The George Mason Effect

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Published by Inside Higher Ed

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 rareexception 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.


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.

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