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Defending the Dean

01/22/05 12:00AM By Brian Porto
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(HOST) According to commentator Brian Porto, on one local campus, college football is at the center of a new controversy.


(PORTO) Recently, a debate has raged at Dartmouth College about the proper role of sports on campus. The debate followed the disclosure in the Valley News of a letter that Dartmouth's Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Karl Furstenburg wrote to Swarthmore College president Alfred Bloom in 2000, after Swarthmore disbanded its football team. The letter offended some Dartmouth alumni, particularly former football players.

In the letter, Dean Furstenburg told President Bloom: "You are exactly right in asserting that football programs represent a sacrifice to the academic quality and diversity of entering first-year classes. This is particularly true at highly selective institutions that aspire to academic excellence." He added: "I wish this were not true, but sadly, football and the culture that surrounds it is antithetical to the academic mission of colleges such as ours."

Swarthmore's experience supports Dean Furstenburg's first comment: namely, that elite colleges sacrifice diversity by recruiting football players. Fielding an all-male, 55-member football team required Swarthmore to admit a disproportionate number of athletes to its 375-member freshman class. Eliminating football reduced the number of recruited athletes to 15 percent of the entering class, making room for male and female musicians, dancers and actors who would otherwise not have been admitted.

Social science evidence supports Dean Furstenburg's second comment, which concerns the adverse effects of a football culture on college campuses. A study published in the Journal of Higher Education in 1995 compared the scores that 2400 students at 18 colleges earned on a standardized test of reading comprehension, mathematics and critical reasoning skills taken shortly before their freshman year began and again shortly after it ended. Most males in the study progressed in reading comprehension and math during their freshman year, but male football and basketball players showed modest declines in both categories at colleges where test scores were generally high and at colleges where they were not. The authors concluded: "It may be that football and basketball teams constitute campus subcultures that attach less value to academic achievement than do other sports."

Thus, Dean Furstenburg's letter was a sound critique of the impact that athletic recruiting can have on admissions and campus life, not the anti-athletics rant that his critics have charged. I hope that the critics find a new outlet for their time and talents, perhaps devising more valuable ways for Dartmouth alumni to stay connected to the college than by fretting over its football fortunes.

This is Brian Porto of Windsor.

Brian Porto is an attorney and a freelance writer. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.
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