With obvious relish but probably not much embellishment, James Thurber once explained how one of his classmates at Ohio State, a certain Bolenciecwyz, faced one of the most daunting challenges of his academic career. Boley, who, besides pursuing a bachelor’s degree, also played tackle on the Buckeye football team, appeared utterly stumped when an economics professor called upon him to name one mode of transportation.
“How did you come to college this year?” the sympathetic professor asked, trying to be helpful.
“My father sent me,” Bolenciecwcz replied.
“What on?” the professor pursued.
“I get an allowance,” said the tackle.
The discussion continued for several excruciating minutesyou can read the entire episode in My Life and Hard Timesuntil the professor, joined by much of the class, began chanting “Choo-choo-choo, choo-choo-choo” and “Chuffa-chuffa-chuffa” to help elicit a correct response from Bolenciecwyz. When the galumphing lineman at last furrowed his brow in concentration and uttered, “Train,” the professor said, “Quite right,” and coolly proceeded to his next question as if nothing had happened.
If a student-athlete, or “enrollee-athlete,” such as Bolenciecwyz ever tried to make it to the football field at Vanderbilt, he’d presumably never get past the Kirkland Hall admissions gauntlet. Yet for all its amassed brainpower, the university over the past nine months has been anguishing and roiling, writhing and worrywarting over a dilemma that, to many outsiders, seemed as elementary as coming up with the word “choo-choo.” The question is whether big-time athletics can, or even should, co-exist with big-time academics.
Like the big, dim Ohio State tackle, Vandy at last appears on the verge of hatching an answer. The decision has been prodded by a specially appointed Committee on Intercollegiate Athletics, which itself was born in reaction to the public relations meltdown that followed the non-admission of local hero Ron Mercer, who was last seen scoring 20 points in Kentucky’s NCAA men’s basketball championship win.
Earlier this month, the athletics committee, which devoted hundreds and hundreds of hours to examining this nettlesome question, concluded thatbrace yourselfcommitments to athletics and academics don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact gulpthey can be reciprocally beneficial to both these areas of university life.
Successful athletics programs can actually enhance a school’s overall reputation, strengthen its alumni relationships by creating a bonding experience, bolster its fund-raising efforts and improve its image within the community (duh!).
Boldly going where no Vandylander has gone before, the panel recommended that the school bolster its commitment to Division I athletics. “The Committee firmly believes that Vanderbilt can engage in successful athletic competition without jeopardizing its principle [sic] mission,” read the official report. (That sentence was a particularly unfortunate spot for a grammatical error.)
To tiptoeing administrators and recalcitrant faculty, the report echoes the loud “choo-choos” with which many alumni and fans have been urging the university toward major-college athletics. It is not the committee’s fault that the painstakingly researched conclusions seem almost self-evident. The committee seems to understand that it is dealing, after all, with an audience of academics.
Maybe it’s a tad unfair to compare a scholarly university to a lunking gridiron dork. And within an institution that professes to cherish the liberal exchange of ideas, it’s only fitting that fundamental questions be thoroughly and soberly debated.
On the other hand, hanging too long around the thickly insulated halls of academe can easily goof your perspective. Vanderbilt is a school, after all, that remained in fathomlessly deep denial about its poor community image, even after the mayor bluntly bonked it over the head in front of the national media, Jesus and everybody.
This is also a school with an Ivy League envy that won’t quit (witness Exhibit A: the hubris-swollen bumper stickers that read “HarvardThe Vanderbilt of the North”), and therein lies the source of Vandy’s divided mind about athletics. Many academics fret that an increased emphasis on scholarship sports would only widen the yawning gap between Vanderbilt, which last year rated as the 22nd best university nationwide, and Harvard, Princeton and Yale, which ranked first, second and third, respectively.
At some universities, certainly, the athletic department represents a separate principality, a land virtually unto itself. But as the Athletics Committee documented, a number of universities with stronger academic reputations than VanderbiltStanford, Duke, Northwestern and Virginia among themare succeeding in athletics without compromising their lofty standards.
When you consider all sports, not just football and basketball, Stanford (the “Harvard of the West”) was last year’s national athletics champion by a wide margin. And the athletes that once-miserable Northwestern recruited to help it win the Big 10 football title last fall actually had higher average SAT scores than their counterparts from a decade earlier, when the Wildcats were the perennial Vanderbilt of their league.
Nor is there any evidence to suggest, as some of the naysayers believe, that admitting athletes who don’t quite measure up on Vandy’s test-score yardstick will inexorably erode the university’s academic integrity. These institutions don’t seem to suffer when they make exceptions to accommodate the not-so-brilliant rich kids born to board members and other high rollers.
Giving a little leeway to athletes who are deemed capable of handling the academic load doesn’t mean that you have to turn the place over to the Bolenciecwyzes (or, closer to home, the Shaun Kemps at Kentucky), who have virtually no chance, or even interest, in succeeding scholastically. Although it may not be welcome news to the Peabody admissions committee, the athletics panel strongly recommended that, in close cases (they might have said “Ron Mercer”), “consideration should be given to relevant factors such as the applicant’s character, background, discipline, attitude, Vanderbilt relationships, available academic support systems, etc., as well as to numerical data.”
At this point, of course, the panel’s recommendations are merely that. They’ve not yet been ratified by the university’s Board of Trust, which will consider them later this month. It remains to be seen how enthusiastically the overall Vanderbilt community embraces the idea of bolstering the university’s support of athletics.
Some observers, meanwhile, suggest that the committee’s 28-page report is too short on specifics. “How, exactly, will the admissions process for athletes be streamlined?” they wonder. “From where, exactly, will the funds be taken to offset the Athletic Department’s annual budget deficit?”
But all of those are executional issues beyond the committee’s scope and charge. When you read their report, in its carefully chosen, academic language, their message seems direct and clear.
For a variety of reasons, they’re saying, successful sports teams benefit the whole school, and “the improvement of Vanderbilt’s intercollegiate athletic programs should be an important strategic objective of the University....” John Hall, who co-chaired the committee, now leads the entire Board of Trust. These recommendations will probably carry some weight.
None of which, obviously, is any guarantor of eventual athletic success. But even this apparently modest, toddling step reflects a significant change for Vanderbilt and a move toward genuine commitment. Their goals are a long way off. Nevertheless, somebody seems to have been mumbling “Choo-choo, choo-choo,” and Vanderbilit finally seems to have identified the vehicle that can take it where it wants to go.