Chris Getman ’64, the current owner of Handsome Dan, took the stage at the Yale Blue Leadership Gala last November to receive the George H. W. Bush ’48 Lifetime Leadership Award. Decorations for the celebration lit the Lanman Center blue, and a giant Yale banner hung behind the stage. University administrators, including University President Richard Levin and Athletic Director Tom Beckett, sat on the stage with other coaches and alumni, while the Yale Precision Marching Band played a rendition of “Bulldog.”
But the tone of Getman’s speech was less than celebratory.
“I’m disappointed that Yale’s announced admissions policy will more than likely relegate our teams in the future to an unlevel playing field in the Ivy League,” he said. “It’s disheartening to me that while we have what is arguably the finest athletic venue in the country … the University has openly decided to take far fewer of the recruited athletes than allowed.”
Since Levin became University president in 1993, recruiting totals have dropped from 18 percent of the incoming Yale College class of 1998 to 13 percent for the class of 2015. Beckett said the class of 2015 had 177 recruited athletes, though the Ivy League allows Yale to recruit 230.
“I have wanted to maintain a strong athletic program, and I believe we have demonstrated this can be accomplished without admitting quite so many athletes,” Levin told the Yale Alumni Magazine in an often quoted interview from the September/October 2010 issue. “We now admit significantly fewer recruited athletes than the Ivy League allows.”
Getman, a former baseball player, said those policy changes have left Yale teams at a disadvantage within the Ivy League.
At the end of his speech, Getman received a standing ovation from the crowd.
Indeed, his tone is indicative of the sentiments held by several alumni of Yale athletics: 16 alumni interviewed said they believe Levin’s recruiting policies will ultimately hurt the University by risking its strong athletic tradition, and all directly blamed Levin for creating the policy. Beckett said he has no recollection of any alumni coming to him in support of the new recruiting quota.
Other alumni said that the problem expands beyond the athletic fields and the classroom, and that it has a direct, negative effect on the donations that the University receives.
“Monetarily, what difference is my donation going to make? Or is it just a way of saying ‘I care’ ” Brian Clark ’74 said. “I have finally decided that I have cared enough … if the University doesn’t care, why should I continue to care?”
A REAL EFFECT?
According to Levin, Yale decided to lower the number of recruited athletes roughly seven years ago as a response to an increasingly selective applicant pool and a higher “opportunity cost” of each admit. But the effect of that policy remains unclear, and many athletics alumni believe teams are suffering as a result.
“Yale attracts students with all kinds of talents. The only issue here was ‘what is the right size of the athletics program?’ ” Levin told the News last week. “There are many objectives that we factor into the admissions process and devoting one in five of these spots [to recruited athletes] seemed high.”
Clark said Levin may have been influenced by his daughter’s book “Reclaiming the Game.” The study — published in 2003 in conjunction with former Princeton president William Bowen — argues that elite institutions would be best served by lowering the amount of recruits on their campuses. Levin told the News that the book did influence his outlook on the subject, though he pointed out that the study was well received in peer reviews.
Several alumni interviewed voiced concern for Yale’s athletic tradition, which they said has suffered as a result of Levin’s policy. Yale has not led the Ivy League in number of athletic championships since the 1960-’61 school year, but Levin said that the 2010-’11 year was a 21-year high in number of Ivy League championships won by Yale. He added that Yale athletics’ win-loss record in the past fall was the best in the Ivy League.
Still, during Levin’s 18 years in Woodbridge Hall, Yale has won 7.72 percent of Ivy League championships, a decrease of roughly one third from the 18 years preceding him.
“I think it’s getting to the point where Yale has to make a decision whether it wants to stay in the Ivy League,” Neil Brendel ’76, a former wrestler, said. “It’s just not fair to ask the athletes and the coaches to compete with the likes of Princeton and Harvard when the school doesn’t want to make the same level of commitment.”
Several alumni cited Yale football’s performance in The Game over the past 10 years — with only one win in that span — as evidence of the policy’s detrimental effects. But according to Beckett, the number of football recruits has been steady throughout Levin’s presidency at roughly 30 recruits per year, with ice hockey and basketball numbers also remaining largely unaffected.
Beckett said coaches and athletes are aware of the challenges that come with fewer recruits, adding Yale teams are actively pursuing championships at both the team and individual levels.
“It is, I will tell you, extremely challenging to do all of this for 35 varsity sports with the understanding that our population of student athletes will be less than the population of student athletes at our sister institutions,” Beckett said. “That is a challenge, and our coaches and student athletes understand that, and we’re fully aware of where we stand.”
Beckett added that Levin has been receptive to discussing the policy with those in the athletics department.
Several alumni said they believed Levin’s recruitment policy — and the athletic challenges associated with it — would have a direct effect on Yale athletics alumni’s donating to the University.
“Excellence in one realm is supposed to imbue the entirety with ambition for excellence in all realms,” Clark said. “If you’re content with mediocre or less, relative to your archrival, then some part of you has decided that mediocrity or less is okay.”
Clark added that “mediocrity” would have a “non-quantifiable” effect on fundraising, through damage to Yale’s reputation as a competitor and as an academic institution.
While most alumni interviewed said they would still donate to the University, four interviewed said they are withholding donations to Yale in efforts to change the policy.
“Levin’s the king, and we’re a bunch of subjects who are just whining,” Buck Smith ’75, a former swim team captain, said. “Ultimately the only vote we have is with our contribution dollars.”
Smith said he recalled being asked for a large donation recently, but given Levin’s recruiting policies, he now only donates to the Yale swim and water polo teams rather than to the University as a whole. He said he wants to show support of the athletic teams but not the administration.
Alexis Katz ’94, a former Yale swimmer and current board member of the Yale Swimming and Diving Association, added that some athletes voiced their frustrations to her when she was fundraising for her class’s gift given in honor of its 15th reunion.
“I have to say that I did feel a lot of the same sentiment in terms of a bit of disappointment in the way teams have performed as of late,” Katz said. “I would say that it certainly would have made my job a lot easier had the teams been doing a lot better.”
Katz added that she did not think athletic alumni would be any less devoted to the University, only that many were upset by Yale’s recruiting policies.
University Vice President for Development Inge Reichenbach said she is aware of concerns over the policy, but she added that the concerns have never been brought up in any of her gift negotiations with alumni. Given the success of the recent $3.88 billion Yale Tomorrow campaign, Reichenbach said she did not think the policy has had any effect on fundraising.
“For the last seven years we have seen a groundswell of support for the University, so I think it’s hard to argue that alumni are holding back their support of the University for any reason,” Reichenbach said.
Levin also cited Yale Tomorrow as evidence that alumni were not withholding donations due to his policy.
Charlie Zupsic ’76 added that though he remained strongly opposed to the policy, he did not think fundraising would be hurt by Levin’s stance on recruiting because most alumni will support the school no matter what.
“I think its stupid for alumni to say ‘I won’t support Yale since I don’t agree with this.’” he said. “I think we need to keep talking about the subject.”
How much of an effect the policy has had on donations given to Yale remains unclear: With two capital campaigns during his tenure, the University’s endowment has more than doubled, and almost the entire athletics physical plant has been renovated.
But with two new residential colleges offering room for 800 more students, Levin said the number of recruited athletes could rise again.
“That remains to be seen. It’s a ways off, and I think we can make that decision later. I wouldn’t rule it out that there may be some effect,” Levin said.
The Ivy League was founded in 1954.