How Fair is Fair Harvard?

Unnamed photo
Nami Sung


Before the hiring of men’s basketball coach Tommy Amaker in April, the Boston Globe reported that Harvard did not have one African-American among its 32 head coaches—a glaring statistic for any university committed to diversity. But is anyone concerned about the students who actually play the games?



Walk through Dillon Field House, Harvard University’s central athletics building across the Charles River, and you’ll see history hanging on the walls. Decades of team photographs line the corridors, testaments to the fact that the Ivy League was an athletic conference long before it became the most powerful brand name in higher education.

Look closely at the faces in these pictures, in fact—from the era of the leather helmet up to the age of Under Armour—and you might find an old stereotype rearing its head in monochrome.

Namely, that the playing fields at fair Harvard tend to be the territory of white elites.

While the most recent edition of the University of Central Florida’s Racial and Gender Report Card (2005) estimates that 20.6 percent of NCAA Division I scholarship athletes are black, Harvard’s recruited athletes—who cannot receive scholarships as per the rules of the Ivy League—do not come close to such a percentage.

According to official data obtained by The Crimson, the percentage of black athletes at Harvard not only hovers around a fourth of the national average, but is actually lower than the percentage of African-Americans in the wider student body.

Harvard’s NCAA Self-Study Reports—required of NCAA member institutions once every 10 years as part of a certification process—reveal that from 1994 to 1995, a gap of 4.3 points existed between the percentage of black students (9.7 percent) and recruited black athletes (5.4 percent). The most recent data available, from 2004 to 2005, places the latter figure at 5.5 percent, though the disparity had since shrunk to 2.4 points.

Conversely, whites seem to be overrepresented on Harvard’s teams by margins of 30 percentage points from 1994 to 1995 and 15 points from 2004 to 2005. Much of that decline could be due to the increased popularity of “Other,” an ethnic category that rose dramatically from 110 to 1,126 respondents between 1994 and 2005.

“It’s disappointing,” says Climenko Professor of Law Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a leading civil rights advocate. “Harvard should certainly strive to achieve meaningful diversity in every aspect of its public persona. Given the success of so many other elite institutions, the lower figures are astonishing. It’s a wake-up call.”

Ogletree, a Stanford grad who fondly recalls the playing days of Tiger Woods and NFL wide receiver Tony Hill, points to the overwhelming majority of Division I universities that feature more diverse racial compositions.

Though Stanford’s NCAA Self-Study was not made available to The Crimson, its rival, UC Berkeley, reports a typical overrepresentation of African-Americans in sports. In 2004-2005, 16.3 percent of Berkeley’s recruited athletes were black, as opposed to 4 percent of its student body. Likewise, academically elite Division I-AA schools such as William and Mary (14.8 percent vs. 4.5 percent) and Lehigh (13.6 percent vs. 2.9 percent) possess similar profiles.


MEANINGFUL DIVERSITY

Those photographs across the river, however, do have their analogues. To find them, one only needs to look at the rest of the Ivy League.

From 2002 to 2005, Yale—arguably Harvard’s most comparable peer institution along with Princeton—featured similar percentages, although Harvard’s minority enrollment figures were all slightly higher across the board. In the ’04-’05 school year, 7.6 percent of all Yale students were black, as opposed to just 5.0 percent of all recruited athletes.

Brown did not enumerate specific percentages, but reported that “6-7 percent” of undergraduates were African-American, compared to “5-6 percent” of student-athletes. Penn’s data, which ranges from 2001 to 2004, shows that 6.9 percent of its students were black, as opposed to 4.9 percent of all student-athletes. Dartmouth declined to delineate between races, but noted that as of 2004, more than 30 percent of its undergraduates were students of color—and yet they represented only 9.8 percent of intercollegiate athletes.

NCAA data from Princeton, Columbia, and Cornell were not made available.

In a Jan. 5, 2004 draft of its Self-Study, tellingly, Dartmouth directly and quite candidly addressed its perceived deficiency. Submitted by a 13-person committee comprised of athletics department officials, administrators, and students, it wrote that despite “good will,” “more than 150 coaches, admissions officers, other administrators, and faculty have been unable to attract and convince a significant number of student-athletes of color to apply to Dartmouth College.” Applications to the school from recruited student-athletes of color had apparently been as low as 17 and never higher than 40 from 1992 to 2004.

