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UO hopes academics will soon join football in top rankings

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EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Chuck Lillis thrills to the sight of the University of Washington rising to the top 50 in rankings of American universities.

But Lillis, the current —and first — chairman of the University of Oregon Board of Trustees, frankly doesn't like what he sees in the rankings when it comes to the UO, where he also went to school.

"I want us to see our rankings and have goose bumps," he told the UO Senate recently. "I don't like these rankings that are 92nd, 104th, 86th. That just isn't good enough."

So in May 2014, a month before the Board of Trustees formally won control of the university, the UO quietly started a $20 million, donor-funded plan that included hiring an edgy Philadelphia branding firm — 160over90 — to elevate the university's stature.

Top universities no longer wait for bright students, star academicians and wealthy donors to come to them. Increasingly, they use marketing, advertising and strategic communications to pump up their image.

The strategy pays off, said David Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, who wrote the seminal book on the subject.

"To them that have, more shall be given," Kirp says in a lecture on YouTube.

"If you win at this game, then you end up attracting better students, better faculty, more research dollars, more alumni support, faculty superstars. You get to become more selective. The story ratchets up."

In their quest, Lillis and other UO leaders are looking to emulate yet also move beyond Oregon football, which was an obscure, losing program 30 years ago, but now is a nationally recognized commodity.

Football's transformation required constantly evolving uniforms, audacious marketing and a massive influx of money from a billionaire benefactor who had a business interest in building a showcase team to adorn with the Swoosh: Nike Chairman Phil Knight.

The question of the coming year is: Will the university find a benefactor for its academic side who will stay loyal for 15 years and pour treasure into the school — Lillis says it needs a $2 billion endowment to be top-notch — and how would the university leadership capitalize on such largesse?

New UO President Michael Schill — hired by Lillis and other major donors — says he's optimistic.

"What I really want," he said recently, "is to lift up the academic reputation of this school and move it forward in leaps and bounds."

The UO's claim to academic prestige rests heavily on its membership in the elite, 62-member Association of American Universities. It sits alongside the likes of Harvard, Yale, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Michigan.

The UO gained entry in the late 1960s based on its groundbreaking work in genetics. But in recent decades, the university found itself at the bottom of the AAU pack in key academic excellence measures, a report by interim UO President Scott Coltrane says.

For a research university, the UO is short on tenured faculty, doctoral students, research spending, research production and high-achieving students, the report says. Bringing all those measures up to snuff would take an endowment of billions, Lillis says.

"We're financially weak," Lillis told the Senate. "We're very weak if we want to be a great university."

How does an organization such as the UO come from behind, burst into the national academic spotlight, appeal to the best and brightest students, and climb high enough in the various rankings to give its No. 1 trustee goose bumps?

Duck football started with little recognition and a lame record but become a national contender, with a perennial berth in the top ranks of the various national polls.

A New York Times analysis of Facebook traffic, for example, found that the Oregon Ducks claimed at least 10 percent of college football fans in more ZIP codes nationally than any other college football team.

"The power of that brand is just enormous," said Tim Gleason, a former UO journalism dean who was an early participant in the UO's new branding initiative.

"When I traveled on the East Coast 15 years ago, it would have been, 'So, you're the University of Oregon. Are you the Ducks or the Beavers?'?" he said. "That's not what happens anymore."

What took the Ducks to the top?

Simple, Craig Pintens, UO senior associate athletic director for marketing and public relations, said in an interview with .

"Our relationship with Nike, first and foremost," he said.

The global shoe and apparel behemoth, 115th on the Fortune 500, was co-founded by UO alum Knight and has its headquarters near Portland.

Knight and other donors started the Duck football rise to success about 15 years ago.

"(Knight) approached us about updating the University of Oregon branding," then-Nike team sports designer Rick Bakas said on his blog. "His vision . was to raise Oregon's status as a national title contender by attracting better players, better coaches, and grow the Oregon fan base."

Knight and other donors built a gleaming city of football buildings: a $15 million indoor playing facility, a $90 million Autzen Stadium upgrade, a $3.2 million locker room upgrade, a $10 million medical center, a $42 million athletics study building and the $95 million football operations center.

"We are the University of Nike," senior associate athletic director Jeff Hawkins told The New York Times in 2013. "We embrace it. We tell that to our recruits."

Nike threw audacity at the branding challenge.

The company paid for fantastical sets of uniforms, some with feather or diamond plate designs in colors ranging from neon green to muted silver and gray.

The breakthrough moment, according to Pintens, was in 2001 when Nike and UO personnel placed a 100-foot-tall, $300,000 image of UO Heisman Trophy candidate Joey Harrington on a 10-story building in midtown Manhattan — placing Oregon at the heart of world media.

Harrington's last name was lined out and changed to Heisman, as in "Joey Heisman."

"It was a risk, but that is what has differentiated our brand," Pintens told "We are willing to put ourselves out there."

"Had the team gone in the tank, Oregon may have been laughed off the stage," sportswriter Chris Dufresne observed.

The sports success has been an asset and a drawback for the UO's new academic branding initiative.

The university's academic side, in adopting the Bakas-designed "O'' as its logo, tapped into the sports brand that Nike built. The UO president at the time, Dave Frohnmayer, wanted the "O'' to represent the whole university.

"If you're not represented by something," he said, "people don't know what you stand for."

Some faculty saw that as a takeover of the university's image by Nike and the football team — a perception that the UO's new branding firm acknowledges.

"Obviously, the university has a big problem getting out the message that we're a serious academic institution," Bill Harbaugh, economics professor and publisher of the blog , said recently. "The football program has co-opted the university's message; it's all about the Duck brand."

A key UO image challenge, according to the brand strategy recently developed by 160over90 for the UO, is the "unbalanced national perception of the university, currently dominated by athletics."

Duck football isn't the full story, said Tammo Walter, 160over90's chief creative officer, in an interview, "But because there was a lack of the academic story, people take it as the full story. We're completing that story."

Ultimately, Walter said, Oregon football's reputation will help the academic side. Because of football, the school exists in the national imagination; the fact that the branding campaign doesn't have to place it there is an asset, he said.

"It's easier to add onto a wrong perception someone has and say, 'Hey, look, this is also what happens here, or this is what we primarily stand for,'?" he said.

The university needs academic substance to be great, said Tim Clevenger, a longtime private sector ad man whom the UO put in charge of the new branding effort.

The university needs the academic corollary of a Rose Bowl or a national championship — a scientific breakthrough, a Nobel Prize win, a reinforced perch among the nation's pre-eminent schools.

"A brand can have a really cool logo and neat ads," Clevenger said, "but if there's no substance behind it, it doesn't mean anything."

The proof, the UO says, will be if it can recruit more freshmen with higher SAT scores, hire more high-profile professors and scientists, and climb in the U.S. News rankings of top universities — up from its 2015 slot of No. 106.


Information from: The Register-Guard,

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