Baylor University’s stellar athletic year has helped dramatically improve local perceptions of the university, according to the findings of a survey conducted by Baylor researchers.
About 60 percent of the 701 McLennan County residents polled in the survey hold a very favorable view of Baylor.
That’s a significant jump from the 48.5 percent of 1,005 county residents who responded to a similar survey in 2008.
The survey, conducted by Baylor’s Center for Community Research and Development, sought residents’ opinions on the university, as well as economic development and quality of life measures for McLennan County.
“We thought it would get better, but we didn’t think it would get this much better,” center director Larry Lyon said.
He said the improved perceptions are likely because of Baylor’s impressive series of athletic successes during the 2011-12 school year, a run the university has dubbed “Year of the Bear.”
Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy in December and led the team to a victory over Washington in the Alamo Bowl before being selected as the second overall pick in the NFL draft.
The Lady Bears became the first NCAA basketball team in history to have a 40-0 season when they won the women’s college basketball championship in April. Star center Brittney Griner has swept all major player of the year honors, most recently the Honda Cup.
“How often do you have a Robert Griffin? Well, once, if you’re lucky,” Lyon said. “The same way in basketball, we have the female athlete of the year leading us to a 40-0 season. That would definitely play a role.”
In the 2008 survey, only 19 percent of the respondents cited athletics as the first thing they associate with Baylor. That increased to 47.6 percent in 2012.
The number of survey responders who said they primarily think of Baylor’s academic offerings remained relatively steady, cited by 23 percent in 2008 and 25.8 percent in 2012.
“As an academic myself, I would have rather seen academics stay number one,” said Lyon, who is also dean of the graduate school. “But I think you can make a case that in four years, we’ve had much quicker and more visible improvement on the athletic field than we have in the libraries and classrooms.”
Baylor spokeswoman Lori Fogleman said that while the unversity’s athletic programs are currently seizing headlines, there’s no concern that academic accomplishments are being overlooked.
“(Athletics) generates excitement. It is a window to your university, especially for those outside of Waco and outside of Texas to be introduced to Baylor,” Fogleman said.
Baylor’s rating among minority residents also greatly increased during the past four years. The number of black residents who have a very favorable view of the university more than doubled from 30.9 percent in 2008 to 63.8 percent this year.
About 54.2 percent of the Hispanic residents polled this year gave the university a very favorable rating compared to 45.1 percent in 2008. The number of white respondents who share that view climbed from 45.6 percent in 2008 to 61.1 percent this year.
Out of the bubble
Lyon said Baylor’s higher regard among minority residents may also be linked to the school’s efforts to develop projects outside its borders.
The Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative, a 330,000-square-foot technology and research complex, is being built at the former General Tire plant near Bellmead. Baylor also moved its School of Social Work off campus into a building in downtown Waco.
City projects like the expansion of the Waco Riverwalk into the campus and new bike lanes between downtown and Baylor also help connect the university with the surrounding community, Lyon said.
“All of this is symbolic, but real as well, of Baylor connecting not just with the west end of the county, but Baylor connecting right where Baylor is — downtown Waco, East Waco, South Waco,” Lyon said.
McLennan County Commissioner Lester Gibson, a Baylor graduate, said the university has worked hard at being a true community partner as its star has grown. Both the city of Waco and the county are invested in the growth of the BRIC, for example.
Gibson also pointed to Baylor’s response to community concerns about whether the proposed construction of an on-campus football stadium would force residents living around the site to move.
Several members of the administration met with the Olive Heights Neighborhood Association to dispel the belief that the university intends to buy out homeowners to secure more land for the project. Construction of the proposed $250 million stadium still must be approved by the board of regents.
“Representatives of Baylor didn’t run from the issues when they were approached (by residents), and I think that that gave a better perception to the residents that live in that area,” Gibson said. “Coming forward like that and tackling the issue head-on, I think it really made a partnership with the Olive Heights neighborhood and Baylor, to be a part of that growth.”
Gibson said he’s also been pleased with the university’s apparent committment to diversity and inclusiveness of students from different backgrounds.
Gibson said there were only about 50 other black students at Baylor when he graduated in 1974. Now, about 7.5 percent of Baylor’s 15,029 students are black, according to Fall 2012 enrollment data. Minorities make up 28.4 percent of the student body.
Fogleman said the university already conducts a variety of surveys with different groups, from high school students to alumni, and will continue seeking feedback on the university’s progress in community outreach efforts.
“Are we having an impact? Do people like us? Are there areas of improvement on which we need to focus?” Fogleman said. “We use the findings to help us with our planning and identifying areas where we need to get better.”
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