The committee went on to report that at the time, the highest number of minority students to play football in any given year was five, in 2002, while the men’s basketball team claimed zero students of color in that same year. For women’s basketball, the high mark at the time was one student, from 2000 to 2002.

The numbers have certainly improved since, but Jim Larimore, then the dean of Dartmouth College and currently the dean of students at Swarthmore, noted that the problem was unique to sports. It also derived, in large part, from the unique rural setting and reputation of a university in Hanover, N.H.

“We were successful in persuading students of color in general,” Larimore says. “The question we put forward was, ‘Why would we feel that the factors would be that much different for student athletes?’”


TWO KINDS OF SPORTS

Peter Roby is unsurprised at the numbers.

A former basketball captain at Dartmouth and the last African-American head coach at Harvard prior to Tommy Amaker, he currently serves as the interim athletics director at Northeastern University and the director of its Center for Sport in Society.

To him, it is clear that the Ivy League’s numbers do not reflect active discrimination, or even a lack of commitment to diversity.

Instead, he proposes, the evidence for under-representation at Harvard and elsewhere stems directly from the sheer quantity and type of sports offered. The Ancient Eight averages 33 varsity sports, far outstripping the Division I mean of 19. Harvard, conspicuously, prides itself on having a nation-leading 41.

“You have a tremendous offering of sports that are not historically favorable to people of color, perhaps because of access,” Roby says. “You’re already working off a pool that is really limited. How many kids of color are drawn to play field hockey, fencing, swimming and diving, lacrosse, tennis, and golf?”

Jeff Orleans, the Executive Director of the Council of Ivy Group Presidents, frames the issue in terms of expectations.

There “two kinds of sports,” he says: sports in which there are significant numbers of minority athletes, and sports in which there simply aren’t. The Ivy League has a far greater amount of the latter.

“In a sport in which we expect to find tangible numbers of athletes of color, you want to make sure that you reach those athletes and do the best possible job you can in attracting them and persuading them,” Orleans says. “But if you’re looking at success in recruiting, your definition of success will be different depending on the particular sport that you’re talking about.”

As for evaluating those particular sports, no Ivy League athletics department would disclose information on racial composition by team, and Harvard’s Nichols Family Director of Athletics Robert L. Scalise did not respond to repeated requests for comment. A representative from the Ivy League added that it does not collect any data on the race or ethnicity of student-athletes.

But publicly available team rosters for the 2006-2007 academic year do seem to confirm Roby and Orleans’s hypothesis, at least informally.

In an attempt to understand diversity as it varies by sport, the sports beat writers of The Crimson sifted through every roster for every team they cover in the Ivy League. Using personal knowledge of the squads in addition to photographs and available biographies, The Crimson then tried to contact coaching staffs to verify the numbers compiled. Ultimately, just nine Harvard teams agreed to vet our data before the Athletics Department directed us to the aggregate numbers contained in the NCAA Self-Study report.

For Harvard football, for example—whose numbers remain unverified—The Crimson approximates that the team is 77.7 percent white and 17.5 percent black, which is well below the 45.4 percent national average for Division I, but over twice the percentage of African-Americans in the student body in ’04-’05. Percentage-wise, the best represented sport at present is men’s basketball, at 28.6 percent (compared to a national average of 57.8 percent). Men’s soccer comes in second, with 26.9 percent of its roster composed of black students—a mark that leads the Ivy League.

Among women’s sports, representation was relatively lower according to The Crimson’s unofficial count, in keeping with national trends. The female team with the highest percentage of African-Americans proved to be basketball, at 16.7 percent—compared to a 43.7 percent national average—while fencing ranked second at 15.4 percent. This data suggests that there are less than twenty female African-American athletes on campus, in total.

Additionally, if one excludes basketball and football—two sports where minority participation is very high nationally—only 3.3 percent of Harvard’s student-athletes emerged as African-American.

