Jan. 31, 2017

Dear Students, Faculty, Staff, Alumni, and Parents,

The magnitude of developments on the national front can make it difficult to focus on other matters. But it is important, perhaps more important than ever, that we also advance the work of our institutions and do what’s necessary to keep them strong. I am writing today about one particular aspect of our College life—the role of athletics, an area that was studied by a special committee that completed its work at the end of this past academic year. I write to share their report. The committee, which I commissioned, was co-chaired by Shirley Tilghman, Amherst trustee and president emerita of Princeton University, and Patrick Williamson, Edward H. Harkness Professor of Biology. The committee included several students, two additional faculty members, a coach, a trustee who was a varsity athlete at Amherst, and the dean of students. 

Given the prominence, popularity, and professionalization of college athletics in American society, it is important to step back periodically and take a careful look at our athletics programs to ensure their strength, integrity, and contribution to Amherst’s overall educational mission. The special committee’s report does just that and finds that Amherst has a strong, even exemplary, program in athletics, one that enhances the experience of student-athletes, avoids the excesses of college sports at other levels, and contributes positively to the life of the College. The committee bases that view on the experiences and levels of satisfaction of student-athletes; the academic seriousness and success of student-athletes; and the competitive success of our teams. The committee also underscored the loyalty of alumni who were student-athletes.  

It is a very positive report, but one that also points to areas of concern and makes recommendations for addressing them. The report has been reviewed by the Committee of Six, which discussed it this past fall, and by the faculty at their December meeting. The faculty will discuss it again in early February. 

There will inevitably be differences of opinion about the report’s findings and recommendations. Given the erosion nationally of informed, truthful, and respectful exchanges of opinion, I can think of nothing more encouraging than the ability on our campus, and among the wider Amherst community, to engage in discussions that keep faith with the basic values of liberal arts education. This is a time to model the virtues that are becoming too rare, but that we need to keep alive at this college—thoughtful, open, critical, evidence-based reasoning and respectful conversation that moves us forward together. Having had time to reflect on the report and on recent events on our campus and others, I want to share some of my thoughts in this letter.

Athletics has long been integral to the residential liberal arts experience, both for student-athletes and for those who enjoy sporting events from the sidelines or bleachers. I know from my own experience playing basketball that athletics teaches indispensable lessons. These are lessons about team work and the necessity of placing a higher priority on the success of a group than on one’s own individual performance or gain; the shared joy of succeeding as a team; the importance of discipline and repetition to learning; and finding a way to succeed when the odds seem stacked against you. Such lessons are bodily as well as cognitive; they involve emotional learning that yields pride and pleasure in improvement over time. Participation in sports builds the psychological resilience that comes from high aspirations and from the need to deal with disappointment and defeat. At its best, sports can also teach us how to make appropriate use of aggression and how to control it. For those of us who are not athletes, sports can offer the thrill of witnessing the feats human beings can accomplish with their bodies and also what well-coached teams can do with complex, well-designed, and well-executed game plans and plays. Finally, athletics builds community by deepening friendships and connecting alumni across generations with current students and with their college. 

As we all know, athletics can also end up teaching negative lessons when sports becomes an obsession; when winning is valued over the welfare of athletes or pursued at any cost; when loss is treated as devastation; when team bonds are predicated on the exclusion or denigration of one outside group or another; when athletes live in a world of their own at institutions that do not provide them with a serious education or ensure that they earn a degree; when the money involved in big-time athletics becomes a corrosive influence throughout society; when aggression is not confined within the boundaries of the game.  

Recent events involving our men’s cross country team and similar events on other campuses remind us that we must ensure the integrity of our athletics programs and the well-being of those who participate. These events also underscore the importance of accountability when individuals or team behaviors cause harm. The problems that have been revealed of late, here and elsewhere, are not new; they are not limited to particular individuals, to athletics teams, or to colleges and universities. If they were, they would be much easier to uproot. They are deeply embedded, society-wide problems that we must approach on campus by exemplifying the habits of mind we teach in the classroom.

