconference assistance in obtaining those research and grant moneys are all time and money saving factors that a potential Big Ten member would consider valuable. There is also the simple fact that the CIC isa heavy hitter in terms of reputation. Certainly this is an intangible benefit, but it's a nice ancillary benefit to throw on the membership sundae.

So while it's nice to say that expansion isn't totally about football, the reality is that athletics remain the driving force behind conference expansion and any academic/research benefits will remain intangible, indirect and hard to quantify.