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The Elephant in the Room

Oren Cass ’05 is always at his best when the topic turns to race at Williams. His thoughts on the issues of preferential admissions for athletes and others are worth a read.

Of course, the major comparison that no one wants to talk about is between Affirmative Action and athletic tips. It is fairly remarkable that the College feels comfortable launching the sort of inquisition that it has into the “value” of athletes, while aggressively guarding its minority student data.

For instance, consider this line from the report:

Educationally, the costs are distributed unevenly. They are concentrated in Division 2, and specifically in several large departments. It is, we suggest, unfair to expect students and faculty in a handful of departments to bear disproportionately the costs of our athletic programs in the form of less demanding and less interesting courses than would be mounted otherwise.

[T]hese departments are “bearing the burden” of our athletes? Would we say that departments with disproportionately high concentrations of African-American students are “bearing a burden” (we know from Williams’ Supreme Court brief that only one in three would be admitted without taking race into account). Would we say “it inevitably generates externalities for the rest of the College in the form of weaker students” about our Affirmative Action program? Of course not! Black students from the Upper West Side are diverse. Just look at a photograph. Students who actually differ in any significant way from the rest of the student body? A burden. It’s that simple.

The very fact that the College conducted a survey of student opinions about athletes is noteworthy. Where’s my survey where I can comment on the effects of students admitted because their parents went here, or because their skin is darker than mine? Do we not want to publish those percentages? The College would be absolutely ripped apart if it even asked some of those question.

It would be interesting to read the Supreme Court brief that Cass mentions, but I haven’t been able to find it on-line. The other factor that connects athletic and minority admissions — but not legacy preferences — is the roll on effect that schools like Harvard have. Many of the students in these categories that “should” go to Williams (i.e., that have the academic credentials similar to Williams students but perhaps a notch below Harvard admits) are accepted by Big Three schools. Of course, Williams does the same to schools lower down in the academic pecking order.

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#1 Comment By Sam Crane On April 19, 2004 @ 11:42 am

Is it just me, or is it really obvious that affirmative action and sports are two different animals? Affirmative action contributes to a larger social goal of overcoming past racial discrimination and/or creating a socially and culturally diverse college setting. Sports contributes to personal goals of health and fitness and other virtues. If we lose at football, society is no worse off. If we fail to attend to racial discrimination, society is worse off.

I know some will argue that we no longer have serious racial discrimination in our society, that we all know, say, black middle-class people who might benefit from affirmative action programs when, perhaps, they really no longer need them. True. And it is true, in some (I would say significan) part, precisely because affirmative action has succeeded in expanding the black middle class. We can argue about whether the legacy of racial discrimination has been sufficiently overcome to do away affirmative action altogether (something I would oppose) or shifting it toward more overt class consideration as opposed to racial considerations (something worth debating or the extent to which social and cultural diversity should be an explicit goal of institutions like Williams (I think it should).

But, again, to suggest that these societal concerns with race and class (gender anyone?) are on par with the issue of whether or not we give admissions preferences to athletes who would not otherwise get in, is to miss the forest for the trees.

#2 Comment By Loweeel On April 19, 2004 @ 12:08 pm

Professor Crane, I wouldn’t say that if Williams would be no worse off if it were to lose football.

The gatherings of alumni in cities all over the world to watch the Williams-Amherst game provides a significant fundraising opportunity, and I’m sure that our clever alumni take advantage of those meetings to request contributions. Furthermore, I believe that you’re neglecting the sense of community and school spirit that football promotes. Homecoming is an event in which the overwhelming majority of campus happily participates, something that cannot be said for more than a handful of other campus events.

Football also served as a safety-valve for tensions between Williams and Amherst early on. In addition, we wouldn’t have our school colors if Winston Churchill’s mother Jenny Jerome didn’t attend that football game at which she bought purple and gold ribbons to identify the football players.

While I understand that your opinion that race is a more pressing concern than athletics are, I think it’s disingenuous to suggest that football has no value to the Williams community.

#3 Comment By Nate On April 19, 2004 @ 12:39 pm

Loweel: Professor Crane said lose AT football, not lose football.

#4 Comment By Sam Crane On April 19, 2004 @ 12:39 pm

I agree that football, or sport in general, does have some value to the Williams community. But, in the larger scheme of things, that value is rather modest. It seems mostly to be about making Williams people feel good about themselves (rather like ethnic studies, eh Aidan?). Yet I would still contend that we can gain most of that value without tips, or with many fewer tips than we currently have.

#5 Comment By (d)avid On April 19, 2004 @ 1:46 pm

Since when did athletes become a persecuted group in need of protection at Williams? They constitute a large part of the campus, right? Are those big bad nerds pushing them down stairs again?

