By winning the school’s first Directors’ Cup last year, Middlebury laid claim to the most successful Division III athletic program in the country. We recently spoke to President Liebowitz about the place of athletics at Middlebury, examining both the benefits and the challenges.
Let’s start by talking about the value of athletics.
Sure. I can speak both theoretically and personally. Theoretically, I do believe the cliché that a liberal arts education is about educating the whole self. Broadly speaking, athletics is part of one’s education for life. The lessons one learns, the mentoring that takes place, the leadership opportunities, the commitment one must make. All clichés, but true.
Personally, I had the experience of being a varsity athlete in college, and I learned a lot from it: the commitment, the dedication, the teamwork, the focus necessary to compete successfully. And then you learn how to cope with defeat. So there’s no doubt in my mind that there’s a value. The question is how much emphasis should athletics have within the larger framework of the institution?
How has the athletics landscape changed since you arrived on campus in the early 1980s?
The biggest positive change has been the huge increase in opportunities for women. Title IX has insured that women’s athletics get equal funding, which has had a very positive impact on opportunities for women. Women’s athletics were strong when I arrived here in 1984—there were some amazing athletes and amazing teams—but the overall excellence of the program has really grown.
During this same time frame, I would say that the place of athletics at Middlebury has changed. Our conference, the New England Small College Athletic Conference, has evolved from something akin to a loose confederation of schools to a highly competitive playing conference whose members compete at the national level; national postseason play for teams did not exist until the mid-1990s. So, along with the increased level of competition for our teams has come, at least in some people’s minds, an exaggeration of the role of athletics in the overall scheme of a Middlebury education.
The NESCAC presidents have been discussing these changes, trying to find the best ways to monitor and manage this intensification. But it’s a difficult task. We are attracting great student-athletes, who are competing at higher and higher levels and wish to continue to compete at that level in college. The competition within the conference has been ratcheted up, and the expectations of support by students and their families follow suit. So it’s no surprise that people are questioning how far this could and should go.
So what is being done within the conference?
Well, on one level, the presidents have been very effective in holding firm to NESCAC’s core operating principles designed to support intercollegiate competition in a manner consistent with our commitment to academic excellence. We’d like to call it “balance”—a balance between academics and athletics. For example, unlike in other D-III conferences, clear limits are placed on the number of games teams can play; the length of playing seasons; what coaches and athletes can do in an organized fashion out of season; how recruitment is done, when, and where; plus, other things.
But that’s not to say that I’m entirely in concert with the NESCAC approach to how we address these issues of oversight. I do believe the NESCAC is the most outstanding D-III conference in the country—academically and athletically. Yet it does worry me that the way we are trying to define the role of athletics among the 11 member institutions is limiting to each institution’s identity and autonomy. How far do we go as a conference before there is an undeniable—and what I would call unfortunate—homogenization of member schools in the conference?
I believe that each school has its own character. Each school has developed its athletic and academic culture over a long period of time; for us, it’s been over 213 years, and it reflects our location, our emphasis on the outdoors, on balance, and on the notion that education is of the whole individual. What I fear most is a conference impinging on the College’s autonomy when it comes to determining who is admitted or is discounted based on criteria that might not be as inclusive as what we like to use.
In the past, we have taken “so-called” chances on scholar-athletes whose test scores might not have been on par with the bulk of our applicants, but our admissions staff and coaches saw in such candidates personal qualities, such as leadership, initiative, perseverance, and a strong will to learn, and we have been very happy that we did so.
Yet the processes we are putting in place to address concerns of the “representativeness” of our student-athletes, which may be too arcane to describe here, are likely to exclude those types of students we, in the past, have accepted—students who have thrived on the playing fields and in the classroom and have added positively to the educational atmosphere on campus.
While what NESCAC has done has raised the level of academic standing of our accepted student-athletes (which is good, of course), we want to be sure institutions can maintain autonomy where it matters—that is, address at the local level those issues that affect a small number of institutions. If the academic and social gaps are seen to be too great on a campus, that campus, not the conference, should make adjustments to address the issue; conference solutions might be unnecessary on a number of our campuses. Collective action is effective, but, in my view, we need to be more selective in applying conference-wide solutions.
