Harvard accused of lax recruiting tactics

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Despite allegations that Harvard University’s admissions standards for athletic recruits may be slipping, athletics officials at both Harvard and Yale say there is not yet enough evidence to speak to the allegations’ veracity.

According to a New York Times article published Sunday, this year, Harvard’s basketball program recruited players with lower academic standings than in previous years and employed aggressive recruiting tactics that may have violated National Collegiate Athletic Association rules. Since the article was printed, Harvard officials have declined to comment — saying only that the admissions decision process for the class of 2012 is still underway — and called the Times story “speculative, premature and potentially misleading.”

Yale’s Athletics Director Thomas Beckett also called the story “speculative” and maintained that the Harvard’s situation would not become clearer until the university sends out acceptance letters later this month.

“We don’t know what is the truth of all this,” Beckett said. “We have to wait until Harvard does their full examination of what’s going on and wait until the Ivy League does a full examination.”

Beckett declined to comment further until more facts are available when the admissions decisions have been released.

Yale men’s basketball head coach James Jones told the Times he thinks Harvard’s admissions office is seeing a “drastic shift in restrictions and regulations,” one that signals a changing academic climate.

“We don’t know how all this is going to come out, but we could not get involved with many of the kids that they are bringing in,” he said to the Times.

The Times article reports that this season, Harvard coach Tommy Amaker has been more willing to woo recruits who would not have met the program’s academic standards in prior years — a claim that the university’s Athletic Director Bob Scalise did not dispute.

The relaxation of academic standards, the article claims, has allowed Amaker to gather an athletically-stellar group of incoming freshmen for next year, perhaps indicating that the desire to field competitive teams in high-profile sports is trumping long-held admissions standards.

All Ivy League athletic recruits must score a minimum of 171 on the Academic Index, which measures academic prowess through GPA, standardized test scores and high-school class rank. This score translates to a student with a 3.1 grade-point average and 1560 out of a possible 2400 on the SAT, according to the Times article.

But each school in the League must maintain a certain average Academic Index score among all athletes relative to the rest of its student body. Yale, Harvard and Princeton universities therefore have higher averages than their counterparts, said Fritz Rodriguez, director of admissions and financial aid for the Yale Athletics Department.

In previous years, the article states, the Harvard basketball team could not recruit athletes with Index scores of lower than 195 in order to maintain the overall team and athletic department score. While Scalise did not specify this year’s recruits’ scores in the article, he acknowledged that they were lower than in previous years.

Jones said the Yale’s average score is around 220, so his team strives for an average Academic Index score of 208 or 209 — within one standard deviation of the all-school average.

Harvard spokesman John Longbrake characterized the idea of unqualified students being admitted to Harvard as “absolutely inaccurate.”

“Harvard’s admission criteria are — and remain — very high,” Longbrake wrote in an e-mail. “They have not been changed at all.”

In addition to the sliding academic standards, the article also described recruiting encounters between two high-school basketball players and Harvard coaches — or future coach, in one case — that may have violated the rules of the N.C.A.A., which heavily regulates the timing and frequency of any university recruiting activity.

Amy Backus, assistant athletic director of compliance at Yale, said the N.C.A.A. has specific regulations for evaluation periods for different sports. For men’s basketball, the first few weeks of July are considered an evaluation period during which coaches are allowed to observe recruits while they play in tournaments. But coaches are not allowed to make off-campus in-person contacts with recruits or their parents during this period, a type of encounter that the Times article alleges occurred several times with Harvard coaches.

Harvard Assistant Director of Athletics for Compliance Sheri Norred, who serves as the liaison between the athletics department and the admissions office, declined to comment on the issue.

If the broader claims in the Times article do turn out to be true, Harvard’s tactics could put other Ivy League athletic programs at risk, Yale athletic officials and coaches said.

“If they’re able to look at and recruit a different and wider pool than we can, then we’re going to be at a disadvantage,” Rodriguez said.

University President Richard Levin would never condone lowering the admissions standards for athletes at Yale, Rodriguez added. As a recruiter, Rodriguez said he immediately disregards any athletes with lower GPA or SAT scores than Yale’s minimum level.

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel declined to comment.

Brian Tompkins, head coach of the men’s soccer team, said while increased scrutiny will be necessary before final assessment, the allegations do not reflect well on the Ivy League as a whole. Coaches know where the “thin ice” is, he said, and most are careful to adhere to ethical standards.

Since Harvard eliminated its early-action program last year, admissions decisions for the entire class of 2012 will be released at the end of March.

—Della Fok contributed reporting.

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