Fri 29 Feb 2008
This Chronicle of Education article from 6 years ago allows us to review the history of “tips” — significant admissions preferences for athletic excellence — and speculate on the future. Previous discussion here.
To Morton O. Schapiro, the president of Williams College, it’s simple: “If you’re a really smart kid, and you’re serious about athletics, you’d be nuts not to think about Williams.”
As he speaks on a winter afternoon, 10 inches of snow blanket his postcard-cute campus tucked into the northwestern corner of Massachusetts. Students are trooping off to hockey, basketball, swimming, track, and wrestling practices.
Williams is one of the best liberal-arts colleges in the country, and is famous for its world-class art museums and summer theater programs. But athletics is at least as important to the ethos of this place.
The Ephs — as in Ephraim, the first name of Williams’s eponymous founder — dominate Division III of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. More than a third of Williams students compete on at least one of the 31 varsity teams, and many more play on the college’s numerous junior-varsity and club teams.
On a relatively isolated campus without fraternities or sororities, sports teams are central to the social life of the college. They also have a crucial role in Williams’s admissions process, in which barely 20 percent of those who apply are accepted. Each team gets “tips,” or places in the incoming class, for athletes who would not be admitted on the basis of their academic credentials alone.
So far, so good. The 66 tips would not be at Williams if it were not for their athletic skills. This is not true for the students in almost all other activities. The College does not give meaningful preferences to singers or musicians or WOOLF-leaders because it knows that there will be plenty of Ephs with these talents among the academic rank 1’s and 2’s whom it admits on the basis of academics alone.
Students, coaches, faculty members, and others at Williams have been debating the role of sports on campus for much of the past year, however. And now Williams is one of at least four colleges in the New England Small College Athletic Conference that has decided to cut back on the number of “athletic admits” it allows each year, starting this fall.
The conversation has been bitter at times. Nobody has accused the college’s admissions office of letting in a bunch of dumb jocks, but many coaches say their athletes are being blamed unfairly for getting into Williams when other students with better academic credentials did not.
And looming over the discussion is The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values (Princeton University Press, 2001), which has focused renewed attention on whether elite colleges make the same compromises larger universities do when it comes to sports.
Again, a fair description except that many (most?) professors did complain that “the college’s admissions office of letting in a bunch of dumb jocks.” Now, for some professors, anyone from a rich white family with SATs below 1200 is “dumb.” The point is that there was a real dispute about what the policy should be and that those in favor of change, like Morty, wanted to replace about 50 Ephs each year with smarter Ephs. They wanted to change the College. And they succeeded. Williams is a different place than it used to be. Is it better? Should the College move even further in this direction? My opinion is that the changes Morty et al have made were good ones and, if anything, further small steps in the same direction should be taken.
The small liberal-arts colleges in the Northeast have made a point of claiming the moral high ground in college sports for a long time now. Williams is a charter member of the New England conference, which was founded in 1971 under the philosophy that “intercollegiate athletic programs should operate in harmony with the educational mission of each institution.”
Athletes are supposed to be representative of the student body as a whole, coaches aren’t allowed to recruit off their campuses, and for most of the league’s history, NESCAC teams have not been allowed to participate in NCAA championship tournaments.
Spare a thought for the women of the 1996 lacrosse team (including Erin Burnett ’98?), denied a shot at immortality in the NCAA tournament because President Hank Payne tried to uphold NESCAC rules. Those days are long gone.
Despite restrictions like those, however, athletics has long been ingrained in Williams’s campus culture. S. Lane Faison Jr., Whitney Stoddard, and the other art historians who made Williamstown a launch pad for many of the top curators in the profession were athletes themselves. Mr. Stoddard, for example, had been a hockey goalie during his own college days. Their students, like Kirk Varnedoe, remember them and other faculty members as avid sports fans.
“It’s a work-hard, play-hard kind of place,” recalls Mr. Varnedoe, a member of the class of 1967 who is a former senior curator of the Museum of Modern Art and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J. “It wasn’t a place where categories were hard and firm — you didn’t have to be an athlete or a student, and it was not considered unusual or weird to have a Phi Bet physics major playing football.”
Both Faison and Varnedoe have passed on to the great purple mountains in the sky. Are faculty members today as ardent as faculty of Faison’s generation? Do faculty come to watch your sports events? Tell us.