Our athletics teams have taken part in Title IX, sexual-respect, and bystander training—as have students who are not varsity athletes. This spring we are stepping up our efforts, enlisting outside professionals to augment what our own staff is already doing and taking a hard look at what encourages problematic group behavior, how it can be changed, and what forms of engagement we want as a community. There are no immediate solutions or top-down fixes. On this issue, as with others, the most worthwhile progress, and the only progress worth pursuing, comes from conversations that require learning and unlearning, hard work, and practice with the crafts of thinking and speaking. Those are the conversations we are going to have; that is how we do things here. Although the progress will inevitably be slow and uneven, it will be real. And it will keep faith with what is best in our college’s history and tradition.

The special committee was particularly interested in whether the professionalization of athletics across American society had affected the place of athletics at Amherst. The report affirms that the New England Small College Athletics Conference (NESCAC) helps member colleges avoid the excesses of other divisions and leagues. NESCAC institutions do not offer or allow athletics scholarships, and they place limits on recruitment activities and on the length of playing seasons. The conference regulates other aspects of sports as well. At NESCAC institutions, academics comes first. 

Nonetheless, the report cites several instances of intensification at Amherst, including growth in the roster sizes of a few teams and the fact that the number of varsity athletes has grown faster than the rate of growth in the student body as a whole. The report shows that student-athletes tend to cluster in particular majors. We will explore the reasons for those patterns and consequences for students and departments. The report points out that fewer student-athletes take advantage of opportunities to write a senior thesis, for understandable reasons, given time constraints, but with the lost opportunity for an invaluable experience.

The report also focuses attention on the grouping of student-athletes on campus in ways that separate them from students who are not involved in varsity sports. The report recommends that we take measures to lessen the divide between student-athletes and non-athletes in residential and social life. In fact, the College has already begun to make changes that will help ensure that social and residential programs and events involve the initiative and participation of students from all over campus. Our efforts to date include the design for our new residence halls; a new online room-draw system that modestly limits the ability of any one group to occupy any one dorm; and the mixing of class years in residence halls. These steps, together with new gathering spaces and party policies, will make it easier for all students to move outside their comfort zones and get to know new people throughout their time at Amherst. We are designing conversations for this spring about the kind of community we want to be and what skills are necessary for bridging differences. 

The report points out that our athletics teams are less socioeconomically and racially diverse than the student body as a whole. Once again, the causes are society-wide. NESCAC schools have historically recruited student-athletes from New England schools, and that pattern still affects recruiting to some degree. In addition, NESCAC limits coaches’ access to young athletes, restricting when and how they can make contact with them. The league regulates the amount of money that member colleges should spend on recruitment-related travel. These constraints are intended to prevent the kinds of abuses that have affected other leagues and divisions, and to ensure equity across the teams in our league. They have also had the inadvertent consequence of making it harder to achieve diversity on our teams. NESCAC presidents recently relaxed some restrictions on a trial basis in order to give our coaches a better chance to succeed.

In addition, certain sports are still less diverse at every age and educational level. It will take a longer time to increase diversity in those sports. Coaches in lacrosse, squash, and soccer, among other sports at Amherst, have designed successful programs aimed at involving children and adolescents from less privileged backgrounds in their sports and encouraging those already involved to visit Amherst. In part as a result of our coaches’ determination, Amherst has considerably greater diversity among its student-athletes than all of its peers in NESCAC. Nevertheless, in order to make greater progress in this area, the athletics department will need to develop recruitment strategies that are even more focused and creative.

There are two additional points I want to emphasize here. First, the committee recommends that we consult experts on concussive and sub-concussive injury to ensure we are following the best possible practices. I am working with NESCAC’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Paul Berkman, to arrange for a NESCAC symposium on this subject that Amherst would host. Second, for reasons of time, the committee was not asked to do a Title IX gender equity review, but we intend to consider the organization of our athletics programs in this light as well. We have engaged the services of a specialist in Title IX compliance, Janet Judge, president of Sports Law Associates, LLC, who will conduct a review this spring.

The Committee of Six has decided on a process for consideration of the report on campus. It will involve three key governance committees—the College Council, the Faculty Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid, and the Committee on Education and Athletics. Faculty, staff, and students are represented on these committees. They will help develop mechanisms for broader conversation on campus. I am asking colleagues in Alumni and Parent Programs to help organize conversation among alumni and parents and to provide meaningful ways for them to offer their views. “The Place of Athletics at Amherst” report will be publicly available for a limited time and, going forward, will be accessible to our on-campus community under password protection.

I wish you all well.

Biddy