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The term is pervasive. In an analyses of segregation of Black and Latina/o students, the Education Trust dove into the data by identifying 50 public universities as flagship campuses. The Urban Institute’s “Understanding College Affordability” project simply identifies flagship public universities as “generally doctoral institutions.” The Hechinger Report recently examined the recruitment, enrollment, and campus racial-climate issues of specifically the more selective flagship campuses. The Chronicle also uses the term widely, in referring to quite diverse public universities with varying resources, selectivity, and academic and research offerings.
“Flagship,” then, is a confusing term, and those of us who work in higher ed should probably avoid it altogether unless we can settle on a clear definition of what it means. In our research, we found that while academic researchers seem to be able to identify which universities are flagships, they often don’t know why.
We identified nearly 350 articles in 12 academic journals that used the term “flagship” to refer to colleges since 1980. Of those, only 29 — slightly more than 8 percent of all articles we examined — included any definition of what constitutes a flagship college. None of the articles offered a clear and compelling definition of the term. When researchers did define it, they used phrases like “selective” (58.6 percent of the time), or “research-intensive” (31 percent), or they identified a specific university as a concrete example.
The term’s academic origin similarly fails to clarify its meaning. The term “flagship” institution barely appeared in print before 1980. In our sample of academic research, approximately five articles a year mentioned flagship universities from 1980-2005. From 2006-15, the number of articles using the term crept up to between 10 to 15 articles a year. Since 2015, the usage of “flagship” university skyrocketed — there were 40 articles in 2020 alone. A third of all articles mentioning the term “flagship” as regarding a university in the journals we examined were published since 2015.
The early scholarship we identified doesn’t help much to define the term or pinpoint its origins. A 1982 Review of Higher Education article identified a flagship university as one with credibility, resources, and “carefully constructed prestige.” A book from 1985 recognized flagship universities as public universities with the “highest classification” in a state, allowing for multiple flagships per state, and identified 65 in total. But a 1987 book said that each state could only have one flagship. So, again, no agreement.
More recently, the higher-ed scholar John Aubrey Douglass championed the model of the new flagship university. Douglass’s idea pushes back against the research-first notion of the world-class university, which became popular in the early 2000s — right around the time the Shanghai and Times Higher Education world rankings emerged. He distinguishes a “flagship” college from a “world class” one as emphasizing access and civic engagement in addition to research. Douglass traces the flagship concept to the 1800s in the United States, but provides no specific origin. The oldest university in a state, land-grant universities, and normal schools are all named as part of the flagship tradition. Just about anything virtuous about public universities seems to be part of the flagship tradition.
The flagship concept is not always synonymous with virtue, however. The Education Trust shows how flagship universities abandoned their public mission, operating as engines of inequality and segregation. Exclusionary admissions prioritize wealthy, mostly white students from out of state who can pay full freight. Flagships fail to sufficiently serve Black, Latina/o, Native American, Asian, and low-income students. Other research has come to similar conclusions. So much for community and opportunity as distinguishing characteristics.
The extreme malleability of the flagship concept and category sets it apart from other taxonomies of higher ed. The Carnegie Classifications are technical and rarely used in public conversation, and don’t seem to capture much of what people discuss about flagship status. Other terms convey information about history, mission, culture, and curriculum. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) is a historical and legal category imbued with social meaning about race and education in America. Liberal-arts colleges refer to a distinctive mission and curriculum, even if there is no dispositive way of identifying all the liberal-arts colleges. Those categorical concepts come with a clarity that eludes “flagship.”
One issue is whether there can be only one flagship per state. Flagship is a nautical metaphor. The flagship is the grandest vessel in a flotilla; the leader. In this metaphor, the flagship is the “top” campus in a university system. For some states, this makes sense. The University of Wisconsin at Madison leads the University of Wisconsin system. In other states, two universities claim flagship status, such as the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses for the University of California system. Some states have two or more major university systems. The University of Texas at Austin is the University of Texas system’s flagship, but the College Station campus is the Texas A&M system’s flagship.
Some states seem not to have a flagship at all. The State University System of New York does not have a clear leading campus. The Education Trust says the University at Buffalo is the flagship, but it could also be Albany or Stony Brook. The University of Wyoming is the only four-year university in its state. Taking the analogy literally: What fleet of institutions is Wyoming leading? Delaware has two public universities: the University of Delaware and Delaware State University, an HBCU. It took a court order to persuade the state to desegregate in Parker v. University of Delaware (1950). What sort of historic leadership is that?
Alternative flagship lists could include the oldest public university in the state, but that would produce some odd results. The College of William & Mary was founded more than 120 years before the University of Virginia, but it was private until the Commonwealth of Virginia saved it from financial ruin in 1906. How would one rank that? Should Ohio University, which opened in 1808, steal “flagship” status back from Ohio State?
Sometimes flagship universities are associated with the Morrill “land grant” Acts that included theft of land from Indigenous communities to fund institutions. Again, little consensus appears. Few think the land-granted Michigan State University should be a flagship instead of the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan. Several HBCUs are also land-grant institutions, but HBCUs seem never to be honored with the flagship designation. Nor are any two-year institutions called “flagship,” even though some community colleges are part of large systems. In short, our selective use of the term undervalues important educational communities.
Writers often define flagship universities as selective. Yet plenty of campuses typically identified as flagships admit more than half of all applicants. According to 2019 data, the University of Vermont admitted two-thirds of applicants, the University of Arizona admitted 85 percent, and the University of Kansas admitted 93 percent. Most people think the University of Kansas is a flagship, but no one believes a 93-percent admit rate could be characterized as selective.
Others associate flagships with research intensity. And certainly, some places typically identified as flagships do a lot of research. The University of Michigan and the University of Washington are among the world’s largest research-performing universities. But things don’t always work out that way. The nonflagship University of Pittsburgh has almost six times the research funding as its regional neighbor and flagship-labeled -West Virginia University. Down South, Georgia Tech is both more selective and more research intensive than the state-identified flagship, the University of Georgia.
Analysts and policy advocates sometimes compare flagships to measure how accessible, affordable, or equitable public higher education is in different states. A 2019 Institute for Higher Education Policy report about college finance and educational opportunity made such comparisons and characterized flagships as those that “tend to be the most selective, academically rigorous, and well-resourced public school in each state.” The goals behind these comparisons makes sense to us. But the utility of the categorization is less clear across research. States vary too much in size, demographic composition, higher-ed system complexity and governance, and state funding to make much sense about the condition of higher education by comparing one semi-arbitrarily identified campus in each state.
Does this mean that the flagship concept is bunk? Not always. Researchers have made good use of the flagship concept when examining state-level processes. An excellent example is the scholar Dominique J. Baker’s study about state affirmative-action bans. Baker found that states are more likely to impose affirmative-action bans when minority students enroll at relatively high rates at campuses perceived to be the state’s flagship. The study showed the power of the flagship image in the public imagination and demonstrated a connection between the flagship concept and systemic racism.
Labeling an institution as a flagship sends a message about whom and what is valued in American higher education: specifically, name brands and the allure of status. The way people respond to the term is more instructive than what it tells us about the institutions we call flagships. On the other hand, as an analytic category used to answer other questions, about, say, affordability, accessibility, equity, or research performance, “flagship” leaves much to be desired. Such imprecision causes us to mistakenly compare institutions, and also gives rise to a world of research, data, and policy recommendations premised on faulty assumptions. In short, “flagship” has outlived whatever purpose it once had, and now clearly does more harm than good. Until we have a clear definition of particular features that can help understand a segment of public institutions, it’s time we stop using it.