Fri 16 Apr 2004
When I saw Morty speak in New Haven, he said that the question he is asked about most by alumni is the emphasis on athletics at Williams. Sure enough, Morty was asked a few questions about athletics despite his preemptory oratory. Seemingly, alumni are ambivalent about winning 7 of 8 Sears Cups: while they are proud of the accomplishment, they are worried about the effect athletics has on the campus culture. I think a couple of common arguments need to be addressed:
#1: Tipped athletes are less academically able. I don’t think this is really a matter of debate. If a coach has a limited number of tips, why spend it on an athlete whose academics are strong enough to ensure admission? Why not use the tip on an athlete whose academic credentials are significantly weaker? Coaches aren’t stupid and put their tips to best use.
#2: Tipped athletes change the culture of the campus. Again, I’m not sure there can be much serious debate about this topic. While I met some extremely smart athletes at Williams, would anyone seriously argue that the hockey team is a bastion of learned discourse? If you were forced to categorize the football team as intellectual or anti-intellectual, which of the two categories would you choose? Many of the tipped athletes know they were admitted despite questionable academic credentials and adopt the identity of a dumb jock. [Note: In my entry, the football, hockey, and basketball player got into an argument as to whose SAT scores were lowest — it wasn’t clear whether the winner had the high or low score.] This anti-intellectual culture spreads through the team and the athletes’ social circles making the culture more pervasive. At my reunion, I was struck by the degree to which our class was bifurcated: athletes on one side of the room and non-athletes on the other.
#3: Tips are necessary to maintain the quality of the sports teams. Anyone who argues otherwise is seriously underestimating the skill of the athletes at Williams. Dartmouth is considered the jock school of the Ivies, but they routinely lose to Princeton and UPenn teams that admit better athletes (with questionable academic resumes). Trinity and Connecticut College have lower admission standards than Williams and routinely lose to the Ephs. Sure, Williams has good coaching, but good athletes are a must (unless you are Jerry Sloan — but even he missed the playoffs this year).
I think these three “facts” can be used to construct three models/archetypes for elite liberal arts colleges. I’ll attach a name to each model, but the name is intended to be impressionistic. The goal is to illustrate what Williams might look like under different admission regimes, not seriously compare different schools.
Swarthmore Model: Students are admitted to the college on the basis of their academic or artistic accomplishments and little or no weight to athletics. The athletics teams are generally bad and walk-ons are common. The campus culture generally celebrates scholarship and might even be slightly anti-fitness.
Middlebury Model: Only students who meet the basic acceptance criteria are admitted. Athletic achievement will be used to break ties, but very few athletes will experience grades below a B. The athletic teams are competitive, but do not go far in NCAA tournaments. The campus culture is not bookish, but nor is it anti-intellectual.
Williams Model: There are two distinct tracts for being admitted. Most students are held to very high academic standards, but good athletes need only cross a minimum threshold. As a result, teams compete for national championships, but many athletes earn C’s in courses. The campus culture is bifurcated. Most students engage in the pretensions of undergraduate pseudo-intellectual musings, while athletes (and associated friends) adopt an anti-intellectualism and define themselves in opposition to other members of the campus.
I think it is within the power of the admissions committee to mold a campus to resemble either of the three archetypes (which I suppose could be thought of as points along a continuum for elite liberal arts colleges). I don’t think it is possible to say which model is preferable objectively. It is a matter of taste. The question is, which campus stakeholders get to determine the actions of the admission committee? There are many groups who should have a say in the discussion:
4) Current Students
5) Prospective students (the undergraduate market)
I suspect that Administrators would favor the accolades and press that come from the Williams model. Professors would likely favor the Swarthmore model where they have engaged and motivated students who want to learn. It isn’t clear to me what the current students or the high school market would favor. Townspeople may want competitive teams to cheer for, but abhor the loutish behavior that often accompanies the victories.
One positive attribute of an anti-intellectual atmosphere on a college campus that often goes overlooked is the future earnings of its alumni. Reed College boasts the highest percentage of alumni pursuing advanced degrees in the Arts and Sciences. While I am sure that Reed professors are proud mentors, the college is always in financial trouble. Talented but anti-intellectual students will ignore graduate school and instead pursue business or law or consulting — far more profitable enterprises. A richer alumni base usually translates into a larger endowment. A college could rationally decide to foster a culture that molds “Investment bankers conversant in Shakespeare” rather than “Shakespeare scholars with few investments.”
No individual has a “right” to attend Williams. Admitting academically less able athletes is not the “wrong” way to construct a college class. The admissions committee has clearly pursued a particular policy with a fair amount of success. Critics of the policy (and I am one) need to explain:
a) What is wrong with the current policy;
b) How it could be improved;
c) Why her/his stakeholder group deserves a large enough voice to trump the status quo (after first establishing that you speak for the stakeholder group in question).
Lower test scores and GPAs for athletes do not inherently condemn the institution of Tips. Why is creating a campus where everyone is familiar with Derida or electron microscopy inherently better than one where students train hard, pick up a few job skills employers might like to see, and relax by playing video games, watching TV, and drinking beer?
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