KING JAMES BIBLE: Dartmouth Sees No Place For Football

While Harvard football slowly creeps up the Sagarin rankings—hitting 36th in all of Division I and moving one spot ahead of Boston College—things are going in quite the opposite direction for our travel partner to the north.

Last week, The Valley News reported that in a private letter written four years ago by Dartmouth College Dean of Admissions Karl Furstenberg to Swarthmore College President Alfred Bloom, Furstenberg praised Bloom’s decision to disband the Swarthmore football program. But, Furstenberg didn’t stop there.

“You are exactly right in asserting that football programs represent a sacrifice to the academic quality and diversity of entering first-year classes,” Furstenberg said in the letter. “This is particularly true at highly selective institutions that aspire to academic excellence...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.”

This revelation could not have surfaced at a worse time. After firing John Lyons at the end of its 1-9 campaign, the Big Green is currently scouring the country for a new head coach to take the reins of what has become a less-than-desirable position.

Add to that an admissions department that is led by someone who believes that football is “antithetical to the academic mission” of Dartmouth, and the pool of possible choices shrinks even further.

The Dartmouth administration frantically responded to the article with a press release that included statements from Furstenberg and President James Wright.

Furstenberg was quick to point out that “this was a private communication to a professional colleague, commenting on a national issue in higher education.”

Apparently, he felt the fact that the letter wasn’t supposed to be made public made his remarks okay.

Furstenberg continued by adding that “the views expressed in that letter do not reflect Dartmouth policy nor do they have any bearing on the manner in which I carry out my responsibilities at the College.”

For the record, The Valley News reported that the letter was drafted on Dartmouth stationery (making it look quite a bit like “Dartmouth policy”) and his(. Furstenberg’s) assertion that his views have no bearing on his professional conduct is bogus, since his job is to ensure the academic quality and diversity of the incoming classes, something which he openly states is sacrificed by maintaining a football program.

The wording of Furstenberg’s “apology” was quite curious as well.

“I am very sorry that remarks I made in a private December 2000 letter to the President of Swarthmore College will offend and disappoint people I care about and who, as I do, care about Dartmouth and our student athletes,” Furstenberg said in the statement.

Notice that he’s not apologizing for the remarks or in any way attempting to take them back. He’s not sorry about what he said—he’s sorry he got caught.

Furstenberg and Dartmouth should not be allowed to wiggle out of this so easily. There’s a reason why the Big Green won fewer games since 1998 (16), than it did in just 1996 and 1997 (18), and it had little, if anything, to do with a decline in Lyons’ coaching ability.

As Dartmouth made its push to become more intensely focused on admitting high-powered academic applicants in the late 1990s, the SAT scores of the incoming classes began to rise. This raised the Academic Index (a combination of SAT I and II scores and class rank) to a level just a fraction below that of Princeton, Harvard and Yale. In response, the Big Green football recruits had to fit a higher academic profile as well, in order to fit the banding requirements that indicate how many players in each range of AIs that a school can accept.

Lyons quickly saw players that would have fit into some of the lower bands just a few years earlier fall well below the AI floor, and he knew that the talent level of the Big Green program would soon begin to fall as well. This monumental change was exogenous to the football program and should have been mitigated by the admissions office offering more generous financial aid packages (to rival the initial packages offered by traditional big-spenders like Princeton, Harvard and Yale, which have a greater pool of monetary resources to draw from), and admitting a higher percentage of the student-athletes that qualified under the AI banding system. The administration didn’t, and the Big Green quickly lost the ability to compete with other Ivy schools, going 12-37 in the league play since 1998.

Furstenberg’s letter clearly lays out a philosophical approach to football that would be consistent with such a drop off in admissions department support for the program.

But maybe Lyons summed it up best after being shown a copy of the letter by The Valley News.

“What was he thinking?” Lyons said.

And that question is becoming an ever more applicable response to whoever would want to take the Big Green coaching job.

—Staff writer Michael R. James can be reached at mrjames@fas.harvard.edu. His column appears every Tuesday.

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