Like most faculty, during my first decades at Yale, almost all the time I spent on campus was focused on research and teaching. I sporadically attended music performances, plays at the Yale Rep, went to a few hockey games and averaged one football game each year. By and large, these things were amusements, not much more meaningful than television or movies. I was simply a consumer.
Largely out of curiosity, two years ago I offered to serve on the Faculty Athletic Advisory Committee. Athletics at Yale is overseen by the Department of Athletics, and the appellation, “department,” is not a random choice. It has a function and status much like other departments at Yale.
This experience has opened up to me an aspect of Yale that I had only been vaguely aware of. The members of this department, starting with Director Tom Beckett, do an absolutely first-rate job of overseeing a complex operation that contributes much to the Yale community. First-hand knowledge of the functioning of this department has given me great respect for its efforts, and working with them has afforded me the opportunity to no longer just be a consumer. I can now contribute. In addition to serving on the committee, I’ve helped in recruiting for football coach Tony Reno and serve as the faculty liaison for the hockey team.
I’ve also gained a new perspective on the role of sports at universities.
I served as the Director of Undergraduate Studies of Biology and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology for 15 years. During this time, I often met students with a desire — indeed, a passion — to work in a research lab. Freshmen often seemed especially reluctant to express this passion, thinking, I suspect, that they would be viewed as geeks or nerds by their fellow students. I reassured them that passion for scientific research and becoming a lab rat was really no different from fellow students with a passion for sports becoming gym rats, or musicians becoming practice room rats. I had been a lab rat as an undergraduate and loved it so much that I never left.
The point is, Yale College offers its students the freedom and opportunity to pursue a passion, be it sport, musical instrument, writing, painting or laboratory research. The best training and facilities affordable are offered. There is seldom a ceiling to what can be achieved: publishing a paper in a first-rate science or literary journal, designing an award-winning solar-powered car, performing at Carnegie Hall, designing a monument for Washington, D.C., participating in the Olympics or winning a national championship. My interaction with student-athletes has led me to regard them no differently than students working in our labs. In fact, this year, the captain of the track team is also a student researcher in our labs!
From interactions with student-athletes, I’ve learned that they do not always feel that faculty or even their fellow students view them in the same vein as students pursuing other passions. For this, I see no justification. It is dangerous and foolish to try to differentiate the value of these various kinds of pursuits, thinking some more “noble” or “academic” than others. After all, chess is sometimes covered in the sports pages of newspapers.
Pursuit of these activities often requires students to miss class work — and we, the faculty, need to be equally understanding and supportive regardless of the particular endeavor in which the student is engaged. Not only should we be passively supportive, I have learned how rewarding it can be to become actively involved in these extracurricular activities that are so much part of Yale. I encourage my faculty colleagues to cease being only consumers — as I was for so long — and become contributors.
There are neither geeks nor jocks at Yale. There are simply a group of energetic, talented young men and women who have the opportunity to pursue a passion for four years, while simultaneously obtaining a first-rate education. Our responsibility as a faculty is to assure the latter happens. But, if we extend ourselves a bit, we can also have a role in the former. It’s worth it.
Jeffrey Powell is a professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .