Not too long ago I wrote in praise of my friend Jeff Orleans and the work done by the Ivy Group on athletics. It gives me pleasure to be a faculty member in a league in which the term “student athlete” does not seem entirely a contradiction in terms. The Ivy Group has rules that are tougher than those of the NCAA in many respects — I am on a committee at Princeton preparing our presentation for the decennial NCAA review of the university’s policies, and it is gratifying to see how responsible we have been.
But of course that does not mean that the Ivies are not intensely competitive in sports. Princeton typically has the largest number of successful intercollegiate teams in the Ivies, and we are quick to brag about it. I am fine with that, especially since it reflects our commitment to a very wide range of men’s and women’s teams in a bewildering number of sports.
But of course athletic success is directly tied to admissions policies, and there have been hard feelings from time to time in the Ivies when particular schools were rumored to be cutting corners in admissions. Recently, the admission of transfer student-athletes has become common, and a few of the most successful Ivy students began as scholarship students in “the real world.”
The Ivies do not give “athletic scholarships,” but of course we give an incredible amount of scholarship money, increasingly on terms very favorable to all students, athletes among them. Recent changes in admissions policies have had an impact on sports for Harvard and Princeton, which no longer have a two-step admissions process, admitting a significant number of applicants before the traditional April round of “thick letters.” The change at Princeton (and I assume at Harvard) has caused understandable concern for athletic coaches trying to recruit athletes, since their preferred lists of applicants (every major sport has one) can no longer be admitted “early.” To help out in this situation, Princeton (and Harvard) send out a certain number of “likely” letters to applicants in the fall — letters indicating the student will probably be admitted (though it is not a guarantee). This should help the coaches, but their fear is that the remaining uncertainty will permit other schools to recruit these potential admits before we send out the April letters.
Now comes the recent publicity about Harvard. Their new basketball coach, Tommy Amaker, has been accused in the press of violating NCAA rules in attempting to recruit incoming student-athletes. It appears to be the case that he has in fact recruited a stellar cohort for next year’s freshman class. The Harvard athletic director, Bob Scalise, assures us that he has had a “teaching moment” with Amaker (who previously coached at Seton Hall and Michigan, two “real” teams) and has encouraged the coach to be “beyond reproach.” The Harvard dean of admissions (admission – I have been doing alumni interview of Harvard applicants for 40 years and I know him), assures us that Harvard is at “the highest levels of Ivy League principles and practices.” Jeff Orleans assures us that the Ivy league can handle the matter.
I am sure that all of these people are telling the truth as they see it. But Ivy admissions is complicated, and lots of factors (including extracurricular talents of all sorts) are taken into account. Anyone on the inside knows that there is a large admissions fudge factor. My olfactory sense is that there may well be something wrong with basketball in Cambridge, and my Ivy self-satisfaction is therefore a bit wobbly. Like Philip Boffey, writing an op-ed in today’s New York Times, this Harvard alum is worried that “the rules still leave plenty of room for maneuvering,” and that Harvard may be doing a pick and roll on us. Fight fiercely, Harvard, but keep to the spirit of the rules.