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2009 Report by the Athletics Committee

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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#1 Comment By rory On June 2, 2009 @ 7:52 am

is this athlete week and i missed the memo? and such weird timing for such a negative set of posts about academic (possible) underperformance after a thrilling come-from-behind director’s cup victory.

#2 Comment By sophmom On June 2, 2009 @ 8:35 am

Yeah. The timing reminds me of the week we had the Black Caucus visiting Williams. Remember the post that Kane put up then? I think the reaction was so immediate and so strong that he actually removed it. Dick was President then, so that helped.

All of it makes me think of Scrooge. He didn’t like Christmas, so he didn’t want anyone else to be happy about it.

I’m going to try and not get caught up in this one. David has heard all the arguments anyway and chooses to ignore them. This post, like all his posts on athletics, is nothing but a repeat of his negative anti-athlete agenda. Go through the archives and you will find them, one after the other, cookie-cutter copies. And you will find the comments that shoot it all down as well. And, you will see the same few supporters of the negative, and believe me, they will rear their heads on this one as well. I’d name them, as they are that predictable, but, well, that will make them even nastier.

Instead, I’d like to say, big congrats to all the athletes for a stellar year! Don’t let this crap get to you and please know that most everyone at Williams (and at EB) respect and appreciate who you are and what you do. Of course, if you are like most of the athletes I have met, you know all this already as Kane has a reputation. I guess I mostly worry about the new and prospective students.

#3 Comment By David On June 2, 2009 @ 8:40 am

This post, like all his posts on athletics, is nothing but a repeat of his negative anti-athlete agenda.

Did you even read this post? Williams College, in an official document authored by a committee of professors, claims that the MacDonald report demonstrated that Williams athletes underperform academically.

That is a lie. And I am the person who caught it.

I am the one that is defending the academic performance of Eph athletes.

No good deed . . .

#4 Comment By sophmom On June 2, 2009 @ 9:23 am

Rhetoric grads, isn’t there a term for this kind of framing of an argument? Where you get to list all the negative stuff, but feign a different agenda?

What comes after this post, Dave? I predict a Tips rant.

#5 Comment By JeffZ On June 2, 2009 @ 9:24 am

(1) David, spare us the self-pity act. It is obvious what Soph Mom and Rory found objectionable. I don’t consider your minor clarification of a previously dissected-to-death study to the effect of “athletes don’t underperform because they are worse students to begin with, hence they only perform as poorly as I expected in the first place!” to be some huge “defense” of athletes. If determined to do this series, why not during an otherwise slow time in July and not in the week following a major athletic triumph and before graduation, when there are plenty of other things to focus on.

(2) This study supports what I said and undermines your claim in one of your other recent threads on athletics. Namely, outside of very few teams, athletes have essentially the same ABSOLUTE performance levels as non-athletes. If TIPS were generally, as you claim, vastly difference in abilities than the typcial admit, this simply would not be the case — unless you assume that non-TIP athletes are dramatically BETTER academically than average admits, which I’d say is EXTREMELY unlikely.

(3) In the very few sports that still feature some different academic outcomes [and again, even those differences have apparently narrowed], think of all the amazing moments that have happened on and off campus in the last six years thanks to those sports: the annual Williams-Amherst football gatherings, College Gameday at Williams, the 150th Anniversary baseball game, men’s basketball’s national title and subsequent runner-up finish, including in those years a series of exciting, packed-house basketball wins (including several over Amherst). These were all great moments that brought large numbers of students and alumni together to a degree that rarely happens at Williams, and also attracted far more publicity than Williams generally receives. To some degree, would those events still happen if, say, Williams football was 2-6 and usually lost to Amherst, or if men’s basketball never made the NCAA’s? Somewhat, but the level of participation, attention, and interest would be severely diminished.

#6 Comment By JeffZ On June 2, 2009 @ 9:35 am

Again, to echo Rory, you consistently manage to time any negative discussion of diversity or athlete type issues right around the celebration of a major landmark regarding the same at Williams. This is extremely annoying and obviously not coincidental. This has been a very cool few weeks in and around Williams, with lots of positive things to focus on for this blog: the women’s tennis and crew national titles, the Director’s Cup projected victories, the MassMoca ten year anniversary, the feature on Wick, the end of Julia’s great series on first year life, the upcoming graduation … all cool things highlighted on Ephblog that have now been overwhelmed by a series of dense, poorly-timed posts generally rehashing your well-known positions on athletics (and of course inviting the usual array of sarcastic, bile-filled responses from HWC on point). Can’t you just let the students and parents breath and celebrate for a week or so and at the very least save this for the summer when it doesn’t seem like an indictment of a series of amazing accomplishments by Williams athletes, whether you mean it to or not?

#7 Comment By rory On June 2, 2009 @ 10:12 am

jeff and sophmom,

it’s probably not worth it. just let it slide.

David–can you hold any further athletic/admissions stuff till after graduation/during the slow period?

as for your claim re: Source of the River, I believe you’re wrong. Don’t forget that Source is 28 schools including places like Michigan and Berkeley that are HUGE and have a very small percentage of athletes and Berkeley is only 3% African American, Michigan is only 7% African American. The vast majority of the bottom 20% at these schools are not athletes and/or African American.

