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