This title gives me chills. As a senior, weeks away from graduation, the inclination to write a broad column summarizing my time here at Duke is hard to resist. I think most seniors have a desire to reflect on our four years here and spread their newfound wisdom. Much of what I could say about my experience has already been said so I’ll spare my readers this impulse. But, as long as I have the opportunity I would like to contribute one last suggestion directed at the University itself.
College athletics are dangerous. The devotion and obsession to Division I success threatens a much more important foundation of this University. It’s fun to be a fan but Duke was here long before Coach K was born and will be here long after he leaves. Athletics are an important part of our student culture, as far as they promote a healthy mind and body, but they should never come at the expense of academics. I see the scandals rocking UNC and I’m worried for Duke. Worried that someday corners will be cut to admit students in a way that harms the integrity of this university. Unfortunately, in some respects that day has already come. Scores of free tutors service the athletics department and a parallel world separate from the rigor most students expect in the classroom applies to some of our fellow students. National championships will come and go but commitment to academic excellence should never waver. Our reputation for scholarship is what will endure throughout the years and that is far more important than any banner on a wall. It is the most powerful currency a university has and it’s currently being diluted by the preferential admissions standards applied to recruited athletes.
This is not to disparage the men and woman who admirably balance their academic and athletic commitments here and at universities across the country. Duke has a large number of truly remarkable students who succeed on and off the field of their given sport. It is possible to do both academics and athletics extraordinarily well. Students at Duke do this and this column is in no way an indictment of their enriching presence at this University. Yet the cult of personality surrounding some of these semi-pro athletes is disheartening and threatens to undermine the true role of academic institutions across the country, which is to educate. The mission statement adopted by the Duke University Board of Trustees calls for the school “to provide a superior liberal education to undergraduate students” but makes no mention of athletics in this vision.
The expansion of college sports threatens the integrity of our University by lowering admissions standards while simultaneously pushing out qualified applicants. This undercuts the public’s faith in the merit driven nature of higher education. Fareed Zakaria, a noted academic, has written that College Athletics are the “single largest deviation from merit in America's best colleges.” There is no doubt that a different admissions standard is applied to recruited athletes. The disparity, however, is disturbing and wider than one might imagine. According to a Chronicle column from 2007, in the entering class at Duke, the 42 recruited male athletes had an average SAT of 1172, out of 1600, while the rest of the male class averaged a 1438. Among women the average SAT score for non-athletes was a 1404 while the female athletes average was a 1258. I wish I had more recent statistics but the admissions office told me that they didn’t have them on file. There is an argument to be made for the presence of athletics on our campus based on the beneficial impact it has on student cohesion and the revenue it brings in for the wider community. K-Ville is a unique experience that draws together the student body in a way that few other activities do. Yet is that worth the double standard of admission that undeniably eliminates worthy students from the applicant pool year after year? The commitment to merit is an incredibly important component of the integrity of this institution and the deviation from it in order to secure top sports prospects is unacceptable. The problem of unmerited admission is endemic in the college process, whether you look at legacy students or alumni from top tier private schools, but it seems particularly acute in this instance.
In a time when Duke’s regular decision admission rates are starting to dip below 10 percent, do we feel comfortable granting exceptions based on athletics? Is it right to deny worthy applicants the chance to study at one of the nation’s best universities because they can’t put a small ball through a hoop? We can be better. There is no need to compromise the academic reputation of this university by admitting students who deviate greatly from the averages the rest of us are compared to. It creates a separate class of students and this is inherently unfair. So to my alma mater, for the sake of future generations, please rethink your policy of preferential treatment for athletic contributions. I think Duke would be best served by a policy that favored academic promise in evaluating worthiness for admissions to what is first and foremost an academic institution.
Colin Scott is a Trinity Senior. His column runs every other Thursday.