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A flagship is a vessel used by the commanding officer of a group of naval ships, reflecting the custom of its commander, characteristically a flag officer, flying a distinguishing flag. Used more loosely, it is the lead ship in a fleet of vessels, typically the first, largest, fastest, most heavily armed, or best known.
Over the years, the term "flagship" has been borrowed in metaphoric form by industries such as broadcasting, automobiles, cell phones, education, national airlines, breweries and retailing to refer to their highest profile or most expensive products and outlets.
In common naval use, the term flagship is fundamentally a temporary designation; the flagship is wherever the admiral's flag is being flown. However, admirals have always needed additional facilities; a meeting room large enough to hold all the captains of the fleet, and a place for the admiral's staff to make plans and draw up orders.
In the age of sailing ships, the flagship was typically a first-rate; the aft of one of the three decks would become the admiral's quarters and staff offices. This can be seen today on HMS Victory, the flagship of Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, now at Portsmouth, England. HMS Victory still serves the Royal Navy today as the ceremonial flagship of the Commander-in-Chief Naval Home Command, making her the oldest commissioned warship in service. The USS Constitution, which also served in her day as flagship of the United States Navy, is 34 years younger, but is the oldest commissioned warship still afloat.
In the 20th century, ships became large enough that most types could accommodate a commander and staff, and during World War II admirals would often prefer a faster ship over the largest one. Some larger ships may have a separate flag bridge for use by the admiral and his staff while the captain commanded from the main navigation bridge. Because its primary function is to coordinate a fleet, a flagship is not necessarily more heavily armed or fortified than other ships.
For the modern, purpose built flagship designed primarily for command and control rather than as a fighting ship see command ship.
As with many other naval terms, flagship has crossed over into common parlance, where it means the most important or leading member of a group. It has also come to be an adjective describing the most prominent or highly touted product, brand, location, or service among those offered by a company. It now has common derivations such as the "flagship brand" or "flagship product" of a manufacturing company or "flagship store" of a retail chain. Auto companies usually have a flagship in the form of their leading, highest-priced car.
Most states in the United States provide public university education through one or more university systems. The phrase flagship institution or flagship university may be applied to an individual school or campus within each state system. The College Board, for example, defines flagship universities as the best-known institutions in the state, noting that they were generally the first to be established and are frequently the largest and most selective, as well as the most research-intensive public universities. These schools are often land-grant, sea-grant, or space-grant research universities. According to Robert M. Berdahl, interim President of the University of Oregon, the phrase "flagship" came into existence in the 1950s when the Morrill Act schools were joined by newer institutions built in a wave of post-war expansion of state university systems.
Berdahl notes further that because flagships are generally the oldest schools within a system, they are often the largest and best financed and are perceived as elite relative to non-flagship state schools. He comments that "Those of us in 'systems' of higher education are frequently actively discouraged from using the term 'flagship' to refer to our campuses because it is seen as hurtful to the self-esteem of colleagues at other institutions in our systems. The use of the term is seen by some as elitist and boastful. It is viewed by many, in the context of the politics of higher education, as 'politically incorrect.' ... Only in the safe company of alumni is one permitted to use the term." Additionally, the term flagship is widely understood to encompass only public (state-supported) universities, even in states which contain (sometimes considerably) more eminent private universities.
Nevertheless, the term "flagship university" is still used in official contexts by the U.S. Department of Education, various state university system boards of governors, and state legislatures. Additionally, state universities often self-designate themselves as flagships. Higher education agencies, research journals, and other organizations also use the term, though their lists of flagship universities can differ greatly. One list of 50 flagship universities (one per state) is employed by the Higher Education Coordinating Board, the College Board, the Princeton Review and many other state and federal educational and governmental authorities for a variety of purposes including tuition and rate comparisons, research studies and public policy analyses. Given the widespread use of this list, it has been described as a "nationally recognizable and accepted list of flagship universities".
Despite its ubiquity, this list of 50 flagships is not the only state-by-state examination of flagships. In a 2010 article, Standard & Poor's created its own list of flagship universities, noting that each state had typically one or two institutions with flagship characteristics. The Education Sector, an education policy organization, used a different list of 51 flagship universities in an August 2011 study of college debt. Several states had multiple universities categorized as flagships due to "less of a clear distinction between a single flagship and other public universities" in those states. Additionally, several states were not included in the study due to insufficient comparative data. There are many instances in which more than one school in a state has claimed to be, or has been described as, a "flagship".
In February 2012, Idaho's State Board of Education made a controversial decision to strike the word "flagship" from the University of Idaho's mission statement. The Board's President Richard Westerberg explained that this revision was made as part of the Board's many changes made to multiple Idaho universities' mission statements in an effort to ensure all statements were consistent and collegial in nature rather than comparative or competitive.
Flagship stores are core stores for brand name retailers, larger than their standard outlets and stocking greater inventory, often found in prominent shopping districts such as Madison Avenue in New York and Tokyo's Ginza.
A flagship station is the principal station of a (radio or TV) broadcast network. It can be the station that produces the largest amount of material for the network, or the station in the parent company's home city, or both. The term dates back to the mid twentieth century years of broadcasting when headquarters stations produced programs for their networks.
For example, the flagship stations of the ABC, NBC and CBS television and radio networks are their owned and operated outlets in New York City. Likewise, public television's WNET served as primary member station for National Educational Television (NET), a forerunner to the US Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
In sports broadcasting, the "flagship" is a team's primary station in their home market, which produces game broadcasts and feeds them to affiliates. For example, WGN is the flagship station of the Chicago Cubs baseball team, which has an extensive Cubs radio network spanning several states.
The term flagship is also used to describe the top-end volume vehicle manufactured by automotive marque. These vehicles are usually, but not always, the most expensive, prestigious and largest vehicles in the line-up. The term is most often applied to, but not limited to sedans. Examples include Land Rover Range Rover, Mercedes-Benz S-Class, and Ferrari F12berlinetta.
The term "halo car" is often used in automotive marketing and journalism to refer to the flagship vehicle. The term is derived from the halo effect, the tendency for a favorable trait to influence the perception of subsequent traits in a sequence of interpretations; it appears to have been used as early as 1938.
Within conservation biology, the term flagship species refers to a species or taxon that is a symbol or rallying point to catalyze conservation actions. The metaphoric use of the term is inherently linked to ideas about representation.