Athletics and Academics Can Be a Winning Partnership

June 08, 2014
Athletics and Academics Can Be a Winning Partnership

When I became dean of the faculty, nine years ago, I think I knew as little about intercollegiate athletics as it is possible to know in our culture. I knew that students missed classes sometimes on game days. I knew that many students seemed to like athletics a lot. But I didn’t know much about the experiences of student-athletes on the playing field, and I didn’t know that athletics can be a strong partner in advancing the college’s educational mission. I know now.

At Union College, the athletics department reports to the dean of the faculty and is part of the academic-affairs division of the college. I have come to value this structure because it has led me to develop a close partnership with our athletic director. Consequently, the academic administration supports and encourages the athletic department’s close attention to the academic lives of student-athletes.

Our athletic director’s performance is evaluated, in part, on the percentages of student-athletes who study abroad and who engage in undergraduate research, as well as on their grade-point averages in an environment in which there are plenty of distribution requirements and no hiding places in "easy" majors. The overall educational experience of student-athletes and the extent to which their academic abilities and successes are representative of the student body as a whole are high priorities, higher than win-loss records.

These educational priorities for student-athletes are common in the NCAA’s Division III. Our league, the Liberty League, has done a good job of supporting all of its member institutions in integrating academic and athletic life. The big surprise at Union has been our success in adapting the Division III model to Division I hockey.

Union College completed its men’s hockey season this year by defeating the University of Minnesota for the national title at the Frozen Four, in Philadelphia. That is, a liberal-arts college—with 2,200 students, one National Hockey League draft pick, and no athletics scholarships—versus a major university, with 34,500 undergraduates on its flagship campus alone, 14 NHL draft picks, and 18 men’s-hockey scholarships. To play at this level, Union has followed the road less taken to competitive success, a path that relies on a strong academic-athletic partnership. Along the way, we have had ample opportunity to reflect on the relationship between athletic and academic priorities.

Athletics teams are the anti-MOOC. Membership is limited and competitive, not massive or open. Teams can’t play online. And, to state the obvious, in spite of their potential contributions to learning, athletics competitions are not courses. Rather, a team is an extracurricular activity that is grounded in a particular place and which is personal, with each player’s identity reflected in a particular role.

Technology is opening up opportunities for engagement on a global scale. This can come at the expense of community life—what we could call the local scale. College graduates are going to need skill in living and working in both global and community spheres. They will need to be able to communicate virtually with people whom they have never met, who are operating in widely varied cultural contexts. But they will also need to understand what it means to be of a place, to be part of a community. Small liberal-arts colleges like Union have a great record of preparing students in both ways—sending them to study abroad in high numbers and educating them at home in closely knit communities with small classes, in which face-to-face interaction thrives even as use of social media grows.

Athletics can be a great ally in perpetuating the uniquely American, highly effective model of liberal-arts education. It is not unusual for students to come out of high school with deeper interest in sports than in physics or literature. An environment in which coaches put academic priorities first, and in which faculty members respect the importance to students of athletics and other out-of-class activities, can draw students more deeply into the life of an academic community and more deeply into the life of the mind. Meeting students where they are can be an important ingredient in helping them to move forward productively.

With the prospect of athletics scholarships’ being considered employee pay, and athletes’ becoming employees, implying athlete first and student second, maybe it’s time to find better ways to integrate the academic and the athletic more deeply throughout the academy. Our student-athletes can only benefit from a high priority’s being given to their education. And in an era of angst about students’ staying home and self-educating with MOOCs, colleges and universities can capitalize on the fact that athletics draws students to the physical space of a campus.

But how students integrate their academic and athletic lives once they get on the campus is critical. I have learned that a crucial ingredient in creating a culture of mutual respect and strengthening the academic lives of athletes is the institutional structure of situating athletics within academic affairs. And, of course, the importance of having an athletics staff that places high priority on education can hardly be overstated.

As I watched our hockey players compete for a national title, I could not have been more proud that they were gaining the skills and knowledge in the classroom and in the rink that would lead them to medical school, to business, to engineering, to education careers. While the benefits of education that last a lifetime are the first priority, it’s also fun to see evidence that learning to think critically leads to getting lots of pucks in the goal as well.

Tagged: Student-athletes

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