When Dartmouth administrators announced Nov. 26 that in the face of a budget deficit, the University was cutting its swimming and diving programs, Ivy League athletics departments held their breath. The implications of the decision were dire for Dartmouth athletes and unsettling at least for everyone else — faced with years of constricted spending, at least one top school that had to tighten its belt looked first to varsity athletics.
So when the school’s administration announced a week ago that they had reversed their decision and would keep swimming and diving, a wave of relief spread among the students, parents and alumni who had raised $2 million to support the programs for the next 10 years. But that sense of relief is not restricted to the Dartmouth campus.
Of course, Dartmouth’s original decision likely was about economics alone. With a deficit over $200,000 in its annual $10 million budget, it seemed that cutting a high-maintenance sport such as swimming and diving would be sound fiscal policy. But at a time when the role of varsity sports at top universities is under scrutiny, the Dartmouth administration’s decision to keep its swimming and diving programs was a critical one. It suggests that even in tougher, grimmer economic times, there will be room for games in the Ivy League. Even those that are high maintenance, such as swimming and diving.
This fall, the League changed multiple policies relating to varsity athletics, reducing the number of recruiting and part-time coaching slots for football as well as instituting a seven-week moratorium on official team practices. The tougher guidelines became, to no one’s surprise, yet another source of distress for many coaches and players in the Ancient Eight. Coming in the wake of these changes, Dartmouth’s proposed program cuts seemed to have the potential to establish a dangerous precedent for what Ivy League Universities should do when the money is running low.
But after the administration’s November announcement, Dartmouth’s formerly quiet players and fans sent the strongest message yet about where students, parents and alumni alike stand on the issue of varsity athletics within the Ivy League. The recent changes in recruiting and practice policies for Ivy League varsity athletics established permanent limitations on the role of athletics in University life. And the Dartmouth administration’s courage to reverse its own decision in the wake of popular protests and furious fund raising established a minimum level of support that the University is willing to devote to its sports.
In the end, Dartmouth’s decision to keep its varsity swimmers and divers around is a commendable one because of the courage and flexibility it demonstrates. But more importantly, a decision initially based on economics has resulted in a greater commentary on the importance of varsity athletics at the Ivy League level. Combined with the strong support of students, parents and alumni, it is clear that — at least in the short term — the debate surrounding Ancient Eight sports will not tolerate the elimination of programs for financial reasons.