Sociology experiment: mixing strong academics and athletics at Northwestern

Chicago Tribune columnist David Haugh suggested yesterday that Northwestern University is facing a sociology experiment by wanting strong academics and athletics:

So continued America’s fascinating sports sociology experiment in Evanston: Can a major-college sports program thrive in an environment in which winning clearly isn’t the No. 1 determinant of success? As Final Four week begins, it would behoove every basketball campus to reconsider its definitions of thrive, winning and success…

So I reached a different conclusion about Carmody but loved the way Phillips defended his. I loved the idea of a Big Ten school espousing ideals more typically found in Division III programs, of an AD taking an unpopular route by taking a stand for something noble. I can applaud a decision I wouldn’t have made because of what it symbolizes.

On one hand, Northwestern shows it recognizes the Big Ten basketball arms race by working on plans for $250 million worth of necessary facility upgrades. On the other, it stayed true to an underlying mission colleges usually ignore by keeping a coach who does things the right way…

Roll your eyes and look up Pollyannaish if you wish. But ultimately Phillips’ decision embodied the mandate for college sports programs Secretary of Education Arne Duncan outlined in a news conference on the eve of the NCAA tournament intended to remind schools of their priorities. Theoretically, Northwestern’s stance also reflected the emphasis more Big Ten and BCS-conference universities must consider in light of the NCAA linking academic progress rate with tournament eligibility beginning in 2013.

Haugh defends Northwestern’s actions in trying to do both: have high academic standards and have competitive sports programs. A few thoughts about this:

1. I’ve heard a lot of this argument at both Notre Dame and Northwestern. The situations are slightly different (Northwestern doesn’t have the past football glory of Notre Dame) but the argument generally go like this: the schools need to lower their academic standards in football and basketball if they really hope to compete for national championships. Perhaps this is right – neither school is the kind of powerhouse that brings athletes in and spits them out. But, as Haugh suggests, the schools have some different priorities.

2. These different priorities are not just tertiary concerns: Northwestern is a serious academic school (as is Notre Dame). According to the US News and World Report rankings, Northwestern is the #12 undergraduate school (Notre Dame is #19), #4 among business graduate schools, and #9 among education graduate schools (among other high rankings). So this isn’t quite a high-ranking Division III school; Northwestern is a strong academic university where there are many things going on besides athletics.

3. In other sports, Northwestern and Notre Dame can do just fine. Let’s be honest here: what is really driving these arguments is football (and maybe a little basketball). Interestingly, both Northwestern and Notre Dame are not bad at these sports but also not great. Northwestern football has been improved since the mid 1990s but they are not going to compete for a national championship. Northwestern basketball just missed the NCAA tournament but they played in perhaps the toughest conference this year and had a number of chances to make their season really memorable.

3a. If you look at the Director’s Cup rankings which account for all sports, some more academic schools do just fine. For example, look at the most recent March 22 rankings: Stanford is #1, Duke is #28, Notre Dame is #34, and Northwestern is #63. Granted, the big public schools seem to do well in these rankings across the sports but it’s not like academic schools can’t compete in other sports. For example, Northwestern has been known in recent years for two other sports: fencing and women’s lacrosse. While these are not high profile, the athletes have proven can be champions as well as high-performing athletes.

3b. I wonder at times if Northwestern isn’t lucky on this front to be located in Chicago. Since Chicago doesn’t care much about college sports, schools like Northwestern and the University of Chicago (who used to be in the Big 10 but now competes at the Division III level) don’t have to go the athletic route.

In the end, I think Northwestern will be just fine. This is a sociology experiment that doesn’t have to happen – not all colleges need to be athletic powerhouses.

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