Indeed, James R. Blake, Class of 2001, who is African-American, might be one of the top two American players in tennis today, but—in keeping with general trends across the conference—racket sports such as tennis and squash currently have no African-Americans on their rosters. And, perhaps predictably, the Crimson’s totals suggest that for all sports whose surface of competition is any kind of water—meaning ice hockey, water polo, swimming and diving, sailing, skiing, and crew—less than 3 percent of those student-athletes are black.

The reason why is both sociological and, ultimately, financial.

“Economic barriers can limit the pool of candidates who are able to achieve excellence in sports,” Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 and Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73 write in a joint e-mail. “For example, the cost of equipment, special lessons and instruction, and access to regional and national traveling teams during the school year and the summer can be quite daunting.”


THE BEST KIDS

Even among the biggest sports with the highest expectations, however, things didn’t always used to be this good.

Harvard football head coach Tim Murphy arrived in Cambridge from the University of Cincinnati in 1994, taking over a program built by longtime coach Joe Restic. By Murphy’s own count, the team he inherited had only one or two students of color.

“There were very few minorities during my first spring at Harvard, and not as much socioeconomic diversity in the football program as well,” Murphy says. “The main thing that we have done in recruiting is try and break down the myths and perceptions that many people have of Harvard: white, wealthy, private school background. I believe that our team is at least as racially and socioeconomically diverse as the student body.”

Murphy sports a 73-46 record since his arrival with three outright conference championships, including two undefeated seasons in 2001 and 2004. Two of the best players in Ivy League football history—wide receiver Carl E. Morris ’03 and running back Clifton G. Dawson ’07—are both African-Americans recruited during Murphy’s tenure. Now, Harvard is not only on pace with the rest of the Ivy League in terms of diversity, but a perennial contender that happens to observe the most rigorous academic standards in the country.

“Like the admissions office,” Murphy says, “we try to get the ‘best’ kids, period.”

Harvard’s head baseball coach Joe Walsh follows the same philosophy. But for him, the problem is that his sport cannot even begin to approach football in terms of racial diversity on the national level.

The Dorchester, Mass. native says that he doesn’t “even look to see whether a kid is of a certain racial distinction.” However, he has had to watch the number of African-Americans in his sport dwindle to a mere 6.5 percent of Division I players—steadily pushing America’s pastime further into Orleans’s second category of sports.

The Crimson’s estimates show that there are currently fewer than 10 black baseball players in the Ivy League, and that some teams have none on the roster. In fact, Harvard welcomed its first African-American player in seven years this season in designated hitter Andrew M. Prince ’10. The last was Peter N. Woodfork ’99, who now serves as the current assistant general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Though Harvard has had several Latin-American players in the past, Hispanics at the collegiate level account for even less of the national pie, at 4.3 percent.

“The problem, as I see it, is that even in professional baseball, the African-American kid is not playing as much,” Walsh says. “I don’t go out recruiting saying we need to bring in minority kids. I liked Andrew Prince because he can hit the ball out of the yard and he’s a great kid.”

Still, not every team in the modern day has operated as optimally within constraints.

From the perspective of minority expectation, Harvard’s track and field/cross-country team should ostensibly lend itself to significant minority participation. For women in 2005, for example, the D-I average of African-Americans in the sport stood at 26 percent.

But according to the Crimson’s unofficial estimates, less than 8 percent of the more than 80 track athletes at Harvard—men and women combined—are currently African-American. That percentage places Harvard at the bottom of the Ivy League, and it presents rookie head coach Jason Saretsky with an immediate problem.

A 1999 Columbia graduate who previously revitalized Iona’s program, Saretsky assumed the reins as director this season from Frank Haggerty ’68, whose tenure in Cambridge began in 1982. While the Haggerty-Saretsky line of succession is not necessarily a mirror of Restic-Murphy, Saretsky notes that diversity—or the current lack thereof—was a topic of discussion during the interviewing process.

“It’s something we talked about,” he says. “They had looked at my background and my past success at Iona. I met with admissions and talked about international recruiting...It’s a high priority for me. Part of my mission is to expand our borders to attract students here who might not necessarily be attracted.”

