The statement released by the NESCAC conference presidents yesterday can be read as an implicit criticism of a divergence from the NESCAC ethos that “teams are to be representative of the overall student body and are admitted with the expectation of their full participation in the life of the college.” But rather than viewing the statement as a position to be defended or attacked, we need to view it as a call to examine the current status of athletics in small liberal arts schools. Because this issue is so relevant to so many students, it does have the potential to be both hurtful and destructive, and thus only through open and inclusive dialogue can we move away from easy stereotypes and emotional rhetoric towards the creation of a policy that reflects and shapes the ideals of Williams College.
There are few among us who will remain unaffected by the results of this debate, and this ubiquity of effect should imply ubiquity of participation. In order to minimize polarization, we must be mindful of all voices, perspectives and interests. As a first step in this process, we would like to suggest a few issues that we all must consider in our individual attempts to formulate an objective analysis.
Trustees: We do not doubt your commitment to the long-term health of the College, but the presidents’ statement does point to a long-term shift which happened on your watch. You are charged with making important economic and philosophical decisions for the College, and so we call upon you to address all of this issue in all its dimensions. This is not an easy task, as the issue is as much about what happens in the dorm, in the classroom, at lunch, on the field and on Saturday night as it is about admissions numbers and donation rates. We hope that, recognizing this, you attempt to engage the student population in order to truly understand the challenges presented by the day-to-day reality of our on-campus community.
Alumni: We realize that your enthusiasm and loyalty are intrinsic parts of Williams’ identity, and that athletics provides an effective vehicle for galvanizing this enthusiasm. However, please be wary of conflating the positive images you retain from your four years at Williams with the scores you read on the Williams website. In evaluating the validity of the presidents’ statements, remember the realities of contemporary NESCAC athletics before condemning it in an attempt to preserve a constructed image of life at Williams. We ask that you call upon both positive and negative memories of your time at the College, and use these memories to propose solutions to remembered problems and offer advice regarding future steps. We also realize the problems inherent in the assumption that alumni speak with one voice, and therefore call upon all members of the alumni community to contribute their ideas and opinions.
Academic Faculty: It is time to begin constructing a model for a realistic and healthy atmosphere in which our ideals of an academic-athletic symbiosis are achievable. As the question of athletics once again moves into the spotlight, we ask that you pause to consider what the rest of the faculty contributes to the life of the College and the lives of the students you teach. In season, coaches spend multiple hours a day for six days a week with these students. Both in and out of season, they ask students to define goals and push them to accomplish them. Moreover, their close interaction engenders a strong relationship which can be crucial to helping students to achieve emotional balance. Combining this recognition with your deep commitment to the Williams principles of education, we call upon you to constructively help us to enjoy and balance the benefits that Williams strives to provide both in and out of the classroom.
Athletic Faculty: You are tremendously successful coaches who know your athletes well, push them to success and often serve as their mentors. That being said, we urge you to continue to build on your connections to others at the College. How can you work to minimize the perceived gaps between the athletics department and other parts of the community? How can you better articulate the mission of athletics to the rest of the campus? How can you help break down potential barriers between athletes and non-athletes and encourage wider involvement in the larger College community?
Students: The quality of our on-campus discourse will significantly influence the direction Williams now takes, particularly as the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) considers and evaluates changes to residential life. While the ultimate decisions regarding the academic, social and extra-curricular atmospheres are out of our hands, we are in the unique and important position of being able to elucidate to those who make these choices and implement change what works and what fails. Some of the most important perspectives and experiences will have to come from us, for the Trustees, alumni, faculty and administration do not live among us and cannot possibly have our experiences or knowledge. Once we arrive on campus and settle into our dorm rooms, what should happen to us? What kind of community do we want to live in? What do individuals contribute to the larger community and how can each person contribute more? This process can strengthen Williams only if we are willing to look at not only how athletics has shaped our individual experience, but also the experience of students who might have priorities different from our own.
Administrators: When a unanimous voice speaks so strongly on such a volatile issue, knowing that they will incite a maelstrom of strong and divisive opinions, we can hear it only as a serious commitment to reform and not as rhetoric of appeasement. We have argued that no individual or group is properly positioned to move us all forward alone, and we call upon you to proactively solicit the myriad voices and perspectives we have introduced. We ask that you ensure that decisions are not made from a distance based only upon a few anecdotes and some admissions statistics and that the loudest voices among the alumni and faculty do not drown out the others.
The NESCAC schools are now forced to take on a difficult and precarious discussion, one that will undoubtedly lead to changes in the way our schools do business. It is vital, however, that as we take up this task, we move past our initial emotions and seek to realize the importance of first listening to the complaints of others, and then responding in a manner that will strengthen, rather than hurt, our evolving community.