And from a numerical standpoint, sports were actually a much bigger deal then, when Williams was an all-male college, than they are now, Mr. Varnedoe says. “I think 60 or 70 percent of the students then played varsity sports at one time or another while they were in school.”
With the formation of the NESCAC — whose other members are Am-herst, Bates, Bowdoin, Colby, Connecticut, Hamilton, Middlebury, and Trinity Colleges, and Tufts and Wesleyan Universities — and the segmentation of the NCAA into three divisions in 1978, most Williams teams were confined to playing conference rivals and other small private colleges in New England.
In 1994, the rest of the NCAA discovered just how good the Ephs were. That year, the NESCAC’s presidents decided to experiment with allowing teams in sports other than football to compete in NCAA and Eastern College Athletic Conference postseason events.
Two years later, a national athletics directors’ association began awarding the Sears Directors’ Cup as a sort of all-sports trophy in Division III. Williams won the inaugural trophy. And the next one, in 1997. And in the 1999, 2000, and 2001 academic years. In 2001, 17 of Williams’s 31 varsity teams finished in the top 20 in the country, with the experiment in postseason play having been extended three times. Only four teams had losing records on the year.
And has that changed much? Admissions are different now then they were 10 years ago. Has the performance of Eph teams suffered? Note that (former) baseball Coach Dave Barnard cried wolf on this topic three years ago, worrying that mens teams in sports like baseball and basketball could not compete in NESCAC under the new regime. Yet, both baseball and basketball were NESCAC champions in 2007.
A strange part of these discussions has always been the assumption among current Ephs that Williams has always been an athletic powerhouse. Untrue! Read the Report on Varsity Athletics. Williams has always been an active place, a college where most people go off and do something sporty in the afternoon, but sports teams were very average, at least through the mid-80s. The winning percentage for all teams was 54% for 81-86.
Although the football team does not compete in postseason championships, its head coach, Dick Farley, has run up a 101-16-3 record over the past 15 seasons, including an eight-game undefeated streak last fall.
“We compare ourselves to being the Stanford of Division III,” says Mr. Farley, who was an assistant coach for 15 years before taking over the football program, and also coaches outdoor track. “We’ve got kind of a watered-down version here.”
Some watered-down version: The Ephs had 93 players in 2000-1, nearly 10 percent of the male student body. Mr. Farley’s teams have not had a losing record since that 1987 season, and have cultivated an uncanny skill in breaking the hearts of the Amherst team.
The two squads play the last game of their seasons against each other every year, in front of relatively huge crowds (12,000 last fall) and on a cable network that beams the game by satellite to scores of Amherst-Williams alumni events around the country. The Ephs have beaten the Lord Jeffs in 13 of the past 15 games.
“God only knows how we’ve won some of those games,” admits Mr. Farley. “It’s gotten to the point where I feel bad for them.”
You have to love Farley because he tells it straight. I wish that I could say the same for all other senior folks at Williams. Note that the football team only has 75 members now. That hardly seems like a good idea. If someone wants to play football, then Williams ought to find a way to let him play. Why not have a freshmen team that would play local high schools? Why not more (any?) games for the JV? There is nothing wrong with rules limiting the number of players allowed to suit up for varsity games. (If anything, it always seems sort of ludicrous to see so many extra guys standing around.) But, just as Williams tries to find places for women who want to play JV lacrosse, even if they aren’t very good at it, we ought to find places for all our would-be football players.
Selective academic institutions with strong sports programs admit some athletes whose academic credentials would not necessarily get them in otherwise. Usually, admissions directors say they do this on the theory that athletic accomplishments indicate leadership ability, a sense of discipline, and other praiseworthy qualities. It just happens to be a nice coincidence when those athletes win games and championships.
At Williams in the early 1980s, Mr. Farley remembers, admissions officers said they didn’t want to be the ones making decisions about how to measure athletic accomplishments in the admissions process. Coaches were frustrated at spending months recruiting a prospect, only to have him or her come up short in April. Mr. Farley says.
Williams’s athletics director at the time, Bob Peck, came up with a new way of doing things: Each coach got a certain number of athletes they could designate as being worth admitting, even if they don’t quite measure up academically.
“Until they put in the tip system, it was tough sledding in football and ice hockey,” says Mr. Farley. “The alums at the time were kind of upset about it, and we in the athletics department were told, ‘We’re going to have a competitive situation here, and why should the admissions guy be in the position of having to evaluate goaltenders?'”