#6 Comment By Kevin Koernig ’05 On April 19, 2004 @ 3:23 pm

I have no problem with the concept of diversity itself. What I have a problem with is the automatic correlation of diversity and skin color. I cannot tell what values, ideas, or opinions somebody posseses just based on their skin color, nor would I try to. Yet the Williams admissions department does this every year. This is a bad thing, no matter how noble the goals.

For an example of the consequences, earlier this year some posters appeared around campus that looked as though they were reporting something as lost. Upon closer examination, they were all statements about the racial atmosphere of the college, stating that the minority community had lost its patience, innocence, etc. based on certain abstract situations that apparently represent the racial atmosphere at Williams. One of the experiences being condemned was that everyone seems to expect minority students to be representatives of their race. This, however, is the foundation of the diversity admissions policy at Williams. It states that people who are not as qualified via metrics like academics, athletics, and arts can still contribute something valuable to this community by bringing their cultural/racial viewpoint. Unfortunately, this creates a college environment were the students are not individuals, but rather members and representatives of certain racial and ethnic groups. I sympathize with people angry and disgusted over being treated as representatives of a group rather than individuals. Unfortunately, that is the end result of the admissions policies and diversity philosophy of our college.

If we tried to increase diversity through better means, ones that judged people on truly who they are rather than the color of their skin, I might support it. I might also not, because I would question why a liberal arts institution like Williams should admit students not based on their individual merit and abilities but rather based on their demographic value. I will not, however, support a system that attempts to bypass Dr. King’s famous ideal of judging people not based on the color of their skin but rather the content of their character by arguing that skin color somehow signifies character. I will not support a school that institutionalizes and fights for the idea that people can and should be judged based on their race.

The argument about correcting past (or current) injustices is more complicated. It is more difficult to reject racial preferences outright there. I have to think about what kind of society I would like to see in the future. I am quite certain that I would like society to continue the great steps we’ve taken and get to a point were people truly are judged as individuals rather than as members of some group. To that end, I consider whether racial preferences are likely to get us to that better place. And I must conclude that by institutionalizing the idea that individuals can and should be judged based on their skin color, racial preferences do far more damage than good in advancing society. It is therefore unfortunate to me that Williams College, as well as almost the entire higher education establishment in America, is holding society back rather than leading it into a better future.

Oh, and Prof. Crane, if you truly think that athletics are mostly about making people feel better about themselves, you really don’t understand them at all.

#7 Comment By Arthur Guray On April 20, 2004 @ 12:12 am

Prof. Crane seems to have missed the brunt of Oren’s argument.

The comparison Oren makes between athletic tipping and affirmative action is simple:

Affirmative action, at least in part, seeks to diversify the student body by bringing in students of varied cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

Athletic tipping, at least in part, diversifies the student body by brining in athletes (i.e., people who aren’t solely devoted to academics).

Thus, athletic tipping is as valid a diversifier as affirmative action.

Oren actually goes further, and argues, as Kevin does above, that taking race into account doesn’t ensure diversity the way that taking athletic ability (or other demonstrable skills and talents) into account does.

Thus, Oren argues, athletic tipping is a better diversifier than affirmative action.

And, as Oren repeatedly states, athletic tips comprises 15% of the student body.

#8 Comment By Mike On April 20, 2004 @ 1:14 am

Prof. Crane defends affirmative action on two levels: 1) “Affirmative action contributes to a larger social goal of overcoming past racial discrimination and/or” 2) “creating a socially and culturally diverse college setting.”

Point #2 is easy enough to deal with as there’s no reason the same rationale cannot be applied to athletes. Regarding point #1, that may be a fine reason for him personally to support affirmative action, but if the College were to claim that’s the reason for affirmative action, it is not clear to me that it would not be blown out of the water from a legal stand point. Quoting Grutter v. Bollinger:

The Law School’s narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body is not prohibited by the Equal Protection Clause.

I do not think Williams could get away with implementing affirmative action in order to right past wrongs. That leaves us with the diversity argument, which I think others have dealt with nicely.

#9 Comment By Sam Crane On April 20, 2004 @ 9:51 am

No, I have not missed Oren’s argument. I just find it self-evidently absurd (rather like Zeno arguing that an arrow cannot really move through space: logically coherent, pratically absurd). How athletic “diversity” can be equated with social and cultural diversity is beyond me.

