Lewis Defended University Athletics

The decor in the office of Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 is dense and varied, a testament to his many interests. Amidst the exploration-era maps of North America, the computer science books, the dozens of rock samples and the mounted bull skull, it would be easy to miss the wooden hockey stick leaning in the corner.

The stick is signed by every player on Harvard’s 1999 national champion women’s hockey team. A team picture, also fully autographed, adorns the wall in the opposite corner. Lewis has said that the 1999 title game was one of the highlights of his deanship.

In his position as dean of the College, Lewis serves on 28 committees, including the Faculty Standing Committee on Athletic Sports and the Ivy League Policy Committee—on which he serves as Harvard’s representative.

“He’s been like a guiding light,” says Athletic Director Robert L. Scalise. “He’s helped keep things in balance and in perspective in the right way for a school like ours within the Ivy League.”

And Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby’s ouster of Lewis last month ruffled some feathers.

“I think it’s a tough day for the athletic department,” Katey Stone, coach of that 1999 championship hockey team, said the week of Lewis’s dismissal. “He’s been a tremendous supporter of the athletic department and specifically my program. He’s done a lot to help my players behind the scenes when we’ve really needed him.”

In the 100 year-old debate on the role of athletics at Harvard, Lewis falls in the camp that supports a more prominent place for athletics on campus.

“I view Harry as not only among the strongest advocates of athletics but among the most balanced and thoughtful with respect to the appropriate role athletics play at a strong academic institution such as Harvard,” says Vince McGugan ’72, chair of the Overseers’ Visiting Committee for the Department of Athletics since 1990. “He’s put a tremendous amount of personal energy into this set of issues and he’s had great success.”

Many stop short of speculating that Lewis’ departure reflects a rise of anti-athletic sentiment in the University administration. But many also agree that athletes are losing one of their biggest supporters at the moment when administrators in the College and around the Ivy League are considering potentially drastic changes to academic standards, forced rest time and a reduction in the number of admitted recruits.

Advocating for Athletics

Next to the women’s hockey team photo is the team photo of the 1930 varsity baseball squad, on which Lewis’s father-in-law was a big-swinging shortstop. Lewis’s own athletic career was not quite as illustrious.

Lewis says he gave up his spot as the third string goalie on the Harvard lacrosse team after a “brief and inglorious” career in order to focus “on academic things and also on my love life.”

As dean of the College, Lewis has found an outlet for his athletic enthusiasm by serving on committees to plan athletic policy in the College and in the Ivy League.

“I think the work of the athletic committee has been a labor of love for Harry,” says Dean of the Divinity School William A. Graham, who sits with Lewis on the standing committee on athletics. “He has put a tremendous amount of thought and energy and time into the whole question of both interscholastic and even intramural athletics.”

And Lewis has resisted efforts to shift focus away from athletics.

“I have a very traditional and idealistic view of athletics in the Ivy League,” Lewis says.

At their meeting last June, the Council of Ivy Presidents voted to reduce the number of football recruits from 35 to 30—part of a larger trend that has seen the number drop repeatedly since 1994, when 50 recruits were permitted.

But Lewis has warned against this movement to reduce the number of athletic recruits, which he says will make well-rounded student-athletes less attractive to coaches. Without athletic scholarships, a student’s financial aid cannot be tied to his participation in a sport, and so coaches sometimes have difficulty keeping a player on a team.

He says this might lead coaches to recruit more professionalized athletes who would be more likely to stay on the team, but less likely to participate in other activities.

“I would worry that even among students involved in athletics, significant commitments to activities other than athletics would come to be discouraged, not valued, as we so strongly believe they should be,” Lewis says.

He also says that he believes that recruited athletes who quit their teams, as he did when he was an undergraduate, often go on to contribute much to campus life in other areas.

“There are some real campus leaders in that category, people who’ve made enormous contributions to the College, and that’s the ideal,” Lewis says.

This is all hypothetical, Lewis says—there are no definite plans to further reduce the numbers of recruits in football or any other sport. The reduction in numbers and academic standards, however, will be two of the major topics of discussion at the Athletic Committee’s next meeting on May 2.

Scalise says that he and the other athletic directors are under a mandate from the Ivy Presidents to consider ways to reduce recruits, raise academic standards, and at the same time remain competitive.

“We athletic directors are grappling with this, and it’s really hard,” Scalise says. “It’s like building a building on budget, on time, and with high quality.”

Lewis says the move to reduce recruits is part of a larger trend to decrease intensity in college athletics, which stems from James L. Shulman and William G. Bowen’s 2001 book The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values.

Shulman and Bowen argue that athletes have a significant admissions advantage and that Ivy League sports are becoming increasingly professionalized—although Harvard is not included in the study.

Some scholars questioned its statistical methods, and Lewis has warned against adopting the recommendations of the book.

But Lewis says The Game of Life is one of the reasons why the Council of Ivy Group Presidents decided last June to implement the “seven week rule” for the 2002-2003 academic year. The rule mandates that teams take a seven week hiatus at some point during the academic year.

Intended to allow athletes time to focus on their studies or on other extracurricular activities, the measure met with widespread dissatisfaction among student athletes.

Lewis says he agrees with the objective behind the rule—student-athletes who contribute in other ways to the campus community are “the ideal,” he says—but has criticized its implementation.

Jane E. Humphries ’03, captain of the swimming and diving team and one of three student representatives on the Athletics Committee, wrote in an e-mail to Lewis and Scalise that the rule implied a dissatisfaction with athletes’ academic work—an insinuation she says she found “a bit insulting.” Lewis, she says, was very responsive.

Humphries says she supports the motion Lewis introduced to the league to distribute the 42 days of the rest period over the course of the year—a proposal that he says would better achieve balance between academics and athletics.

