Standing Out From the Crowd

Brian Taylor

March 15, 2012

In a surprise action last February, the Idaho State Board of Education stripped the University of Idaho of its flagship status. The board also declared that Idaho State University could no longer claim "statewide leadership" in the health professions, and that Boise State University must refrain from stating that it "provides leadership in academics, research, and civic engagement."

The stated rationale? The board was reluctant to elevate one state university over another because doing so might encourage them to compete with one another rather than work together. Words such as "flagship" and "leadership" seemed to signal one university's superiority over the others.

In an equally surprising action, the University of Idaho defied its own governing board by posting on the main page of its Web site a detailed argument for why it is, in fact, the state's flagship institution of higher education. It asserted that by stripping the university of flagship status, the board had "refused to recognize the university's role as the state's first university, the state's land-grant university, the state's leading research university, and the state's primary doctoral degree-granting university—all elements of a nationally accepted definition of flagship."

While the board's particular actions are of no consequence to anyone outside of Idaho, they do illustrate the larger issue of why universities within a state typically have distinct missions, and why that has been viewed as advantageous. The Idaho board was trying to erase the distinct identities among its universities so they would not compete when it should be doing exactly the opposite.

Most states designate one public university as the flagship. For centuries, the word "flagship" has been used to refer to a naval fleet's lead ship, the vessel bearing the fleet's flag and commander. By analogy, we use the term also to refer to a state's lead university—the one that sets an example for the others in the state to aspire to.

While the criteria used to determine flagship status will vary from state to state, typically a state's flagship is its land-grant institution. It is likely to be the university with the highest research profile and the most doctoral programs. It may house the state's medical school, law school, or both. And it may be the largest and best endowed university in the state. Membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities may be yet another factor, and NCAA Division I athletics is a must.

In most instances, there is no dispute as to which university is a state's flagship. Most everyone would recognize the University of Wisconsin at Madison or the University of Colorado at Boulder as their states' flagships, for example.

So in the case of Idaho, while the state board has the authority to instruct the University of Idaho not to use the word "flagship" to describe itself, that does not change the fact that it is the state's land-grant institution, that it has the only law school in Idaho, or that it outpaces the other institutions in research and graduate education. The university is, in other words, de facto the state's flagship regardless of any official designation.

In large, heavily populated states it may not always be so easy to identify the flagship. During the 1980s and 1990s when I lived and worked in Florida, no one questioned that the University of Florida was the state's flagship. It is a member of the Association of American Universities; it has both a medical and a law school; it is a land-grant, sea-grant, and space-grant university; and it is typically ranked among the top public universities in the nation.

Today, however, the University of Florida, Florida State University, and the University of South Florida list themselves as the "three co-flagship universities" in the state, which gives rise to the amusing image of a naval fleet with three separate commanders in three separate ships leading the fleet undoubtedly in three separate directions.

A flagship designation is not the only way that universities distinguish themselves in a state. More often than not, one campus (perhaps, the University of ...) will have the law school, another (often, Such and Such State) will have the medical school, while the so-called directional schools (the University of North This and South That) will have missions focusing on teacher education, engineering, or other professional areas.

Specialization makes good sense. First, it allows each institution within a state to develop a unique identity and build a reputation in a specific academic area. That identity, in turn, helps drive student (and faculty) recruitment and retention. For alumni, it is also a source of pride, which may pay off in fund-raising efforts. Students want to be in a position to brag that they attended the state's flagship, its finest teacher-education college, or its premier business school.

Forging a distinct identity also makes sense financially for an institution—especially in an era of state budget woes. Because specializing minimizes duplication (why support two competing law schools in a small or medium-size state?), a state is able to manage scarce public dollars more economically.

When universities in a state carve out distinct academic identities, the overall system of higher education operates with greater efficiency.

One of the principal goals of strategic planning is precisely to establish which academic areas to focus on, invest in, and further develop. A good strategic plan will serve as a blueprint for an institution to solidify its reputation in those areas.

A good analogy might be to graduate education. Few universities can be all things to all people when it comes to types of doctoral programs, so they specialize. One institution might have a nationally respected doctoral program in psychology, but only a mediocre one in sociology. A university in the adjoining state might have one of the top sociology programs in the country but be weak in psychology. The same dynamic is often true of institutions themselves, especially within a state's borders.

Healthy competition can inspire a state's institutions to try harder and be better. Without such competition, the University of South Florida and Florida State would not have become the powerhouse research universities that they now are, as quickly as they did. Undoubtedly, the legendary state university rivalries—Clemson University and the University of South Carolina at Columbia, say, or Auburn University and the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa—have done much to help those institutions grow as well.

So while from time to time a state board may become concerned about competition within its borders, specialization among colleges is more the rule than the exception, and it can even play a positive role in improving higher education in a state.

Gary A. Olson recently stepped down from the position of provost at Idaho State University and is currently on leave. He is co-editor with John Presley of "The Future of Higher Education: Perspectives from America's Academic Leaders" (Paradigm). He can be contacted at