by Jack Dodson for The Pendulum (Elon University, NC)
In 2002, when Leo Lambert, president of Elon University, wanted the school to change athletics conferences to the NCAA Division I Southern Conference, he decided to visit each president and athletic director in the conference personally, backed by a media package and Elon’s brand-new status as a university.
Lambert’s goal was to convince the Southern Conference members, like Davidson College, Furman University and Wofford College, that Elon could compete with them, even though it was in the Big South then. Elon had recently switched from being an NAIA Division II school in 1999.
“We were changing as an institution,” said Smith Jackson, vice president and dean of Student Life. “We were playing good schools (in the Big South), but not the kind of schools that Elon’s become.”
A large part of Elon’s national perception, which has improved with numerous recognitions and praises during the last 10 years, is owed to this jump and to the athletics program as a whole, Jackson said.
But for him, there’s more to the development of Elon than athletics — it’s the academics and the experiences students are involved in that have a large impact on the way the university is viewed.
Through strategic plans and an emphasis on student engagement in and out of the classroom, Elon has earned numerous recognitions for it academic and experiential programs.
This engaged learning style mostly means the Experiential Learning Requirement (ELR), Jackson said, for which students complete internships, study abroad, undergraduate research or academic service learning in order to graduate. The ELR was developed in 1994, during the last General Studies review process.
“It gave us that ‘experiential’ brand,” Jackson said.
Each of Elon’s strategic plans during the last two decades have had a general focus: attaining recognition outside North Carolina.
While each plan, according to Lambert, is about student learning on the whole, an element in each has been to achieve a more recognizable name for Elon.
Elon Vision, a plan developed during former President Fred Young’s tenure and completed by Lambert, focused on gaining recognition on the eastern seaboard, according to Dan Anderson, the assistant vice president and director of University Relations. In 1995, one year after that plan was launched, Elon was ranked No. 39 in the South as a regional university by U.S. News and World Report’s annual college guide.
Immediately following Elon Vision, the NewCentury@Elon strategic plan, implemented in 2000 by Lambert, sought to become a national model for engaged learning, Lambert said.
“If you look at each of the strategic plans, they each had a specific emphasis to them. The Elon Vision was very much a bricks-and-mortar strategic plan,” Lambert said. “The NewCentury plan was very much about taking academics to a higher level.”
With the newest plan, The Elon Commitment, which was passed by the board of trustees in December, the school has gotten much closer to being a nationally-prominent university than it used to be, Lambert said. The plan focuses highly on making Elon students global citizens, but also seeks to expand upon the reputation Elon’s already gained as a leader in student engagement and strong academic programs.
“I think we are really at the cusp of reaching national recognition, but we’re not quite there yet,” Lambert said. “I have no doubt that in 10 years, it will be a different story yet.”
At the start of the new plan in 2010, the university was ranked second among southern universities, just behind Rollins College, but beating out schools like James Madison University and The Citadel.
On the list, Elon is considered a regional university because of its Carnegie classification, which identifies it as a bal/SGC school, meaning it balances arts and sciences and has some graduate coexistence. Because of the classification, Elon isn’t being compared to larger schools like University of Richmond, Wake Forest University or Duke University.
A comparison between schools like Duke and Elon is difficult to make, anyway, Lambert said, because the universities serve different purposes.
“Duke certainly would see itself as a research university and Elon does not — Elon has a different mission,” Lambert said. “Elon is much more about undergraduate education.”
Strengthening the Phoenix
For Dave Blank, the current athletic director at Elon, part of his job since he started in 2006 has been to increase the school’s name recognition through NCAA tournament and ESPN appearances.
He said Lambert made this clear before he came in for the job.
“One of the important things on (Lambert’s) agenda was to have successful Division I athletics,” Blank said, “in order to become a nationally-known university.”
Athletics is a strong part of gaining a national reputation, Blank said. He said if Elon’s name shows up on the ESPN ticker, or teams are consistently sent to Southern Conference championships, the school’s name becomes more widely known.
And part of that name recognition comes from simply being able to compete at high-profile levels, Blank said.
“If nothing else, we’re playing in these venues with thousands of people,” Blank said. “We’re gaining exposure by being able to compete at that level.”
A strong part of a school’s recognition is its athletics program — a school like Wake Forest, Lambert said, with well-performing sports teams would be more of a household name than Elon.
But he said it probably won’t be through athletics that Elon rises to national prominence, because Elon can’t always compete with larger Division I schools.
“I think we’re going to have to achieve our recognition through other means — having one of the best undergraduate programs in the nation; a truly innovative undergraduate experience,” Lambert said.
Part of what’s contributed to Elon’s success during the last few decades has been its improvement and development of academic programs. Around the same time the school became a university, Elon opened to doors to its schools of education, communications and business, and soon afterward created graduate programs.
Almost a decade later, Elon has five graduate programs: a doctorate of physical therapy, a law school, a masters in interactive media, a masters in education and a masters in business administration.
He said he hopes the School of Business will become one of the top-50 business programs in the country. And to him, the School of Communications is already doing well, but he said he hopes it will build on that success.
“I think the communications school is already emerging as one of the top in the country,” Lambert said.
And Lambert said while the focus at Elon is mostly on the undergraduate experience, he thinks the school has a chance to reach the top spot in the south on the U.S. News and World Report rankings.
If that No. 1 spot is reached, he said, Elon will have to choose what path it wants to take as an institution. Under the ranking system U.S. News and World Report uses, Elon would have to either define itself as a research-based graduate-level university or as an undergraduate-oriented liberal arts school.
“I think Elon is going to be in that No. 1 spot pretty soon,” Lambert said, “and it will be interesting to see if we want to stay where we are or if we want to change — we could either become a national liberal arts college or a national university.”
Aiming the message off campus
But Elon isn’t as focused on ratings as it used to be, according to Anderson.
“Now the university administration is not as concerned with college rankings,” Anderson said. “We are where we want to be in terms of quality.”
Rather than focus on simply making lists, he said Elon wants to improve the reach of its programs through the goals laid out in The Elon Commitment.
And the business of higher education goes beyond just rankings, anyway, according to George Keller in “Transforming a College: The Story of a Little Known College’s Strategic Climb to National Distinction,” a book about Elon he published in 2004.
“This booming, dazzling array of institutions of higher education in the United States means that America’s colleges and universities are in constant competition with each other for students, dollars and public attention,” Keller wrote. “Colleges that compete poorly decline, go out of business or merge with more secure institutions.”
But Keller argued Elon isn’t quite like most schools. He wrote Elon neither enjoys national status nor fears closure, and he said schools like this frequently try to improve to “rise in their category from being moderately good academic institutions to becoming truly excellent and well regarded.”
As Elon is an institution on the rise, Anderson said, rather than focusing on trying to get good ratings or news in publications like the New York Times, Elon would rather communicate with its audience directly through E-Net and Facebook.
The most important thing is having an online presence through which Elon can communicate with prospective students, parents and alumni about its programs, he said.
“We’re using our new media to talk to people directly about Elon,” Anderson said. “One of our priorities now is to do a deeper and a better job of talking about the quality of the programs and the work of the faculty members and the students here. It’s not so much about trying to get a story placed in the New York Times as it is to do meaningful communication about the people at Elon.”