You said this system was created 10 years ago…
Right. This was largely the response to a pair of books (The Game of Life and Reclaiming the Game) coauthored by William Bowen, the former president of Princeton, when he was the president of the Mellon Foundation. Bowen raised two important points: a concern that the Ivies and selective liberal arts colleges were offering admissions slots to too many unqualified or lesser qualified student-athletes at the expense of other students, and, far more important in my view, there was developing a bifurcation of the student body at these schools, a divided culture, between athletes and non-athletes.
I’ll address this second issue first. Middlebury has always prided itself as not having a culture in which athletes self-segregated from the rest of the student body. This is largely true, based on my experiences teaching, and my close following of athletics for nearly 30 years. Ironically, and perhaps a result of the increased competitiveness within the conference and nationally, I do see a greater distance between athletes and non-athletes than in the early 1980s. It’s something for us to watch, as it relates to what goes on in the classroom and to the overall experience of our students. Some of this may be due to the intensified nature of practice, of out-of-season conditioning (which is done largely within teams), and other aspects of increased competitiveness of our programs. We need to ensure that our student-athletes continue to contribute to the overall educational mission of the institution and enrich the overall class and the classes around them while they are here.
However, I’m also concerned about how we choose to address any of the issues we believe need to be addressed. I would rather “fix” such issues locally than ask our conference for a solution, as offers of admission go beyond test scores and class ranks. When our admissions office brings in a class, they’re not looking for the students with the highest test scores or the most extracurricular activities or the most of anything. They are looking for a cohort that will have multiple strengths, that, when combined, will create the best learning environment on campus. Part of the residential liberal arts experience is learning from one another. Athletes represent a broad spectrum of strengths, and we want to be sure some of those positive characteristics are not lost.
We need some system in place to keep our academics and athletics in balance, but we need to retain our autonomy, too. It’s been 10 years since we instituted what has become an elaborate scheme for admissions for our conference, and it is time to step back and ask ourselves: Has it served us well, has it gone too far, how might we improve things to the benefit of all our students.
I recall some discussion about whether another NCAA division was necessary to accommodate conferences with stricter guidelines.
A few years ago, I was convinced that we should be looking into a possibility of Division IV. Division III was doubling to 430 schools, and it seemed clear that we’d be at a competitive disadvantage with our shorter seasons, fewer practices, and other important values that set us aside from other conferences. But our student-athletes disagreed and were of one mind. In various discussions, student-athletes, through their captains, claimed they did not feel disadvantaged and, in fact, said “President Liebowitz: Yes, those other conferences have those advantages . . . but we still win. In addition, we have the opportunity to play more than one sport and time to do other things—to attend lectures, lead student organizations, and take advantage of exploring Vermont.”
Also, it would be hypocritical for me to sit here and say we’re at a disadvantage after we just captured our first Directors’ Cup; Williams, another NESCAC school, had won it the prior 14 years. So no, I don’t think we’re at a disadvantage.
What have we not talked about…?
Well, I think the recruitment game is a big negative in my view. The way recruiting is done is a conundrum to me. I think recruiting has become hard to understand, and, all too often, results in disappointment for student-athletes. Ironically, with more rules in place, there seems to be more suspicion and accusations of violations in recruiting than we used to see. We have very strict rules in the conference about coaches not “making admissions offers” to students—only the Admissions Office can offer admission; and we regulate rather strictly when coaches can send folders to the Admissions Office for consideration. And what we hear is that coaches around the conference somehow misinterpret some of these rules and therefore promise some prospective students that they will be admitted well before any decisions have been made. This creates problems, as you can imagine.
Yet, despite all that we have covered, and all my concerns about institutional autonomy versus a conference approach to regulating athletics, I still see our conference as the best in the country. There is something extremely valuable about being among like-minded institutions that value scholar-athletes, while ensuring that athletics fits within our academic mission.