Stanford University is sometimes touted as the “Harvard of the West,” but unlike Harvard, it routinely sells out its basketball stadium. And during this year’s NCAA Championship Tournament, Stanford — not Harvard — advanced to the Sweet 16. Its football team plays at I-A, the conference’s highest level, and its coaches often recruit the best athletes with large scholarships. Still, Stanford boasts enough academic clout that my roommate had to flip a coin in order to choose between the Cardinal and the Bulldogs.
While no one doubts Yale’s academic prestige, our mainstream athletics programs, including football and basketball, are laughable. Yale competes in the second-tier I-AA conference for football and only ever gets a stab at a NCAA Basketball Tournament berth because of inclusion in the Ivy League. We would not be able to fill our stadium even if we had Bono playing QB and Oprah kicking field goals.
We’re left asking: How does Stanford do it? They seem to have the best of both the academic and athletic worlds. Surely this configuration comes at the cost of a student body divided along a school-sports boundary. However, it’s not Stanford’s athletic superiority that effects the divide. Any Eli, especially he who ventures to Commons after 7 p.m. or to Toad’s on a Wednesday night, can see there is a real cultural rift between our mediocre varsity athletes and non-athletes at Yale. It’s not surprising. The members of varsity sports teams — even the bad ones — spend most of their time together (both on and off the field), so they naturally grow closer with one other. Back in the common room, meanwhile, where non-athletes are whining about midterms, they remark how their athlete roommates are never around — a symbolic rift widens between them. Does Stanford’s superior athletics program mean this divide is that much worse on the West Coast?
The theory behind Yale’s residential-college system, which creates “microcosms of the University as a whole,” shows no signs of social imbalance. When asked about athletes, University officials are quick to point out that Yale does not recruit, does not offer athletic scholarships and does not waver from standards of high academic excellence. The truth of the matter, as many freshmen discover, is the contrary: Yale coaches recruit. But unable to offer athletic scholarships, they cannot recruit anyone with any real talent. While other schools justify these kinds of scholarships by pointing to sold-out stadiums, the Ivy League persists under the weight of its own academic standards.
We pretend to be an elite academic institution where students of different backgrounds and interests exchange ideas in environments designed to foster communication — like the residential colleges. But, one cannot forget that we also admit recruited athletes who are, for the most part, of a substandard academic caliber and more likely to be apathetic toward collegiate academia.
We watch admissions videos of smiling students intelligently questioning professors, but in reality, we witness the disruption of large lectures by disrespectful athletes who are barely surviving gut classes. Furthermore, we find that coaches wish they could recruit the top athletes who are far below academic standards. There is a disconnect between our vision of academic excellence and the reality of our pursuit.
Should we imitate smaller liberal arts schools, reducing our athletics programs and downgrading to Division III? This may seem like an attractive option to erudite students who wish “that new football stadium we’re building” would be “that new particle accelerator we’re building.” Nevertheless, the athletics program is important to many like alumni who view athletics as a way of staying in touch with their alma mater (Many, it seems, would discontinue their donations if they discovered that the sons of Eli weren’t breaking through the line anymore). The genius of David Swenson’s investing aside, keeping those alumni happy should be a priority.
In the words of my high-school lacrosse coach, I believe the best solution is to go big or go home. If we can’t reduce our athletics programs to eliminate the athlete/non-athlete culture rift, we might as well accept it and try to recruit the best athletes possible.
If that guy in section who didn’t do his reading because he was doing wind sprints must stay, he might as well be running a 4.3 40 and taking us to a national championship! If that means setting up special tutoring programs to help athletes who are struggling academically, so be it. The financial benefits will vastly outweigh the costs. Furthermore, we have a tangible model to emulate: If the Harvard of the West can do it, why not us? Look out, Stanford — what kind of mascot is a tree, anyway? Final Four, here we come!
Ned Fulmer is a junior in Pierson College.