SALT LAKE CITY - The train hums past the NBA basketball arena and the Mormon Temple and near the statehouse, gliding through the city's wide streets like a cross-country skier on fresh powder.
Its tracks are lined, as is every important block downtown, with crimson banners adorned with Pac-12 Conference logos.
They perch on streetlamps with pride, the University of Utah logo alongside that of its new conference.
With the train at top speed, a passenger looking out the UTA TRAX window can see a blurry red stripe leading toward campus, a GPS screen come to life.
Moving to the Pac-12 on July 1 should lead students up to the hill, too. Utah officials believe the switch from the Mountain West Conference will inherently improve its academics.
"It's made everyone's degrees more valuable around here," said John Fackler, the Utah Alumni Association's director of alumni relations. "When new grads go out into the job market, you're classified with the Pac-12 schools - not 'Other.' "
David Rudd, the dean of Utah's College of Social and Behavioral Science, said he has found a correlation - though maybe not a direct cause-and-effect - between conferences and quality education.
"You can see how the academic reputation actually is connected to the branding of the conference," he said. "It's fascinating."
He conducted a study of the growth of Penn State since it joined the Big Ten in 1990.
In 1990, he said, PSU graduated 57 percent of its students. In 2009, it was 85 percent.
From 1990 to 2009, entering Penn State students' SAT scores jumped more than 100 points.
Its research funding more than doubled, to $780 million, by 2009.
Texas and Texas A&M, PSU peers in 1990, reached only $580 million and $600 million, respectively.
Penn State's faculty pay and retention improved, too.
"Everything got better across the board," Rudd said. "Your peer group changes. The pressure to perform is altered not only athletically, but academically."
One example: Last year during annual reviews, Rudd said, none of his managers compared the department's spending to spending at other Mountain West schools, knowing Utah was at the top.
This year, however, he said "every single one of them showed me a chart" about where Utah stands compared to Pac-12 schools.
The message: We need to catch up.
"That's pressure," said Rudd, a former Princeton safety. "And it happens in every academic domain simply because of athletic affiliation."
Doubt him, and he'll remind you the Ivy League - a term synonymous with academic excellence - is nothing more than a sports conference formally established in the 1950s.
Based on the U.S. News & World Report's top 50 and the Academic Ranking of World Universities top 100 rankings, as well as research-expenditure budgets, Rudd isolated three conferences as having "high academic credibility": the Ivy League, the Big Ten and the Pac-12.
"The research actually demonstrates you are significantly more likely to be a top university if you're in one of those three conferences," he said. "Not only that, but your research budgets are much higher."
In 2010, Utah admitted 82.62 percent of its 11,721 applicants, making it one of the least selective schools in the new league, save Colorado.
However, Utah averaged about $450 million per year in research spending in 2009, near the Pac-10 average.
The Mountain West's average 2009 research budget was about $106.4 million - but only about $88.7 million when Utah is removed from the equation.
The Utes "didn't fit in the Mountain West anymore," Rudd said.
Chris Hill said Utah has grown both athletically and "in terms of respect nationally as an academic institution" - and at a similar pace - since he became athletic director in 1987.
"I can't say enough how the rest of the campus is excited about it," he said. "At the same time, I can't say enough how the university put us in the game to be invited."
The affiliation matters.
Pac-12 presidents and provosts meet annually, but so will, for example, Pac-12 arts and sciences deans.
Rudd's study has been used to try to calm Utah faculty annoyed with the hubbub over sports. The athletic department has been quick to stress the campus-wide value.
Football coach Kyle Whittingham said the move "affects our university on a lot of different levels - not only athletically but, obviously, academically."
Sean Davenport, a graduate student who is president of the MUSS, Utah's student cheering section, is excited to see his Utes play a higher level of athletic competition.
But he also appreciates the academic connection.
"It doesn't just put athletics on top, push them to a new level," he said. "Just the fact that we're associated with Stanford, Washington, UCLA, Cal-Berkeley and all those schools, it's still kind of surreal."
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