NESCAC presidents to reassess athletics

The presidents of 11 New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) member schools released a statement yesterday reasserting the founding principles of the Conference and announcing their intention to evaluate their athletic programs to ensure they reflect the missions of both the Conference and the individual institutions that comprise it.

In the statement, the presidents express concern that “the competitive pressures of intercollegiate athletics, within our conference and beyond it, risk distorting the place and purposes of athletic participation in our institutions.”

The statement’s release follows the publication of The Game of Life, a book by William Bowen and James Shulman published last January which brought the role of athletics at elite colleges to national attention. Through examining data provided by a collection of schools with competitive admissions, including Williams; Bowen and Shulman conclude that recruited athletes receive a significant admissions advantage compared both to the general applicant pool and to other favored groups like legacies and minority students.

At their September meeting, the NESCAC presidents reviewed the data provided by The Game of Life along with a follow-up study specifically examining NESCAC schools. This study was undertaken by the Mellon Foundation, of which Bowen is the president and Shulman is the financial and administrative officer. In response to the follow-up study, the presidents write that, “[it] raises concerns regarding the ways in which student athletes are recruited at the NESCAC schools and how their academic progress is affected by their athletic commitments.”

A press release concerning the presidents’ statement quoted the original NESCAC mission statement: “[The NESCAC] was founded on several core principles, including the conviction that intercollegiate athletics is to be kept in harmony with the educational purposes of member institutions and that competing players are to be representative of the student body.”

Concerning this statement, Morton Schapiro, president of the College, said that while “excellence in a range of activities including athletics should be rewarded and encouraged” in admissions at the College, “the question we face is ’how much should we reward various types of excellence’”

“This is where I worry about whether Williams and other NESCAC schools are in compliance with the founding principles of the conference,” Schapiro continued. “Former Williams President Jack Sawyer said it best when he wrote in the founding document that ’competing players are to be representative of the student body.’ To me, that implies that, while athletic ability can matter in the admissions process, we have to make sure that it does not matter a great deal more than other attributes. The NESCAC data and our own analysis that has been going on for long before the publication of any book, indicates that we have reason to be concerned.”

Schapiro said that the question of admissions is “particularly important at Williams,” given its status as one the most selective colleges in the country.

“With each slot so precious, we better make sure that no single ’attribute’ has undue weight,” Schapiro said. “All Williams students deserve to be here if they did not, they would never have been admitted. But as we go forward, we must make sure we place the proper weight on all indications of talent as we select the fortunate few we admit.”

Harry Sheehy, director of athletics, said that the release of the statement yesterday did not come as a huge surprise to him.

“This discussion has gone on throughout the history of the NESCAC, it’s a constant discussion because it’s something that people are passionate about,” Sheehy said. “This statement isn’t a shock to anyone who’s been listening with an ear to the ground for any number of years.”

Sheehy said his first question upon seeing the statement was “What’s going to be the process for arriving at solutions?”

“I hope that the quality of this process will be high, that we don’t do it just to do it, but that we address real needs,” he said. “We need to maintain close enough ties with the league that what we do is effective.”

In the statement, the presidents assert their intention to focus the possibility of change in several areas, including recruitment and admissions standards and practices, resources committed to athletics, conference rules and procedures and the broader regulatory framework in which Conference competition takes place.

While the statement suggests a conference-wide reexamination of athletics, Williams has already begun its own evaluative process.

Last spring, the faculty steering committee created an ad-hoc committee on athletics comprised of four academic faculty members representing all three divisions along with two coaches. Michael MacDonald, professor of political science, chairs the committee. He said its aim is “to determine whether there really are problems associated with athletics. If there is a problem, we need to ascertain what it is and what would count as a solution.”

MacDonald asserts the importance of the faculty members’ neutrality, saying that before being appointed to the committee they had no firmly held convictions concerning athletics. “This gives us credibility,” he says, “but as we’re learning about the state of athletics, it means that it will take us awhile to figure out what’s going on, why it’s going on and if we should be bothered by it.”

MacDonald said that the committee will meet regularly until it releases a report, likely at the end of the academic year. They also plan to meet with various groups of students and faculty members, including, among others, the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL), athletic team captains, other coaches, athletes, former athletes and non-athletes. The committee also hopes to obtain and examine data from the Provost’s office.

Schapiro emphasizes the connection between the athletic debate and residential life, and expects the work of the CUL, along with work done by the faculty committee on athletics, to help in generating answers to the questions raised by these developments.

“Our new athletics committee will look into various aspects of the ’athletic culture’ and make recommendations,” Schapiro said. “My view is that if athletes tend to live together and otherwise spend lots of time together, that is likely more of a reflection of the state of student life on campus than an indication of an insidious athletic culture. When we complete our examination of life outside the classroom later this year, I am confident that we will develop a student life program that will address the void that athletics often fills.”

Sheehy stressed the necessity for positive discussion as the debate moves forward. “This is about Williams when it looks at itself in the mirror,” he said. “We have to ask ourselves, ’Are we proud of what we do and who we do it with?’ The most important thing for Williams will be the plane and the tenor of this discussion. We must always strive to make the student-athlete experience everything that it can be.”

The NESCAC was created in 1971 and includes 11 private colleges and universities — Amherst College, Bates College, Bowdoin College, Colby College, Connecticut College, Hamilton College, Middlebury College, Trinity College, Tufts University, Wesleyan University and Williams College. The conference competes in NCAA Division III.

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