Monday, March 03, 2008

An Open Letter to President Drew Gilpin Faust

Dear President Faust,

I write as a concerned alumnus (Harvard College 1986, Law School 1990) in regard to the alarming report about the Harvard Men's Varsity Basketball team in the New York Times Sports Section. According to the story, Coach Tommy Amaker and one or more members of his coaching staff may have violated NCAA recruiting rules. More seriously, the story suggests that Harvard may be in the process of altering its admissions criteria in order to field a more competitive basketball team.

Like other elite colleges, Harvard has long looked to fill its class with students of diverse talents. It is entirely appropriate to weight athletic talent in the admissions mix, in part because athletic success typically bespeaks an impressive work ethic more broadly. However, Harvard and other Ivy League colleges have also long held to standards of academic excellence that were designed to ensure that all admitted students were likely to succeed in the classroom. Departing from that policy simply to win athletic contests dis-serves the prospective students (including student-athletes) to whom Harvard denies admission and, ultimately, those of the admitted students who find themselves unprepared for the academic work.

The New York Times article also states: "Like all the universities in the Ivy League, Harvard does not award athletic scholarships." That is technically true but highly misleading. Harvard's admirable policy of zero tuition for children from families earning under $60,000 per year, and substantially reduced tuition for children of families earning up to $180,000, has the effect of partially substituting for the athletic scholarships available at universities outside the Ivy League. With that competitive disadvantage relative to non-Ivy schools substantially reduced, Harvard should be in a position to recruit at least some top student-athletes that might formerly have gone elsewhere. This changed economic landscape makes lowering academic standards especially unnecessary.

Finally, I note that the opening paragraph of the Times story states that "Harvard’s efforts in basketball underscore the increasingly important role that success in high-profile sports plays at even the most elite universities." I am not sure who thinks success in high-profile sports should play an important role at elite universities, but I certainly do not, and I doubt that a majority of Harvard alumni/alumnae would.

Posted by Mike Dorf


Neil H. Buchanan said...

As the examples of NYU and the University of Chicago unmistakably demonstrate, it's impossible to be thought of as a great university without also fielding championship-caliber football and men's basketball teams. Harvard is clearly on the right path.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Note: As a Vassar graduate, I take great pride in my alma mater's never having lost a football game.

Duke said...

Well Amaker came out of Duke, so I guess he knows what it means for a top school to sacrifice academics for athletics.

There is the argument that letting in 8 substandard students to improve the basketball team can bring the school extra money and prestige, compensating for any decline in academics. Duke basketball brings in ridiculous amounts of money to the school, and it attracts some elite students away from other academically-comparable schools.

That said, I don't know that Harvard claims to pursue these types of benefits, or just wants another claim to be better than Yale and Princeton.

Michael C. Dorf said...

In response to Duke, yes, there are great universities that field top-flight Division I teams. Stanford, Cal and Michigan come to mind here too. I understand the economic argument, although I have also heard that the expense of running a top-flight program in fact doesn't even pay for itself except for Notre Dame football (which is not even a top-flight program these days). But even assuming that universities could make money on their football and basketball teams, one must still count this as a distortion of academic priorities, somewhat in the same way that admitting the academically challenged children of extremely generous donors is a compromise of principle. As to sports success translating into academic prestige, I don't get it, except perhaps as a US News-driven strategy: a basketball national championship for X means that more high school kids will want to go to X, which will make it more selective, which will boost its rankings, which could bring it some better students. But this surely can't be what Harvard is up to, since it's only aiming to win Ivy championships and the US News-cycle is mostly about name recognition. Harvard has that up the wazoo and threatens only to tarnish its brand image with this new strategy.

Alex said...

Harvard's not going to tarnish its reputation by fielding a top-notch men's basketball team. That's nonsensical. So I don't think the shine of your Harvard diploma will lose any luster if it "lowers" its academic standards for athletes.

In the first place, Harvard (along with all of the other Ivy League schools) already does that. Second, in terms of a percentage of the student population, admitting a few "student-athletes" with "less stellar" academic credentials will hardly degrade the student body's overall academic quality. Third, Harvard (along with most of the 'Ancient 8') has long admitted underqualified students for a variety of reasons, including that they came from wealthy families or were legacies.

To put it simply, get off the high horse.

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