There is a great senior thesis to be written about the origins of the tips system. Was this really due to Bob Peck? Was Williams really the first school to do this in an organized fashion? Good stuff. The tip system clearly makes the system more efficient. We anti-tips folks are not against allowing coaches a big say, we are against having standards that are too low. If a kid has 1400 SATs and is in the top 5% of his high school class, then I am happy to let Farley have him.
Yet the whole notion that alumni were “kind of upset” is just gibberish. Maybe the dozen or so former football players that Farley was in touch with were upset, but the vast majority of alumni do not care. The alums of the 50’s loved the Williams of the 80’s just as much as the alums of the 80’s love the Williams of today, even though our sports teams are much better now than they were then.
This way, coaches know which players they need, and which to give some help to in the admissions process. If a linebacker shows up 15th on his list of prospects and has scored only 1200 on his SAT, Mr. Farley says he wishes him luck in getting into another college. “We would get information back from the kid about academics and look at the numbers, and say, Let’s skip this one, or, Let’s really go after him.”
The football team gets 14 tips, while most other squads get two or three. Of course, this means that the majority of Williams athletes don’t get any special help in the admissions process: In the 2001 academic year, there were 669 athletes on Ephs teams, but only 72 players were tipped.
“If we are going to give any admissions advantage because of athletics, it’s going to have to be for someone who would really have an impact,” says Richard L. Nesbitt, Williams’s admissions director. “Men’s lacrosse gets two tips a year. That’s eight kids [in college at one time], where you need 30.”
Williams coaches say this gives them a very good idea of a particular athlete’s chances in the admissions process, and they can make better decisions about which ones to recruit. Every college has some kind of system for letting in athletes, they point out; Williams’s is just a little more transparent.
30? I am no lacrosse expert, but since when do you “need 30″ players for your lacrosse team? There are only 10 starters and another 5-10 substitutes who see regular playing time. This is the sort of inaccurate talk that makes faculty not trust the admissions office to give them the straight scoop.
And just how “transparent” is Williams really? Morty showed up, decided he wanted to change the admissions policy with respect to athletics and made sure that all sorts of data was made available to various people. It was transparency for a purpose. But is Williams “transparent” as a matter of principal? Not really. Try to find the same data for URMs or international students that Morty made available for tips. You can’t find it because those admissions policies are ones that Morty likes.
The Game of Life, by James L. Shulman and William G. Bowen of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, touched off a debate at Williams and other prestigious colleges because, it said, smaller-college athletes tend to cluster in certain majors, to do worse in their classes, and to end up in a narrower range of professions than nonathletes. The authors performed a similar study last summer specifically for the NESCAC, which yielded similar results.
The implication is that having too many athletes on a campus can create a less-academic atmosphere, with too many individuals with a particularly goal-oriented outlook. Students at Williams, athletes and nonathletes alike, say they don’t believe their classes are being dumbed down, but the large proportion of athletes definitely has an effect on campus life.
“A lot of people compare it to a fraternity and sorority system,” says Mark Robertson, a senior who edits the student newspaper, The Williams Record.
Yeah, maybe. But the football players hung out together a lot in the 80s and the 50s as well. Perhaps former football captain Frank Uible ’57 could tell us some stories. The real problem with this sort of talk is that no one describes what Williams should look like. Should football players be no more likely to be friends with other football players than they are with non-football players? Should they be just as likely to live with an athlete than a non-athlete?
Someone smart like Robertson could probably describe a reasonable vision for Williams, a vision in which sports matter but not too much. Once we have that, we could start to collect data to see where we are and where we are going.
But none of that (really) happened 6 years ago, nor has it happened since. And that’s because no one in power really cares enough to do anything about that. Morty wanted two things: less stupid athletes and less student self-segregation (all the helmet-head in Tyler, all the blacks in Brooks). He accomplished both.
“For a lot of people, that’s their prime affiliation, and it seems like it’s stronger than other kinds of student groups. Theater might be an exception.
“It certainly controls the social schedule. Thursday night always has a lot of stuff going on, but Friday night, with games the next day, there’s not so much to do.”
Mr. Robertson and others say they know plenty of people who have a wonderful time at Williams without ever going near a gym, and they all count both athletes and nonathletes among their friends.
But many teams become cultures unto themselves: “If you get a critical number of football players in a house, nobody else is going to want to live there,” says Joe Masters, co-president of the College Council.
I think that I would rather live with a bunch of football players than with Joe Masters.
