This opinion piece ran in the Hartford Courant on Tuesday, September 23, 2003.
We at Mount Holyoke love our student athletes. To be honest, they are not all that different from the rest of our student body. They may run a little faster, jump a little higher and spend a little more of their free time in the weight room, but in the dorm or the classroom, they fit right in. As a women's college, we are lucky - for now.
Throughout higher education, research abounds on the discrepancies between recruited athletes and other students on campus. Educational researchers William G. Bowen and Sarah A. Levin's new book, "Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values," describes differences in admissions standards, classroom performance and career choices. The athletes are not at fault; our competitive culture pushes children to specialize at an early age, and our colleges snatch them up to vanquish foes on the field. Division I is more extreme than Division III, and women are about a generation behind the men, although heading in the same direction.
The escalation of the athletics arms race is disturbing to educational leaders. The distorting power of athletics has become enough of a concern for liberal arts colleges that we, with help from the Mellon Foundation, are trying to put the brakes on a process that is sapping more and more of our institutional resources and energy. Wesleyan, Amherst, Williams and we at Mount Holyoke, just to name a few, all worry that, unchecked, Division III athletics may pose a threat to our educational programs.
We will always give our student athletes the support and encouragement they deserve, knowing they are students first and that is why they chose our colleges. But when success on the fields means bringing in recruits who, were it not for sports, would hardly give our schools a second glance, and when regular students can no longer walk onto a team, then we have gone too far. A substantial number of college presidents in Division III agree on this point, and we are working together to make sure academics and athletics maintain their proper balance.
Every college wants to be competitive in sports, but it doesn't take a professor of statistics to point out that most sporting contests produce one winner and one loser. If every college wants to be that winner all the time, and all of us will do whatever we can to ensure it, then we are on a road to disaster that leaves our educational missions by the wayside. The latest example of the proliferation of this arms race is a recent news report that MIT is escalating - not de-escalating, mind you, like so many of its Division III peers are looking to do - its athletics program.
Could this help MIT as an educational institution? Arguably, MIT could steal a few top student athletes who otherwise might have preferred Stanford or Princeton. But what happens to higher education? There are a finite number of top student athletes, and if more go to MIT, fewer will go to its rivals, who will in turn be forced to spend more time and money on stealing somebody else's recruits. This is time and money we could be spending in the classroom, on community service or even on the student athletes who already want to come to our schools. And, for parents eyeing annual tuition increases in disbelief, guess who ends up footing the bill for this new and shiny athletic infrastructure?
We at women's colleges are as close as it comes to preserving the collegiate ideal: Our athletes stand out for their camaraderie, determination and discipline, rather than double standards in admission or academic underperformance. But it is evident that even for us the trend is in the wrong direction, that the competitive forces in the education marketplace and the NCAA will push us to subvert our educational values in order to win on the field. That is, unless we slow it down - unless educational leaders commit themselves to maintaining a level playing field instead of competing in a self-perpetuating and self-defeating game of one-upmanship.
As colleges, we can invest even more to try to inch ahead of the next school, or we can be true to our roots and remember how it is that we best serve American families and American society. In the athletics arms race, to the victor go the spoils, but to the parents and students goes the bill.
Joanne V. Creighton is president of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass.