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Making the Grade: Student Athletes Face Conflicts with Practices and Classes

A member of the women's hockey team jogs across Anderson Bridge to get to practice.
A member of the women's hockey team jogs across Anderson Bridge to get to practice.
By Meg P. Bernhard and Forrest K. Lewis, Crimson Staff Writers

Every Wednesday at 3 p.m, Obiajulu C. Agha, Jr. ’14 would rush across the Charles River from his sophomore tutorial to the soccer field, 30 minutes late for practice. Other nights, after three hours of training, Agha would sprint back to campus, barely on time for his five-hour organic chemistry lab.

“It could get a little hectic at times,” Agha, a forward on the men’s soccer team and a human and evolutionary biology concentrator, laughed.

While packed schedules are nothing new for most Harvard students, athletes face a particularly difficult predicament. According to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Handbook, no courses beginning before 1 p.m. Monday through Thursday are permitted to run longer than an hour and a half in duration. As a result of this regulation, concentration requirements like tutorials and seminars, which are generally two to three hours long, are scheduled for the afternoon and evening, often conflicting with sports practices.

In order to fulfill their concentration requirements, many students must miss either an entire practice per week or portions of practice throughout the week.

Additionally, Agha noted, even if athletes do find seminars or tutorials that fit around their practice schedules, course options are often limited.

“For me, there were always classes that didn’t conflict too much [with practice],” Agha said. “But they weren’t usually the ones I was interested in, so your options are dwindled significantly because of practice time.”

According to Associate Director of Athletics Nathan T. Fry, coaches and students alike agree that academics should be students’ top priority at the College.

Still, athletics are no minor concern. According to Fry, 1,039 student-athletes performing on Harvard’s 42 varsity teamsthe nation’s largest Division I athletic programconstitute around 16 percent of the College’s student body, with each team presenting different demands to its members.

Many of these student-athletes have expressed desire to transition to more accommodating class times. And with a new task force currently working to re-evaluate the College’s schedulein light of the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s projected move to Allstonathletes’ concerns about their limited course options may influence policy change.

THE BALANCING ACT

While in recent years Harvard has gained national recognition for its athletic programs, like basketball and football, coaches have continued pledging to prioritize school over sports.

“Our coaches are prepped to have conversations with student-athletes where we will make whatever arrangements we need to to help set them up for success academically,” Fry said.

Because in-season athletic practices typically run anywhere from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., athletes often find that concentration requirements, like tutorials or seminars, cause conflicts. According to Fry, coaches must allow their students to miss practice for these classes, but at a cost to the entire team.

“Any day in which the whole team isn’t there and isn’t contributing to you being better is a day that you are losing something,” Agha said.

Given the difficult decision between registering for a certain required class and attending daily sports practice, many teams choose to train during the mornings in the off-season, so students may take required afternoon classes.

Pascal Mensah ’14 took the required Government 94 seminar in the spring semester of his junior year when his soccer team only had morning practices.

I have wanted to take some seminars in the fall that I haven’t been able to take, because all of them are in the 1 [p.m.] to 7 [p.m.]  region,” Mensah said. “It’s kind of limited me in the classes I’ve wanted to take, but I have found alternatives.”

This type of sacrifice is not uncommon.

I think a lot of people here really love what they do athletically and academically and it is hard to make a real sacrifice when you love both,” said John G. Slattery ’15, a varsity sailor and active Crimson editor, who missed one day of practice each week for a year in order to attend his social studies tutorial.

Not all student-athletes are willing to forgo practice to attend classes, and some take extra care to ensure courses do not interfere with training.

Kyle A. Criscuolo ’16, a forward on the hockey team, said that he, like many student-athletes, molds his class schedule around his team’s practices.

“I wouldn’t skip practice for class,” Criscuolo, a psychology concentrator, said. He added that although he wants to focus on social psychology, many courses offered in that track conflict with his practices.

A SHIFT IN TIME

Student-athletes must often choose between missing class and attending practice because of an archaic regulation, which mandates that courses longer than an hour and a half cannot be held before 1 p.m. on most weekdays.