And in 2007, a key to that goal is updating technology and recruiting protocol alike.

“I think that my staff and I have really elevated the level of recruiting from the previous head coach, who went to Harvard but is from another time, a different landscape,” Saretsky says. “Everyone on my staff has laptops, cell phones, and we’re going to spend money going out and recruiting. I feel really confident that over the next several years, the dynamic and make-up of the team will change fairly significantly.”


SOMETHING TO BE PROUD OF

One of the primary obstacles Saretsky has already begun to deal with is the Academic Index (AI), a league-wide admissions metric rooted in standardized test scores and class rank.

Created in the early 1980’s to maintain minimum levels of academic excellence in the Ivy League, the AI combines one’s highest SAT I and SAT II scores with high school class rank in order to assign each applicant a value ranging from 60 to 240. The league then sets three main controls: first, it establishes a universal floor, below which any candidate must also possess extenuating circumstances in order to be admitted; second, it mandates that the average AI of a given year’s aggregate recruiting class must fall within one standard deviation of the mean AI of the student body; and, third, it places restrictions on the biggest sport, football, wherein AI ranges for each individual school are divided into four “bands” that cap the number of allowable players at each numerical level, ascending in size from bottom to top.

In the 2001 book “The Game of Life,” widely considered to be the seminal study of college sports, former Princeton University president William G. Bowen and James L. Shulman observe an interesting dynamic. While minorities in the general Ivy admissions pool benefit from a so-called “mosaic” approach that values racial background, without any regulations on scores required—in so many words, affirmative action—the formulaic principles of athletics recruiting do not have the same degree of consideration.

Chris Lincoln, author of the 2004 book “Playing the Game: Inside Athletic Recruiting in the Ivy League,” notes that the biggest AI opponent was actually former Yale president and commissioner of Major League Baseball, A. Bartlett Giamatti, who feared a lack of autonomy and loss of personal responsibility on the part of each school.

The tenor among current Harvard coaches is notably more benign. Walsh calls the system “a challenge,” and Saretsky deems the heavy reliance on standardized test scores a “necessary evil.” But they, like the others interviewed, do not recommend any serious change.

The AI is just a “guideline,” Walsh says. And at the end of the day, the Admissions Office—which has rejected at least one baseball recruit with perfect SAT’s, and likewise made exceptions for students below that presumptive floor—ultimately has the final say.

Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science Harry R. Lewis ’68 knows why. The Dean of Harvard College from 1995 to 2003, he spends the last chapter of his book, “Excellence Without a Soul,” defending the value of college sports in the university setting. He recognizes the need for an AI while acknowledging coaches’ dissatisfaction and warning against the potential of a “race to the bottom” in its absence.

“When I was on the Ivy Policy committee I used to be the guy who would explain some of the highly technical problems [the AI] has as a statistical instrument,” Lewis says. “But the basic idea of using it to ensure representativeness is exactly right. The Ivy presidents were smart to adopt it and to keep using it. It’s one of the things that keeps the Ivy League with an athletic program of which we can be proud.”

On this particular subject, Ogletree agrees. In his view, there is no level of conflict between excellence and diversity, and that institutions that want to achieve both are certainly able to do so.

“Look at Stanford and Berkeley”, he says. “They have much more diverse student-athletes, and it’s not a question of simple test scores. I don’t think that Harvard has to lower or change its standards at all.”


LIVING, BREATHING EXAMPLES

The question, then is the following: What should an institution like Harvard do?

While amending or removing the Academic Index would likely be a boon for African-American representation—Lincoln himself is in favor of instituting nothing more than a simple floor—such a prospect is not only contentious, but unlikely. Instead, two main avenues for improvement in diversity emerge. The first deals with the efforts and identity of the coach itself, and the second with minority access in the long-term.

Unsurprisingly, in the Venn diagram of college sports, both overlap directly with socioeconomic status.

Roby proposes aggressive outreach and democratization of the Harvard image: in effect, using name recognition as a lever to ultimately expand the pool of realistically admissible candidates. The students, after all, must want to come to Cambridge in the first place.

