Upon the Fields of Friendly Strife

Dartmouth Men's Rowing on the Connecticut River

Dartmouth Men’s Rowing on the Connecticut River

Though it is small, Dartmouth College proves a bit too large for the distinct streams of different student groups’ experiences here to ever completely unify. The collection of events and activities we describe as “the Dartmouth experience” is something like a SparkNotes condensation, just thorough enough to summarize the College for a curious hometown friend. But an insider’s frank look at students’ four years in Hanover reveals divergence between groups at the day-to-day level.

This diversity of experiences is generally as benign as it is inevitable. Proud as we are of our culture’s strong center, there is no reason to deny that surviving in a body of 4,400 requires students to seek refuge in circles of mutual understanding. While the Greek system has absorbed the attention as of late, athletics at Dartmouth probably form an even deeper cleavage of this type, shaping the Dartmouth experience of the 25% who participate at the varsity level and leaving the rest with the mixed feelings of distance and awe.

The intensity of the gap is less pronounced for certain teams, and time spent together in class helps to smoothen it over, but one has only to stroll the campus at sunrise to feel how deep it runs. Hours before the start of classes, as custodians and landscapers make their rounds at the residence halls, young men and women in black and green emerge to make their way southeast toward the training and practice facilities. This scene is just the tip of the athletic iceberg; away competitions, off-season conditioning, interim training trips and more structure varsity athletes’ days, weeks, and terms in a way that defines their Dartmouth experience when all is said and done.

It is a recurring question whether a liberal arts college can live up to its highest ideals while a proportion of students spends so much time and attention on non-academic goals. Coaches and athletic administrators, who have both strong personal relationships with Dartmouth’s student-athletes and, frankly, a stake in ever-more-robust programs, express confidence that sports are an overwhelming benefit to the College. “There’s not enough passion in life, and sports are something that really adds passion,” remarked Dartmouth’s Athletic Director Harry Sheehy in an interview with The Dartmouth Review. Throughout the conversation, Sheehy painted a picture of sports as just a different kind of class, instilling skills and values not found in the standard curriculum, but still pushing participants toward the liberal mission rather than away from it.

Sheehy continued into a persuasive litany of sports’ benefits for student-athletes, not only defending Dartmouth’s programs against the claim that they are socially stratifying, but also demonstrating broad faith in training and competition as indispensable teaching tools.  “When I was at Williams, I would try to make the basketball season the ‘hardest course” my players were taking at the time.” he recalled of his tenure as Head Coach of the Men’s Basketball team at Williams College, giving earnest voice to the old notion of “learning on the field”. Sheehy’s drive to reinforce this dimension of the athletic experience inspired him to launch Peak Performance in his first year; an umbrella term for new health and education training for Dartmouth’s varsity athletes. “We’re focused on areas of leadership, nutrition, general wellness. Our goal is to add to their toolbox as they go forward,” he said in summary of his signature initiative, now in it’s fourth year of action and boasting positive if sometimes uncritical reviews from many athletes.

The expansion of collegiate athletics at Dartmouth and elsewhere is owed mostly to widespread acceptance of this promise – that time invested by student-athletes and money invested by donors will pay off in the form of skills and character that equip graduates for post-collegiate success. The promise isn’t new, but it has changed form over the decades to keep pace with growing interest in sports and universities’ increasing emphasis on career preparedness. “Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that upon other days and other fields will bear the fruits of victory,” wrote Douglas MacArthur in reminiscence of his days on West Point’s playing fields, which he credited with forming him and his classmates for the challenges of battle. It’s never taken imagination to appreciate the benefits that practice in teamwork and fitness can give to future soldiers, but broadening MacArthur’s premise to apply to success in general as colleges have in the century since his graduation has required rhetorical deftness alongside the undoubtable evidence of experience.

Malcolm Gladwell, a public thinker renowned for criticizing the college sports enterprise, nonetheless addressed college athletes’ remarkable post-grad track record in a well-balanced 2005 essay in The New Yorker. He cites a 2001 study by professors James Shulman and William Bowen which claims that former athletes possess “a strong desire to succeed and unswerving determination to reach a goal, whether it be winning the next game or closing a sale.” Even more relevant to Dartmouth, the reluctant praise continues with a description of athletes’ specific fitness for the financial sector, as they “tend to be more energetic than the average person, which translates into an ability to work hard over long periods of time.” Most elite employers describe their ideal candidate as having a collection of these traits rather than the focused expertise more commonly associated with the liberal arts.

