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New Realities, Part II: Presidential Control

One of the dirty little secrets of college admissions is that for athletes in many Division I schools, the admissions process is different than the maze in the picture right here. Athletes get treated, well, differently. A FBS school like Ohio State has a coach and athletic department who wants a certain player, and he goes out and gets that player. He goes through a special admissions process. It's a different process than a non-athletic out-of-state student might have to negotiate admissions, financial aid, and so on.

In the first "New Realities" piece, I went through a bit of history on how the Patriot League's structure came about. One important part of that structure is "Presidential Control", but what it really boils down to is "the separation of athletics and admissions". That's what I'll be talking about in today's posting.

The 1945 Ivy Agreement formally enshrined the separation of athletics and admissions. It established a "Athletics Administration" committee (made up of athletic directors) and an "Eligibility" committee (made up of admissions officers), with both reporting to the university president. This structure has allowed Patriot League and Ivy League presidents to have control over the admissions and athletics "factions". It's a system that has its advantages -- and flaws.

Under this structure, one thing becomes evident very quickly: if coaches and athletic directors don’t have good relationships with their admissions office or their president, they don’t stand much of a chance to compete for titles. The situation at Dartmouth in the mid-1990s proves to be a good example of this.

At that time, the late Dartmouth president James O. Freedman hired an admissions officer, Karl Furstenburg, who was sympathetic to the president’s wish to significantly push up the academic standards of the entire student body. Almost immediately Mr. Furstenburg proved to be notorious for a letter he sent to Swarthmore College president Alfred Bloom commending him for discontinuing football there. From the letter: “You are exactly right in asserting that football programs represent a sacrifice to the academic quality and diversity of entering first-year classes. This is particularly true at highly selective institutions that aspire to academic excellence. My experience at both Wesleyan and Dartmouth is consistent with what you have observed at Swarthmore. I wish this were not true but sadly football, and the culture that surrounds it, is antithetical to the academic mission of colleges such as ours.”

Imagine trying to recruit athletes with the control of admissions for football in the hands of an admissions director who was on the record (and on Dartmouth letterhead, no less) condemning, according to Dartmouth football blogger Chris Wood, “the culture of the sport and those who play it.” It’s impossible to say precisely whether admissions was the only reason the football program went from Ivy League championships to losing seasons, but you could at the very least say it didn’t help. This type of situation could only happen in the Ivy League or Patriot League, where the admissions office has the final say on athletic admits.

In the Ivy League, ironically, despite the separation of power there still appears to be a lot of mistrust amongst schools regarding how (say) Paul Pointguard got into X, “where he couldn’t even get through our admissions office.” In my research, I heard stories of athletic admits who were rejected from one Ivy only to get admitted to another. Almost always accompanying these stories are skeptical glances to the opposing Ivy athletic departments (or other high-academic schools, like those in the Patriot League) for having inordinate influence on the decision.

A fair amount of this mistrust seems to go back to the structure set up by the 1945 Ivy Group Agreement, which seems to invite peer pressure. In a way, it’s good in that it keeps pressure to admit only academically qualified students, and bad in another way in that when a student doesn’t get into one institution but does get into another, the accusations can fly.

In my research of the Patriot League, I didn’t see any evidence of the same sort of sniping that has occurred in the past in the Ivy League. However, that’s not a result of athletes getting a rubber stamp from admissions offices. “In many cases,” one Patriot League official told me, “there are athletes that meet the minimum academic standards but are not admitted to the institution because the admissions people are making the decisions.”

Furthermore, there’s nothing stopping a Patriot League admissions office from taking a hard line on athletic recruiting should they desire, thus creating their own “minimum standards” for a particular sport above and beyond other minmums. There is anecdotal evidence around the league that some schools’ football teams – no matter where their institution is ranked in US News and World Report – have a higher academic bar to clear than other schools, and it’s not due to academic tools used by the league or aid money – it’s simply that their admissions office takes a harder line on some sports rather than others.

Of course, it's the president who hires athletic directors and admissions officers that are sympathetic to his or her worldview on athletics. This is, of course, true whether this structure is in place or not. But frequently in other leagues the athletics department can trump admissions despite a president's philosophy on athletics. This means that fans of Ivy and Patriot schools end up having to look very closely at their presidents' philosophies on athletics and admissions. The power to make or break athletic departments is in their hands.

Many Lafayette sports fans were not sad to see their former president, Arthur Rothkopf, go in 2005. A fierce opponent of athletic scholarships, he oversaw a movement within the college in the late 1990s to de-emphasize athletics, possibly disband their football team, or drop to a Division III conference. You could argue that he had a direct effect on the quality of athletics at Lafayette - he hired the admissions officers that ultimately controlled admission to Lafayette. You have to believe he hired admissions officers that agreed with his views.

Admissions having such power over athletic admits can be a mixed blessing. If a president, an admissions office and an athletics department get along well and share in philosophy, it should work fine. But an admissions office certainly could choose to squeeze a particular sports team – very easily -- if they so chose, due to philosophical or personal differences. Even if an athlete admit meets the minimum requirements, he still can be rejected by admissions.

Friday I'll start tackling another topic in the Patriot League: the Academic Index.


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