#8 Comment By JG On June 2, 2009 @ 10:35 am

Did you even read this post? Williams College, in an official document authored by a committee of professors, claims that the MacDonald report demonstrated that Williams athletes underperform academically.

That is a lie. And I am the person who caught it.

I know you want to feel special, but I really don’t see anything up there as a lie. The explanatory paragraph clarifies that compared to other students, athletes on average (based primarily on a handful of sports) perform less-well than other Williams students (“underperform” to some). The MacDonald report then explains that controlling for high school grades and test scores they do not.

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.

Now, based on your own quoting above, that paragraph was IN THE REPORT. Your little bitchy “is it malice or incompetence” seems misplaced since, well, they explained what they meant. I’m not sure what your beef is here.

BTW – perhaps they intended the data for internal use and it hasn’t been scrubbed of identifying information….that may not be the case, but I love how you just naturally assume someone is hiding something. Additionally, given how small some teams are (didn’t we discuss women’s tennis being 11?) perhaps the data is too identifiable given the relatively small sample size, at least wrt varsity athletes (such as something indicating the only Asian American male sophomore on XYZ team in a given year?).

#9 Comment By MT On June 2, 2009 @ 11:10 am

I’ll be new to the Williams community next year as an incoming freshman. One of the main reasons I chose to go to Williams was because of its ability to allow me to pursue my sport at the varsity level and continue in a demanding athletic environment. In my excitement to com, I found this website and I’m not sure that I’m happy about that now.

Most of the posts I have read over the past few days have had an “athletes are bad” feel to them, instead of encouraging and applauding their success at balancing a challenging school with a time consuming passion.

I can only hope that this is only the voice of a small number rather than the genera sentiment of all non-athletes in the Williams community.

#10 Comment By Ronit On June 2, 2009 @ 11:19 am

#11 Comment By JeffZ On June 2, 2009 @ 11:22 am

MT, don’t sweat it. At least on this blog, and I’d imagine at Williams as well, it is a distinct minority position — just that some of the dissenters are particularly loud / prolific. I encourage you to scroll through the much larger body of positive, celebratory posts tagged athletics to get a fuller picture:

http://www.ephblog.com/category/athletics/

#12 Comment By sophmom On June 2, 2009 @ 11:39 am

MT:

You are the reason why I even bother to comment on these threads, because they are negative, and incorrect and not at all the sentiments of the Williams community, and yet a new student might not know that.

Anyone with any sense at all, whether they are an athlete or not, recognizes the enormous dedication and talent it takes to, as you say, juggle the academic load at Williams along with the demands of a Varsity sport. The athletes at Williams are a special group, no doubt about it.

As I said above, if you take a stroll through the archives here, you will see the repetition, along with the same handful of negative commenters who are attracted to the threads. They are few and far between, but just persistent enough, and nasty enough, to give people like you the wrong impression. And it is not the tone of the Williams community, as you will find once you are there. You may run into a bit of it, but I don’t think it amounts to more than a casual annoyance…akin to the buzz of a gnat, easily shaken off.

I wish you all the best. And once at Williams, please do me a favor and stop by EB the next time the anti-athlete rants are posted. Remember that there will be someone like you reading the same drivel next year, and post a positive comment with them in mind.

Thanks for stopping by and congrats on your acceptance. It is no small accomplishment.

#13 Comment By David On June 2, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

JG: The word “underperform” has a specific meaning in this literature, as the MacDonald report makes clear.

Jeff: “Obviously not coincidental” does not mean what you think it means. I did not time this post for any purpose. Will Slack ’11 told me about the report yesterday, so I write something up and tell you today. If I had found the report a month ago or two months from now, I would have reported it then.

Rory writes: “David–can you hold any further athletic/admissions stuff till after graduation/during the slow period?” If you will promise to post something each day on some other topic, I can certainly clear the page for you. If you are too busy to post yourself, then the front page will get new material each day.

————-

I sometimes suspect that many of my fellow EphBloggians never discuss these issues with an actual, you know, Williams faculty member.

Consider:

not at all the sentiments of the Williams community

distinct minority position

and other similar comments.

We have a factual dispute about what members of the Williams community think about admissions and athletics. Now, the Williams community is broad, but, for now, let’s just consider the faculty, mainly because they are the ones that ultimately drive policy in this regard.

How do my views compare to the Williams faculty?

I am safely on the pro-athletes/athletics side of the median member of the faculty. If you don’t realize that, you haven’t talked to many (any?) Williams faculty about the topic. (I would especially recommend that SophMom e-mail Sam Crane.)

The reason that the policy has changed so much and, if you believe this latest report, will continue to change is because the Williams faculty believes that the College put much too much emphasis on athletic admissions a decade ago and, despite Morty’s improvements, still puts too much emphasis. The faculty, as a group, wants fewer tips, fewer protects and higher standards for both groups. They would also like to see athletics in general (games, practices, tournaments and so on) interfere less with academics.

In the Williams faculty lounge, I am a moderate on this issue.