“A lot of recruiting depends on how active your alumni group is, in just identifying those kinds of student-athletes and getting them to start considering the Ivy League as an option,” he says.

Having an African-American like Tommy Amaker at the helm of your basketball program is thus far more than just a positive symbolic move given negative press. “I definitely felt like I had an advantage,” Roby says of his own days recruiting for Harvard basketball in the late 1980s. “There was a clear connection I could make with families, being an African-American male that was actually a living, breathing example of someone in the Ivy League. I was someone trying to get their son an Ivy education.”

Perhaps the most significant competitive disadvantage, however, is the sheer lack of athletic scholarships. Walsh tells the story of an African-American and eventual third-round draft choice who was set to come to Harvard before withdrawing because of a scholarship offer at another school.

“These kids might want to come here,” Walsh says, “but money talks.”

In recent years, however, that playing field has been increasingly leveled. Financial aid in the Ivy League has risen to the point where families who contribute the least receive the equivalent of a full ride. At Harvard, families making below $60,000 do not have to pay any tuition at all, and similar programs have arisen at Yale and Princeton.

Patrick R. Griffin ’05, once a baseball player under Walsh, now serves as the assistant director of the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative (HFAI). Part of the solution to rectifying the scholarship problem, he says, is changing public perceptions about the climate of the school. Students in general have balked at Harvard based on name and reputation alone, but “in the last 30 years, there’s really been a revolution in what a typical group of Harvard student looks like.”

“We give a ton of money,” Griffin says, “and a lot of inner-city kids don’t realize that the financial burden at Harvard would not be much more than the burden somewhere else with a scholarship. For coaches, having that in their back pocket helps enormously as a recruiting tool.”

But the issue is cyclical, and, at the end of the day, that is its most basic tension.

The most attractive part about a university for an African-American athlete might just be simply seeing a campus and team that is diverse. “If you find a place with a comfortable and welcoming environment, you see someone who looks like you, it makes you much more enthusiastic about considering a place like that to get an education,” Ogletree says.

Projects to combat access to typically “white” sports—and not engaging in what fencing head coach Peter Brand deems ethnic “bean counting”—might be the initiative with the most positive, lasting impact.

“If you really feel like increasing representation is important,” Roby says, “then play a role as one of the great universities to create opportunities for kids to get exposed to those sports, so even if they don’t come to your school, they pursue and diversify the sport elsewhere. Are they doing clinics, bringing kids out to neighborhoods? Are they inviting these kids to programs and summer camps, and reserving scholarships for students of color to participate? The next thing you know, you might have yourself a lacrosse player.”


AFFIRMATIVE RESPONSIBILITIES

Lewis, in the end, has his doubts about the entire proposition. Specifically, about whether it is even a problem in the first place.

“If African-American students were over-represented on our sports teams, I would be worried. That would suggest that we were using those minority students as mercenaries for us on the athletic fields,” he says. “Given that we have a significant representation of African-American students in the College, it seems crazy for anyone to wish that more of them would fulfill the negative stereotype they have at some other schools, of being in college mainly to play sports.”

In drafting that 2004 Self-Study, Dartmouth grappled with this very concern. Ultimately, in articulating why so-called meaningful diversity on sports teams was valuable in the first place, the committee “emphatically concluded” that its school should care about athletic diversity for what amounts to two main reasons.

First, it decided that its athletic program was “a point of pride” for the school, and that sports teams should both be representative and provide access to such a tradition. And, second, it felt that among the student-athletes themselves, learning how to “converse” across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines was not only desirable, but key to providing a truly multicultural education.

“What I would worry about,” Larimore summarizes, “is that with a lack of diversity in sports, we would effectively be looking at athletes—who spend so much time with each other already—in a special or distinct way, and saying, ‘These things are important for everyone except you.’”

Today, Fitzsimmons and McGrath Lewis put things in a simpler, if more abstract way.

“Only by having a class that is diverse ethnically and economically,” they write, “can we achieve the excellence to which we aspire.”

The photographs in Dillon Field House are their silent reminders that things are easier said than done.



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