I was fascinated by the Chronicle’s piece by by Eric Kelderman last Friday on the athletics-facilities boom in the Centennial Conference. This is a NCAA Division III league, but more importantly it is composed of 11 high-quality liberal arts colleges, including Ursinus, Gettysburg, and Franklin & Marshall. These are places that take liberal undergraduate education really seriously, and I admire their academic programs — Ursinus is one of the most creative colleges I know. I had never stopped to consider their athletic programs, however, but I assumed that they fielded modestly competitive teams in some league (I had not even heard of the Centennial Conference until last week). I also assumed that, like all selective colleges, they were under competitive pressure to provide their student body with respectable fitness facilities, since sports and fitness is one of the bases on which colleges market themselves to prospective students. My impression has been that the same pressure has also led to major investments in new dormitories, health facilities, fine arts centers and the like. It is wonderful that students in these colleges will have more and better facilities, but the building boom has been substantial, and one wonders whether it has not come at the cost of purely educational programs.
I wrote in my last blog about the attraction of donors to nameable buildings at large universities, but of course on this score Ursinus is no different than Penn, or Gettysburg than Princeton. The numbers are smaller, but substantial. Kelderman tells us about a new $25-million swimming palace at Gettysburg, a $4-million fitness center at McDaniel College, and a $13-million field house (“big enough for two full-size batting cages, four basketball courts, three tennis courts, a volleyball court, and a six-lane, 200 meter track”) at Ursinus. He notes that while these buildings, mostly intended to recruit intercollegiate athletes or/and to retain successful sports coaches, are sprouting up in all conferences across the country, 14 of the 50 newest facilities were built on Division III campuses. In other words, the sports-building boom is not just at Ohio State and UCLA.
Of course one of the rationales for the new buildings is that they serve all students, not just intercollegiate athletics. Up to a point that is true and admirable. But I wonder whether, if a careful cost-benefit analysis were undertaken, colleges would make such investments. I mean by that, if the bottom line is liberal education (learning outcomes), wouldn’t we be spending more on other things — library and information centers, IT capacity, academic facilities, community engagement centers, and the like? I know the argument is mens sana in corpore sano, and I believe there is such a relationship, but these colleges are paying a very high price for the competitive student “body.”
Kelderman quotes John A. Fry, the president of F&M (a fine institution where my daughter taught religion very happily for a year), as saying that “there is a bit of an arms race in Division III. . . . You see a lot more spending on athletics, and you wonder if that’s the highest and best use of those dollars.” Good question, Mr. Fry. Good question for all colleges and universities.
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