#14 Comment By David On June 2, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

SophMom writes:

Of course, if you are like most of the athletes I have met, you know all this already as Kane has a reputation. I guess I mostly worry about the new and prospective students.

Sorry that it took me a few hours to respond to this but, you see, I was busy having a late breakfast with a former Williams student, someone looking to make a career transition, someone interested in my perspective on the business world. I last met this student two years ago, but we have kept in touch intermittently since then. I have tried to me as helpful as I can be, to direct him to various members of the Williams community. I am about to send off several e-mails on behalf of this Eph, one to a former Williams president, one to a former chair of the Trustees, one to a classmate of mine at Williams. (That means you, Brooks!). Perhaps my introductions will help out this Eph. Perhaps they won’t. All we can do in this imperfect world is try to help.

Needless to say, I paid for both meals that we have shared together, despite his protests.

And, oh yeah, you mentioned my “reputation.” OCC told this student to contact me because they know that I am always willing to help out a fellow Eph.

You know the punch-line, right, dear reader? SophMom thinks that I am all about a “negative anti-athlete agenda.”

The Eph I just bought breakfast for? A football player.

I’ll be sure to pass on your regards to him, SophMom.

#15 Comment By rory On June 2, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

*waits for Sam’s “kaneblog” comment that i can sense coming soon*

#16 Comment By Sam On June 2, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

Kaneblog: where it’s so much about him, he feels impelled to tell us who he had breakfast with…
(and by the way, I just had to laugh out loud at this one: “In the Williams faculty lounge, I am a moderate on this issue.” He is, of course, not in the faculty lounge and, barring some horrible unforeseen turn of events, never will be…)

#17 Comment By hwc On June 2, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

For the record, alumni surveys also show two items that are perceived as being given too much emphasis: athletics and alumni fundraising. That probably needs to be factored into the diversity of Williams community opinion.

#18 Comment By JeffZ On June 2, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

re: 14, oh, snap! He didn’t just pull the “but I have gay friends” defense, did he? Oh yes he did …

I actually don’t believe David has any hostility towards athletes or athletics. But I do believe that for someone not very familiar with this blog (as was demonstrated today) that would certainly APPEAR to be the case, and I DO believe that DK doesn’t pay nearly enough attention to the tone he sets (including issues like timing, volume, and frequency to topic posts) and how this blog, and even potentially Williams alumni more generally, is perceived thanks to that tone.

#19 Comment By sophmom On June 2, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

(I would especially recommend that SophMom e-mail Sam Crane.)

Dave, this is so juvenile. I know Sam, we have met and had coffee. We didn’t discuss athletics, but I am sure we could with no problem. In fact, Sam, I will be in Williamstown in the fall, shall we plan on it?

As for the football player whom you are helping? I am sure he deserves it, and good for you. And LOL, if I was Dave Kane sitting across from a football player, I’d insist on buying the meal too. (Please do tell him Sophmom says hello.)

#20 Comment By Sam On June 2, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

As we say in Schapiro Hall: Sophmom is da bomb!

#21 Comment By reader On June 2, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

MT –

In my experience the “best”, most well rounded, most interesting, most successful people are those that have seemingly disparate interests – athlete/scientist, musician/historian, etc., etc. And they are not necessarily the ones who work their butts off to get straight As because they find other things interesting and worth spending their time on. There is a real advantage to being an athlete or a musician or an artist whose major is not phys ed, music or art at an academically rigorous school like Williams. These students have a variety of things to focus on; to be trite – they really do learn how to work and play well with others, to develop priorities, learn how to manage time etc, etc. There are many student who can put the study time in and get great grades at places like Williams; labeling anyone as an underachiever based solely on academic performance is doing them a huge injustice.

I would much rather hire/work with a person like this than one who is an academic achiever with “appropriate” ECs.

I hope that the school you choose to attend offers you lots of opportunities and that you take advantage of them, not to become a stellar academic, but to let you grow as a person.

Good luck

#22 Comment By reader On June 2, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

correction – chose not choose

#23 Comment By JG On June 2, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

Re: #13, David if you’d look at the posting history, you’d see that lots of other people do post. In fact, sometimes in your excitement to put the 4th “what about tips” post, you push other worthy things down the page into oblivion or sandwich other topics btw things on the same issue.

Clearly you like posting a lot, but you don’t have to do it b/c nobody else is active on the site. Below is a list of all the posts NOT by you over the last week or so….at least one per day, often more. Perhaps you could wait and see if others post and combine your repeated posts on the same topic into one – or do updates rather than whole new posts? I know you schedule in advance a lot, but many (most?) of the rest of us just kind of follow the inspiration and post when we get the urge.

5/27 – Olmsted Prizes (which got bumped actually by you posting AGAIN)
5/28 – Track Book
5/29 – I miss college, Wick Sloane speech, etech update
5/30 – Crew finals (and active comments on others)
5/31 – Women Ephs success
6/1 – Thanks tech, 4-year college myth/Wick Sloane, freshman year series, Mass MoCA Part 2, Gondek Podcasts

So, you don’t have to carry the whole burden anymore. Relax and let others chime in, because now there are others.

#24 Comment By PTC On June 2, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

Geek check!