In the classroom, Williams’s hockey captain says some of his teammates are defensive about playing a “helmet sport” — male hockey, football, and lacrosse players are often singled out in this debate.
“Some guys don’t want to wear hockey jackets in class,” says Andrew Beasley, a senior. “But I’ve always felt like I can walk in, work hard, and I’ve never had an issue. I’ve never shied away from that, but some guys are looking for an excuse — it’s like, ‘he hates me because I’m a hockey player.'”
Some use it as an excuse but some of right: more than one faculty member believes — correctly! — that elite athletes, especially on high profile mens teams, are less smart than non-athletes. Does that color their grading? Tough to know. The simple solution is for all faculty to grade students in the blind, as Joe Cruz does. (If you don’t do this, you are a bad person.)
Julie Greenwood, the women’s tennis and squash coach, says the debate has turned poisonous by causing athletes to question their own academic abilities, compared with their peers.
“My feeling is that we’re going about this as if we’re doing something wrong,” says Ms. Greenwood, a 1996 graduate of Williams.
“By exposing tips, it’s undermining the daily reality of what you see as a wonderful experience for talented and passionate kids, to feel like the job you’re doing isn’t understood. … I can’t help thinking that when people write opinion [pieces] about dumb jocks, it can’t help but inform their opinions of themselves.”
Williams officials insist that the tip system doesn’t allow them to recruit athletes who would really compromise the college’s standards, though for privacy reasons they would not disclose the standardized-test scores or the college grade-point averages of athletes and nonathletes, or of athletes admitted through the tip system and other students.
Wonder why Morty picked Julie Greenwood to be on the Althletics Committee instead of say Dick Farley or Dave Barnard? Now you know. A wise president picks the members of his committee on the basis of what he wants the committee to conclude.
According to U.S. News & World Report, the middle 50 percent of Williams’s students had SAT scores that ranged from 1300 to 1510 last year, with 84 percent of freshmen placing in the top 10 percent of their high-school classes.
“We’re doing it with exactly who we should be,” says Harry C. Sheehy, Williams’s athletics director and formerly the men’s basketball coach. “What does ‘representative of the student body’ mean? If the SAT is the gold standard, that’s one thing, but if it’s the total package, that’s another.”
Williams officials make no apologies for the way they attract and retain athletes. However, they’ve been part of a NESCAC-wide effort this year to reexamine the emphasis that member colleges place on athletics, partly as a result of the Bowen and Shulman study.
“Total package” is just coach talk for, “Yeah, the kid has bad scores, poor grades and did not take very challenging courses in high school, but he sure can shoot from outside the arc!”
Williams, Amherst, and Wesleyan all agreed to cut their tips to 66 per year. For Williams, this decreased the number of recruits by six, from 72. Bowdoin also has announced plans to reduce athlete admissions, without being so specific.
That’s an appropriate move, according to Mr. Schapiro. It reduces the importance given to sports slightly, but doesn’t change anything about how Williams views athletics in the admissions process. And Mr. Nesbitt says that taking 24 tipped athletes out of the college over four years will make a noticeable difference in the student body.
Note it is not mainly the decrease in tips that matters. The issue is how smart tips have to be and how other categories (URMs and legacies) are handled within the system. See Barnard for details.
The simplest way to think about these changes is to estimate how many students in the class of 2011 would not be here if the policies from the late 1990’s were still in place. I think that the answer is at least 50.
The debate over athletics admissions has spread beyond the small colleges of New England. Athletics directors in the Ivy League are studying their own admissions practices, and may well recommend reducing squad sizes in several sports.
“We’ve been asked by the presidents to explore the possibility of a reduction in recruiting numbers,” said Robert L. Scalise, Harvard University’s athletics director. “The AD’s are doing just that, and will have a series of meetings this spring to explore the feasibility and unintended consequences of any reduction, and we’ll present our recommendations to the presidents later in the spring.”
At Williams, meanwhile, the Ephs are winning the race for the 2002 Sears Directors’ Cup in Division III already. Many more athletes and nonathletes alike will visit the secluded campus this year and fall in love with it. And Mr. Schapiro, the president, will continue taking his young daughters to basketball games and tennis lessons, and most likely will remain just as committed to sports here. As long as the sports are kept in perspective.
“I don’t think there’s any question about our priorities,” he says. “We don’t have alumni confusing excellence on the playing field with excellence in the classroom.”
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