Someone please answer me this: what larger social good do athletic tips at Williams provide? It cannot simply be about the collectivist virtues of teamwork and the like – those could be gotten by Williams athletes without tips. It must be something beyond the Purple Valley. It must be something socially significant (or, perhaps in this time of libertarianism ascendant we are incapable of conceiving of public goods beyond our self-interests…). I do not believe beating Amherst is socially significant in the least. It has no redeeming value beyond the happiness of a select group of privileged individuals who have some connection to a small liberal arts college in extreme northwestern Massachusetts.

But, in the end, it hardly matters what I think. I declare defeat! I recognize that some portion of the Williams community will forever fail to see how the global sociology of race and class is dissimilar from the happiness inspired by beating Amherst.

#10 Comment By Arthur Guray On April 20, 2004 @ 10:10 am

I suspect the only reason you do not see “athletic” diversity as “equal” to social or cultural diversity is simply because athletic diversity isn’t the kind of diversity you want at Williams, Professor.

Diversity is simply difference. Students of a varied social or cultural background (which is not the same as students of varied skin color, incidentally) are different from one another, and thus are diverse. The same is true for athletes and non-athletes–they are different from one another, and therefore diverse.

Athletic tipping ensures a certain percentage of students (15%) are athletes, and increases diversity in the student body. If you think diversity is a good thing, then athletic tipping is worth it. Tipping’s value isn’t in providing personal happiness, it’s in ensuring a diverse student body.

You may argue that cultural diversity is more valuable than athletic diversity; you may argue that it is less valuable, but you cannot deny the fact that a student who is a star quarterback or champion tennis player is materially different from a student who is a debate or chess champion.

It seems to me that you’re failure to acknowledge this is due to a bias against the common traits of athletes. You continue to dodge the issue of diversity promotion in athletic tipping. Is it because you don’t want -that- kind of diversity in your school?

As for social significance, I don’t think, as Mike pointed out, that Williams’ admissions policy should be driven by promoting social goods on a grand scale. If it were, Williams could kindly lower its tuition.

#11 Comment By Eric Smith ’99 On April 20, 2004 @ 10:56 am

I guess it depends on whether or not you feel that college/university experience is more of a social development time, or purely an academic time (personally I would ague that undergraduate programs, such as Williams are more of a social adaptation and training program than they are purely academic, whereas post-grad university programs are more towards purely academic… which is perhaps why they don’t tend to have graduate level football programs).

I would guess that professor Crane would likely lean towards thinking of the collegiate time as purely academic – although it does seem that he isn’t against athletics all together, nor apparently entirely against tips since he is simply saying that he feels that reducing the number of tips would be better.

And again – I strongly suggest that those that feel athletics do not play a part in the social diversity of any human network should read Howard Gardner’s work/books on multiple intelligences – specifically that of the human kinesthetic type in its relation to human intelligence types.

#12 Comment By (d)avid On April 20, 2004 @ 1:41 pm

I doubt Professor Crane views college as a “purely academic” time in life. Part of the American college experience is living away from home for the first time and encountering people and viewpoints outside your social circle.

However, an important part (core?) of the liberal arts college experience IS academic. That academic experience depends upon high quality professors, commitment to teaching, and the type of students in the classroom seats and dormrooms. Student composition is a key factor to establishing a campus culture condusive to academic excellence. [As evidence, when I was interviewing for jobs this year, one of the first selling points was always “Our students are really smart and want to learn, so you’ll receive lots of interesting questions.” If the faculty didn’t say this, the line was “Well, the students aren’t very academically inclined, but they don’t cause troubles and you can get work done during your office hours.”]

As I said earlier, encountering a diversity of voices and viewpoints is an important part of the growth process. Race, income, and geography all play important roles in shaping our society. Chances are, people who are different along those axes will possess different opinions. How does the ability to shoot a hockey puck or sack a quarterback enrich the ideas/viewpoints you encounter on campus? Moreover, how does that uniquely “athletic” viewpoint differ from the athlete who was scored a 4 by admissions?

Multiple intelligences are a red herring in the discussion. A good friend of mine from high school is an awesome mechanic. He’s always been able to take apart and re-build anything non-programmed or biological. With regards to such abilities, he is WAAAY smarter than me. He also did not belong in a liberal arts college. His attention span is short, needs to be working with his hands, isn’t good at abstract reasoning, and hates school. Would anyone seriously propose adding a technical college component to Williams to attract mechanical geniuses?

Like it or not, academics is primary to the purpose of a liberal arts COLLEGE. Academics are the reason it is a college and not a minor league sports team, or a country club, or a camp, or a zoo.

Just for emphasis, I’ll reiterate my two questions:
1) How does the ability to shoot a hockey puck or sack a quarterback enrich the ideas/viewpoints you encounter on campus?
2) How does that uniquely “athletic” viewpoint differ from the athlete who was scored a 4 by admissions?