According to FAS Registrar Michael P. Burke, the current schedule has not been updated in more than 70 years, when both the size of the undergraduate population and the number of course offerings were considerably smaller than they are today.

Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Government Department Cheryl B. Welch said that in  large departments like Government, which currently has 484 concentrators, student demand necessitates a greater number of course offerings and time slots.

Welch, whose department  began requiring students from the Class of 2015 onward to take at least one two-hour Government 94 seminar as a result of a comprehensive departmental review, approached Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris two years ago with a proposal to offer “non-compliant” seminars in the morning. The decision was, in part, to assuage athletes’ constrained time schedules.

“Scheduling all seminars in the popular 2-4 [p.m.] or 4-6 [p.m.] time slots may pose a hardship for some students,” Welch wrote in an email. “We hope to be able to continue to spread seminars out in a more expansive grid that includes some morning and evening choices.”

Consequently, Welch said, Harris allowed the department to “experiment” with seminar times, which led to the offering of two morning seminars last fall and three this semester.

According to Harris, he approved of the proposal due to the department’s large number of concentrators. To his knowledge,  no other department offers required seminars at “non-compliant times.”

While athletes concentrating in government have expressed gratitude for this bending of the rules, those in other concentrations wish more exceptions would be allowed for their departments.

Mensah said when he and some teammates were considering Social Studies, they realized the concentration’s mandatory tutorial times conflicted with their practice schedule in the fall. Ultimately, none of them chose to pursue social studies.

“You’ve sort of eliminated a whole sport in terms of a concentration,” Mensah said. “That’s definitely an area that could use some work.”

Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Economics Department Jeffrey A.  Miron said that the College’s current schedule is “sort of a mess.”

“I do have the impression that the current Harvard scheduling rules have made life kind of difficult,” he said, noting that like Government, the Economics Department tries to offer as many course options as possible to accommodate students.

“NO EASY SOLUTIONS”

As classes at the College shift toward the afternoon hours, a need to address scheduling conflicts has become paramount, athletic and academic administrators said.

David R. Fish ’72, a former student-athlete at the College who has coached the men’s varsity tennis team for 38 years, said he has noticed that the academic day seems to be shifting later into the early afternoon and evening, resulting in increased conflict with athletic practices.

“We’re watching students sleep later and later, and the demands on their body are greater than they’ve ever been,” Fish said.

Fry also noted that Harvard used to offer a wider range of classes at 9 a.m. and 10 a.m.

“Now those classes have moved back to 11 a.m., 1 p.m.,” Fry said. “The day gets a little bit later and later. We’re practicing again in that 3-7 p.m. window, so you’re seeing a little bit more conflict arise with practice time and...class offerings.”

To prevent overlap between class and practice, Princeton has a unique policy that designates a certain time period for extracurricular activities.

According to Anthony J. Archbald, executive associate director of athletics at Princeton, classes cannot meet during a dedicated extracurricular activities block from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Fry said implementing a similar activities window lacks support at Harvard because three hours is an insufficient period of time for multiple athletic teams to share venues.

“There are no easy solutions to carving out enough time for students to pursue the full breadth of academic and extracurricular opportunities on any campus,” Fry wrote in an email.

Yet, a change in Harvard’s current academic and athletic structure may be on the horizon.

Last year, Harris and Deputy Provost Margaret E. Newell were asked to co-chair a committee to look at reconsidering the FAS class schedule following the University’s decision to move SEAS to Allston. According to Burke, the committee has begun to meet with different organizations on campus to get feedback about changing the current schedule.

“In the process of developing options for a new schedule, the task force has consulted with faculty, students, the Athletics Department, and others to accommodate the myriad activities competing for student and faculty time,” Burke wrote in an email. “It is impossible to meet every need, but we have been, and will continue, consulting widely.”

—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at meg.bernhard@thecrimson.com Follow her on Twitter @Meg_Bernhard.

—Staff writer Forrest K. Lewis can be reached at forrest.lewis@thecrimson.com.

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