But while Gladwell acknowledges sports’ unique ability to develop workplace prowess, he remains skeptical of their outsized impact on admissions and colleges’ overall integrity. He describes how the dual incentives to select applicants best suited to professional success and who would preserve the college’s elite status by embodying a vigorous image led the Ivy League to prioritize athletic ability more highly than ever before beginning in the 1920s. He recalls the tenure of Wilbur Bender, Harvard’s mid-century admissions director, during which “athletic ability, rather than falling under ‘extracurriculars,’ got a category all to itself.” Gladwell is confident that this shift set a permanent trend, saying “even now, recruited athletes have an acceptance rate to the Ivies at well over twice the rate of other students, despite S.A.T. scores that are on average more than a hundred points lower.” Unlike the shallow idea that sports aren’t educational, this claim that colleges undermine their educational mission by lowering their standards for recruited applicants presents a plausible rebuttal to Sheehy’s all-positive outlook on Dartmouth’s athletic culture.

To minimize the breadth of our trade-off of academic skills for athletic ability, the College maintains an “Academic Index” which proposes guidelines for how much leeway admissions officers ought to give recruited athletes. The index divides recruits into four categories based on their playing potential, and lays out what score they must achieve on a numerical rating of their academic record to be offered admission. “You can only be one standard deviation from the mean,” Sheehy summarized, noting that Dartmouth maintains a high bar for its athletes while admitting that coaches are often frustrated by the limits. “Coaches are competitive, but they know they can only push it so far. Obviously they don’t want to hear ‘no’ all the time, but we know sometimes they have to,” he described of the subtle tension that often develops when a coach lobbies the admissions office for a spot for his stand-out recruit. Though every December and April bring both successes and dashed hopes as programs fill their ranks with newly admitted students, there’s little doubt in the end that most of Dartmouth’s admitted student-athletes have the raw capability for academic success.

The problem of athletes and academics, however, does sometimes arise in practice; in the College’s classrooms long after the athletes arrive on campus. Given the fact of lower-than-average classroom competitiveness amongst recruits, the ideal for the sporting campus has long been the (condescendingly named but actually aspiriational) “happy bottom quarter” system; unlikely to flourish academically, the lowest academic quartile are expected to concentrate on an extracurricular talent while getting as much as they can from their classes. While most of Dartmouth’s student-athletes learn to manage their commitments and attain this balance, the image of athletes subverting academic rigor through “lay-up lists” circulated within teams remains an unshakeable piece of Dartmouth lore. It’s impossible to know how widespread and systematic this habit actually is, if not only because many of Dartmouth’s most interesting and universally popular courses could be categorized as lay-ups if evaluated by their medians alone. But every so often, an incident like the mass attendance fraud in Fall 2014’s Religion 65 class foils the common desire to believe that the tales of lazy academic habits among some athletes are completely exaggerated.

In an interview with the Valley News, Religion 65’s professor Randall Balmer described the course, which was titled “Sports, Ethics, & Religion” as designed for athletes who he presumed might feel “overmatched” by Dartmouth’s workload. Even though he took care to emphasize his belief that athletes are handicapped by time constraints rather than a lack of capability, his comments still left a left a sting on many in the athletic community. Sheehy bristled at the thought of Balmer’s words, saying, “we don’t need that kind of help. Unlike some other institutions our student-athletes are not only graduating, but graduating in a way that makes us proud.” Dartmouth’s ninety-nine percent student-athlete graduation rate, the highest in the country in 2014 according to the NCAA, provides a firm stopgap against panic about athletes’ academic practices. But the persistent rumors and the occasional public incident ensure that the worries will always persist to some degree.

Regardless of how one tabulates the balance of blessings and difficulties of athletics at the College, it is a forgone conclusion that Dartmouth’s programs will remain well funded and numerous. Athletic Department spending totaled 23.4 million dollars in 2013, which breaks down to about twenty-two thousand dollars per student-athlete. The bulk of this funding comes from alumni grants, which donors specifically earmark for use on facilities, equipment, and other expenses. Sheehy noted the recent spike in the alumni giving rate, saying “we didn’t really have dedicated guys on alumni fundraising before. It’s really hard to do a good thing by accident.” But the department’s two-decade funding flood hasn’t significantly translated into progress on the field, where Dartmouth’s teams often still find themselves overmatched. “We don’t have the same resources as Harvard or Princeton,” Sheehy offered, speaking uninhibitedly about Dartmouth’s relative disadvantage. This perspective is shared by the student-body at large, which creates the odd circumstance of poorly attended competitions and a general lack of enthusiasm at a college with perhaps the highest proportion of varsity athletes in the country. Though Sheehy and others take care to highlight sports’ positive impact on Dartmouth’s culture, the lack of outside interest actually serves as reminder that sports at the College exist primarily for the enjoyment and development of the athletes themselves. Including both the good and the regrettable, their experiences at practice and play over four years, combined with the memories and skills they carry on, are the fundamental determinant of the value of sports at Dartmouth.

 Joshua D. Kotran also contributed to this report.