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John Harvard's Journal

Questions about Recruiting

May-June 2008

An article alleging that Harvard had lowered academic standards for recruits to its men’s basketball program, and might also have skirted or violated National Collegiate Athletic Associations (NCAA) rules governing recruiting, appeared March 2 on the front page of the New York Times Sunday sports section. “Harvard has never won an Ivy League title in men’s basketball and has not reached the NCAA tournament since 1946,” the article began, asserting that, in an attempt to improve the program, the College had adopted a “new approach” that could “tarnish the University’s sterling reputation.”

University officials vigorously disputed the allegation that Harvard had lowered its academic standards in any way even before the article appeared. In a written statement quoted in the Times, Harvard vice president for government, community, and public affairs Alan J. Stone characterized “any suggestion that our standards have been lowered for basketball” as “absolutely inaccurate.” But two high-ranking University sources say separately that Harvard is investigating (under the auspices of the Ivy League) the possibility that NCAA recruiting rules were violated, with a focus on the actions of assistant coach Kenneth L. Blakeney in the weeks before the team hired him last July.

Last June, Blakeney reportedly played pick-up basketball on separate occasions with two recruits later admitted to Harvard, during a period when contact with potential players is not allowed. Even though Blakeney was not a Harvard employee at the time, if such contact leads to “a significant competitive or recruiting advantage,” according to wording on the NCAA website, it could be considered a major infraction of its rules. A reviewer chosen from outside the Harvard athletics department will submit findings to the Ivy League Office and a committee made up of representatives from each of the other Ivy schools, who will take the case from there, and to the NCAA if necessary.

Photograph by Stu Rosner

H. Tommy Amaker

The Times article based its separate assertions that Harvard had lowered its standards for men’s basketball on the admissions status—then unknown—of one or more of the athletes whom Harvard head coach H. Tommy Amaker had been recruiting for the incoming freshman class. The reporter sought comment on Harvard’s list of prospects from several sources. The Yale men’s basketball coach, James Jones, was quoted as saying, “We don’t know how all this is going to come out, but we could not get involved with many of the kids that they are bringing in.” Two former Harvard assistant coaches whose contracts were not renewed under Amaker, now in his first year on the job, commented that academic standards for the recruits appeared lower than they remembered. Amaker did not respond to requests for an interview.

But “coaches do not make admissions decisions” in the Ivy League, athletic director Robert L. Scalise, who hired Amaker, pointed out in an interview. The admissions process is separate and, typically, only about half the recruits on a coach’s wish list are admitted. In a letter sent to alumni athletes in March, Scalise (who became interim executive dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences [FAS] that month) noted that “all of the student-athletes who we’ve been recruiting have had significant contact” with the other coaches mentioned in the article.

The Times article was widely reported in the media. Several commentators suggested that recruits Harvard had planned to admit now would not be admitted, whether or not they had received “likely letters” (notfications to applicants, primarily athletes, issued before the official reply date, that they can expect to be admitted). But that is unlikely: the Ivy League has specific rules about the academic performance of recruited athletes, and all seven schools share information about their recruits and teams on an annual basis. The league’s standards are predefined and enforceable. In an interview, dean of admissions William R. Fitzsimmons confirmed that no likely letters sent to men’s basketball recruits had been rescinded.

Photograph by Kris Snibbe / Harvard News Office

Robert Scalise

The Ivy League uses a measure called the “academic index” (AI) to monitor compliance. Based on standardized test scores and secondary-school class rank (or grade point average in the absence of class rank), the minimum AI allowed for any individual Ivy athlete is 171. (Applicants with lower AIs may be admitted, but not on the basis of athletic ability.) But the mean AI for any incoming class of recruited athletes across all sports (except football, which uses a different system) has to be within one standard deviation of the mean AI of all students—athletes and non-athletes—at a particular institution, as calculated when they entered as freshmen. That means Harvard recruits must meet a standard higher than that at other Ivy colleges, to the extent that the mean AI of the Harvard student body is higher. The system is designed to ensure that “student-athletes be ‘representative’ of the undergraduate student bodies to which they are admitted,” according to an Ivy League fact sheet.

There is some wiggle room within this framework. “When a new coach comes on board, we realize that it usually leads to a kind of culture change within the team,” said Scalise in an interview. “Sometimes you go for a couple more [recruits] so that you can get your kids and your culture into the program.” In other words, a thriving sport might get fewer recruits one year, so that more recruits can be directed to a program that needs them. “That is what we have done [for basketball],” says Scalise. “We have not given them a lower AI target than we have given them in the past.” Instead, the basketball program received a larger number of the total pool of recruited first-year athletes. That has apparently had minimal impact on the team’s AI. “It appears that the basketball athletes we’ve recruited for next year’s class will have one of the highest AIs of any school in the League over the past several years,” Scalise wrote separately to alumni athletes.

Harvard Crimson editorials questioned the practice of recruiting athletes at all. One declared that Harvard should be pursuing “world-changing talent instead.” In an interview, FAS dean Michael D. Smith, himself a varsity swimmer at Princeton and now a member of the FAS standing committee on athletics, pointed out that the two are not mutually exclusive. “Harvard admits students with broad ranges of backgrounds: it is not just athletics, but musical ability that students bring, drama, [a desire to] write for the Crimson. All those different aspects [of student life] are ways that we look at extending the learning environment outside the classroom.” Smith is concerned that there is an implication, in some of the articles being written, that some students on campus don’t belong here. “The admissions process has not been lowered in any manner for students we are bringing in now, or students we are bringing in in the future,” he says. “I’d hate to have our students feeling that maybe they don’t belong here. All of our students absolutely belong here.”

The executive director of the Ivy League, Jeff Orleans, said in an interview that the Times allegations relating to basketball admissions will be reviewed in the regular Ivy League athletic admissions meeting in May, and that a statement would be made at that time.