Kudos to Professor Heather Williams, chair of the Athletics Committee for her decision to make public their latest report. (Permanent archive here as well.) The conclusions were described in an earlier Record article.

The Athletics Committee conducted a report on academic performance of varsity athletes versus non-athletes to be completed and submitted to the faculty in May. The first study conducted since Michael MacDonald, former chair of the committee, released a report in 2001, it found that the overall gap in academic performance has been halved, and that gap has been eliminated for females when averaged across all sports. Despite this progress, a considerable discrepancy does remain for high-profile male athletes in sports such as football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey.

Of course, what EphBlog readers really want is my line-by-line analysis. Andiamo!

In the Spring of 2002, an ad-hoc committee chaired by Michael MacDonald reported on its review of the role that varsity athletics played at Williams College.

We have been referring to that document as the Report on Varsity Athletics, but Williams et al use the term “MacDonald report.” I will do the same. It is beyond pathetic that Director of Public Affairs Jim Kolesar refused my request to make that report public. It is only thanks to the kindness of Professor MacDonald that any of us were allowed to read it.

The history of the MacDonald report is fairly obvious, if always unstated. Morty arrived at Williams and was upset by the magnitude of the admissions preferences given to athletes and the (resulting?) disengagement of many athletes from the intellectual life of the College. And, being a smart president, he knew that the way to change things was to appoint a committee of like-minded souls who would recommend the changes that he wanted.

The 2009 Report continues:

Shortly thereafter, Bowen and Levin published “Reclaiming the Game”, a book that reviewed varsity athletics in three conferences (Ivy League, NESCAC, and UAA) whose institutions place a high value on academics. Both the book and the MacDonald report concluded that varsity athletics (within NESCAC and at Williams) posed problems for some aspects of the academic mission of colleges such as Williams.

Indeed they did. If you haven’t read the MacDonald report yet, you ought to. It is superb and compelling. But note that the reference to “Reclaiming the Game” is somewhat curious. The book that had a major influence on the MacDonald report was “The Game of Life” by Shulman and Bowen. Both books are co-authored by Williams Bowen and make almost identical points: elite colleges put more emphasis on athletics than they used to; this is a bad thing.

The 2009 Report:

Specifically, they found that a) varsity athletes, and particularly male high-profile varsity athletes, under-performed academically;

This is highly misleading! Did the Committee members not read my criticism of the MacDonald report? I demonstrated, fairly conclusively, that there was no evidence for under-performance by Williams athletes, once we account for their high school academic credentials, despite the fact that the Committee went out of its way to look for such underperformance and even spun its results to make athletes look bad. The MacDonald report itself states that:

The grades of our athletes are lower than the grades of our non-athletes, which should not surprise us. They are often weaker students when they enter Williams, and they commit much time and effort to their sports. It is predictable that they would be weaker students in Williams, suggesting a second question: do athletes underperform academically, controlling for their academic ratings at the time they were admitted? The data is mixed, but suggests on balance that our athletes achieve about the same grades as non-athletes with similar academic ratings.

Day is night. Ignorance is strength. And varsity athletes underperform academically.

Isn’t this pathetic? Let me highlight the conflict again.

MacDonald report: “[O]ur athletes achieve about the same grades as non-athletes with similar academic ratings.”

2009 Report: “[T]hey [the MacDonald Report] found that a) varsity athletes, and particularly male high-profile varsity athletes, under-performed academically.”

Malice or incompetence? You make the call!

Now, to be fair to Professor Williams and the rest of the committee, the “they” in their sentence refers to both the MacDonald report and to Reclaiming the Game, and it is true that Bowen and Levin conclude that “recruited athletes “underperform:” they do even less well academically than predicted by their test scores and high school grades.”

But this has always been a highly suspect claim (to me). First, it was clear from the start that Bowen, at least, wanted to find exactly this result. He thinks (has always thought?) that elite colleges should be more like Cal Tech. Athletic excellence should not matter to admissions. Bowen, who does not have a reputation as the world’s greatest statistician and almost certainly did not do any of the empirical work himself found exactly what he wanted to find. It could be true, of course, but I would like to see some independent verification.

Second, the claim of underperformance of athletes was similar to the underperformance claims made about African American students in Bowen’s “The Shape of the River.” But how could both sorts of underperformance be true at the same time? The vast majority of students in the bottom 20% of the SAT distribution are either athletes or African Americans. (The Shape of the River ignores Hispanics.) It could be true that one group does less well than the other, but how could both groups underperform given that they make up the vast majority of the population at those SAT levels? I think that there was some very sloppy regressions run to generate these results.

The 2009 Report continues:

b) varsity athletes tended to cluster in certain majors and c) some faculty members felt that lack of intellectual engagement of varsity athletes posed problems for their classes. The purpose of this report is to re-examine some of these findings, seven years later.

Fair enough. The MacDonald report did, indeed, note the clustering (mostly within Division II) and report accurately about the concerns of these faculty. But there is no evidence that this clustering was unusual given their academic credentials. Are their a lot of football playing math majors? Probably not. But this has nothing to do with football per se. The main cause is that there are not a lot of math majors with academic ratings below 3.

Side note: This Report mentions that “The statistical analyses used in preparing this report are summarized in an appendix that is not part of the report, but will be placed on file in the Dean of Faculty’s office.” Why not make it public too? Would an alum (like me) be prevented from viewing the report if he showed up in Hopkins Hall, say during reunions? Academic institutions should be as transparent as possible. There is no plausible reason for keeping the appendix a secret.

In any event, there is much of value in the Report. Alas, it will take me a few days to wade through it all. Stand by for more commentary.

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