“We should teach not only that various pursuits should be valued by each student, but should teach that in living their daily lives, those pursuits should come into a natural rhythm, not yo-yoing in importance between extremes of total commitment and total abstinence,” Lewis wrote in an October memo to other Ivy League policy makers.

But while Lewis may often have been Harvard athletic’s biggest supporter among College administrators, he also says he believes that athletics in the College should observe limits.

A Matter of Good and Evil

Just down the wall from the hockey team picture there is a shot of a marching band on the 50-yd. line, in the formation of the Harvard “H.” But the field is in Ann Arbor, not Cambridge, and the band is wearing Michigan blue and gold, not Harvard Crimson. The picture was taken November 7, 1942, the last time Harvard played the Wolverines in football.

“I call this photo the parting of the ways in intercollegiate athletics, between the way of good and the way of evil,” Lewis says.

Lewis decries the “excesses” of many teams in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which he says include “absurd compromises of academic standards, scandalously low graduation rates and athletic participation becoming essentially a full-time job.”

There are two competing trends in college sports, Lewis says: the tendency towards increased professionalization, and the effort—partly a response to the first—to decrease the intensity of college athletics.

“Over the years the excesses got worse in the NCAA, and the Ivy League got pulled along,” Lewis says. “Several steps behind, but...these things only went in one direction. Some of the intensity-decreasing sentiment comes from a feeling that all of that went too far.”

Lewis says he agrees with the efforts to reduce intensity, but emphasizes that he is “not an absolutist” on this issue.

“I also do agree that it’s a good thing, where we can, to occasionally have the opportunity to have national visibility,” Lewis says.

For many teams, that isn’t the objective. Football, for example, generally aims for the glory of winning the Ivy title.

“If not just beating Yale,” Lewis quips.

But sports like hockey or squash compete regularly on the national level, and the imposition of new admissions policies may hurt their ability to do so. The Ivy ban on athletic scholarships can therefore be “a source of tension.”

In hockey, for example, Harvard competes in the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) against scholarship schools like Boston College. Along with the other three Ivies in the ECAC, Harvard struggles to maintain both its academic standards and the competitive balance in the conference.

“It’s not easy because of the extent to which our athletic program is interrelated,” Lewis says. “When you’re the Ivy League school trying, I think appropriately, to hold back, you can see where the source of the tension is, where you’re trying to balance your competitive equity with the best educational interests of the students.”

The question of balance between athletics and academics predates Lewis, and indeed predates the official formation of the Ivy League in 1945.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Harvard administrators expressed concern about the increasing emphasis undergraduates placed on intercollegiate athletics, centering around the fear not only that athletes spent too much time in athletic practices and did not have time to study, but that “exaggerated” physical activity would inhibit intellectual capabilities.

In 1893, the report of the president and treasurer of Harvard College warned that sports “interfere with, instead of clarifying and maintaining, mental activity; they convert the student into a powerful animal, and dull for the time his intellectual parts.” The report suggested limiting practice time to two hours a day and restricting competition to New England.

Today’s concerns about athletic intensity, and its effect on a student’s health and ability to succeed academically, echo those of 1893, and a balance between academics and athletics remains one of the most important issues for consideration in the Ivy League.

“I think the challenges have remained remarkably the same,” says Jeff Orleans, the executive director of the Council of Ivy Group Presidents. “They’re the right way to do admissions, and the right kind of structure for the competitive and athletic experience.”

“Getting up to Speed”

Lying flat on the window sill, waiting to be hung, is a blown-up, framed copy of the cartoon that ran on The Crimson editorial page March 19, 2003. The cartoon depicts President Lawrence H. Summers as a puppeteer, manipulating Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby, who is giving Lewis the boot.

Though most speculate that whoever fills Lewis’ position as chair of the Athletics Committee will be equally devoted to the preservation of the student-athlete, the replacement will take some time to familiarize themselves with the position.

“Harry is fully up to speed on all of the issues, so it’ll take some time for everyone else to just get up to speed and understand the complexity and the need for keeping it all in its proper balance and perspective,” Scalise says.

Though the University has not yet announced Lewis’ successor as Harvard’s Ivy Policy representative, many assume that Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict H. Gross ’71 will assume the responsibility when he enters the newly combined offices of Dean of Harvard College and Dean of Undergraduate Education.

“I would hope that Dean Gross or anyone else involved in this is going to continue to pursue the same kinds of interests and concerns,” says Graham.

Gross wrote in e-mail that he is “coming up to speed” on the issue of athletics and that his role in Ivy policy planning had not yet be determined. He declined further comment.

Wes Kauble ’06, another student member on the Athletic committee, says he thinks Lewis’ exit suggests a significant shift in priorities.

“Dean Lewis’ departure clearly signals a change in the administration’s views of a student-athlete, as well as the view of all other forms of student life available on campus,” Kauble says.

Nick Picarsic ’03, another student member on the Committee, says Lewis’s dismissal is not anti-athletic, but that Lewis will be hard to replace as an advocate for student athletes.

“I hope a commitment to dialogue with student-athlete representatives will not pass away along with his old position,” Picarsic says. “There is no substitute for communication, and I think the administration of this college has a responsibility to its student constituency to consult them on important decisions that affect their lives and careers here.”

“Gross has demonstrated his understanding of that responsibility by consulting students on other topics, and I hope he will follow Dean Lewis’ example in the area of student-athletes,” he adds.

Former students also express concern that the new dean will respect the established lines of communication.

“What I would hope would happen is that the faculty and President Summers would take in commentary and advice from the various constituencies who all have both experience with and a stake in Harvard athletics,” McGugan says.