Student body presidents, newspaper editors and athletes from 10 of the 11 New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) schools all convened at Amherst College last Sunday in the first meeting of its kind.
The primary issue debated at the meeting was the April 22 decision to restructure the NESCAC conference, but participants also discussed issues unrelated to athletics, such as course evaluation systems at the various member schools.
The members present agreed to establish the forum as a permanent body and decided to call it the NESCAC Student Forum. The goal of the forum will be to meet regularly in order to discuss issues pertinent to every campus.
Delegations from Amherst, Bates, Colby, Connecticut College, Hamilton, Middlebury, Trinity, Tufts, Wesleyan and Williams began by discussing the recent restructuring of NESCAC. Bowdoin College was not represented. The presidents of the NESCAC colleges decided earlier this year to institute a policy that limits post-season play to only one team from NESCAC.
Also included in the restructuring were elements that would make NESCAC a playing conference where each team plays all of the other NESCAC teams each season. The plan also calls for the establishment of a watchdog group that would serve as a central NESCAC office to maintain standings and monitor any admissions or other complaints voiced against members of the conference.
Representatives at the meeting agreed with the playing conference and watchdog elements of the decision, but took strong issue with other aspects, including the proposal to limit post-season play to only one team in each sport.
The forum was the brainchild of Steve Vladeck ’01 who is a sports editor at the Amherst Student. Vladeck, who has been an outspoken critic of the NESCAC changes, said he was pleased with the discussion at the forum.
“I am ecstatic, it was very important that we had this first meeting and I think that it went very well,” he said after the meeting.
Vladeck, along with Amherst Student Government Association President Tom Gray, Williams College Council Co-Presidents Will Slocum ’99 and Kate Ervin ’99 and Williams’ NCAA Advocacy Group head Bert Leatherman ’00 took primary responsibility in organizing the forum.
Slocum said he thought the forum was a success.
“I was pleased to see that pretty much everyone showed up,” he said. “The enthusiaism led to many good ideas and a concensus on athletic policy.”
Vladeck opened the forum discussion by outlining some of the history of NESCAC. He noted that the member colleges formed NESCAC in 1971 with the central issue being the autonomy of the member schools. The most notable characteristic of the conference was a ban on post-season play as it was intended to be a combination academic/athletic conference.
In 1993 the NESCAC member schools lifted the self-imposed ban, thus allowing each of the member schools to decide whether or not to allow teams to participate in the post-season for two consecutive three-year trial periods.
Once the ban was lifted, all 11 NESCAC schools opted for post-season play and in the last six years NESCAC schools have been extremely competitive in post-season competitions. This fall, 17 NESCAC teams have been or are in the process of competing in post-season tournaments.
After the introductions by Vladeck, Leatherman spoke on the current status of the NESCAC debates. Leatherman told the forum about his work as a member of the Williams College NCAA Advocacy Group, where he has worked to address concerns that have been raised by athletes and non-athletes over the new policy at Williams College.
After Leatherman’s comments, the forum moved into an open discussion period during which all representatives were free to speak. Delegates first considered the effect the NESCAC changes will have on admissions, considering specifically the alterations in the recruiting process.
Participants in the forum agreed that one of the reasons that the presidents sought to limit post-season play was to ease pressure on admissions officials who sometimes feel that they have to lower standards when admitting athletes.
A representative from Connecticut College observed that recent studies comparing the high school grade point averages of accepted athletes with their non-athlete counterparts are statistically irrelevant. He pointed out that studies and surveys across the NESCAC schools have shown that many athletes achieve higher grade point averages than non-athletes, shattering the conception that admissions officers are lowering their standards and that athletes don’t contribute as much to the academic environment at a school.
Vladeck agreed with this observation.
“Every NESCAC school was ranked in the top 25 of the U.S. News and World Report rankings and this is after six years of unlimited post-season play,” he said. “To say that this is having a negative impact on academics just has no basis.”
The representatives present were united in support of the principle that academics should come first, but agreed that a limitation on post-season play truly deprives student athletes of potentially valuable and exciting experiences.
After criticizing this essential component of the new policy, participants at the forum moved toward a discussion of its positive aspects. Several participants noted that since the new NESCAC policy is still in a transition period, there is still time for the college presidents to amend aspects of their decision before a permanent system is arranged.
In an effort to coordinate the NESCAC discussion process, representatives at the new forum decided to work along with the various NESCAC athletic directors to establish an official statement on the NESCAC issue. Student leaders hope that this effort will complement the attempts of individual schools to rally their respective campuses around the issue.
Ervin said the forum went particularly well relative to similar meetings she has attended. “It’s hard to make a conference like this work, but as far as the NCAA, we did exactly what we were trying to do,” she said. “This statement, along with its unified student approval, will be a powerful tool not only with the presidents, but also with the trustees and the alumni.”
Although most delegates didn’t seem disappointed that the forum did not spark any intense debate, representatives from Wesleyan expressed some dissatisfaction.
“I don’t believe that the way that this meeting was conducted was conducive to dissent and opening up the floor to debate about certain issues,” said Bill Wilson, the student body president at Wesleyan. “I didn’t feel like I had a voice or a forum. I was very upset with the way that the meeting was conducted and I don’t think that it was an accurate representation of all of the voices here.”
Leatherman said Wilson’s criticisms are valid, but he added that “[the organizers] were working from the assumption that everyone was up to speed with what we are doing and came in with the same basic problems.”
Vladeck said such problems could be ironed out in the future.
“Obviously it’s a work in progress,” he said. “At the same time I think that voices such as [those] at Wesleyan . . . need to be brought up because we have to be united in our support of this before we can go anywhere.”
After a brief adjournment, the forum moved into a more general discussion of issues concerning the member schools.
Representatives from Connecticut College and Wesleyan suggested that there should be more concerted efforts to have young alumni serve on the boards of trustees of the various colleges.
Ervin felt that Williams was in need of a similar arrangement, saying, “as officers of the College Council you would thin
k that we would have more interaction with the trustees.”
Leatherman also said he felt this was a good point, noting that at Williams “College Council has found it very frustrating to be so out of touch with the trustees.”
Williams representatives also questioned the delegates from other schools about the student-written booklets with teacher evaluations which exist at almost every other NESCAC school besides Williams.
Leatherman noted that the College Council will continue discussion of this idea at an upcoming meeting.
In addition to the drafting of a joint statement that will be endorsed by all the member schools and sent to the college presidents, there are also plans to frame a set of rules in order to establish clearer guidelines for the next meeting of the forum.
Leatherman said he was pleasantly surprised with how the forum went and was happy that everyone spoke up. “I was afraid this was only a Williams/Amherst/Middlebury issue, but everyone jumped inâ€” especially the Maine schools,” he said.
Leatherman said he is confident that as soon as participants in the forum draw up their alternative proposal, the NESCAC will be well on its way to maintaining its position as a model collegiate conference.