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Harvard Undertakes Review of Athletics

9.5.19

Photograph of Harvard women lacrosse players celebrating.

A spirited moment for the women's lacrosse players. Harvard athletics plays an important role in the lives of the nearly one-fifth of undergraduates who participate in intercollegiate sports.
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications


A spirited moment for the women's lacrosse players. Harvard athletics plays an important role in the lives of the nearly one-fifth of undergraduates who participate in intercollegiate sports.
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) dean Claudine Gay today announced a comprehensive review of Harvard athletics, guided by a high-level administrative oversight group that will be aided by an outside consulting firm. It aims to “engage our community to learn about our student athlete experience, the culture of our programs, and the structure of our department. This important work will inform strategic planning for Harvard Athletics over the coming decade, drawing on the proud history, traditions, and the values of Athletics at Harvard.” Further, she wrote in the announcement, “[W]e engage in this study to set our aspirations for the support of athletics at Harvard.” The study will be overseen by:

  • Bob Scalise, Nichols Family director of athletics;
  • Jack Reardon, senior adviser for alumni affairs and development (a past director of admissions and of athletics, former executive director of the alumni association, and a current director of this magazine);
  • College dean Rakesh Khurana;
  • FAS dean for administration and finance Leslie Kirwan; and
  • FAS’s new dean for development, Armin Afsahi.

The composition of that committee, the stated purpose for the study, and Gay’s salutation in announcing it (she addressed “members of the Harvard athletics community”—student-athletes, coaches, and staff members—as opposed to the College or University as a whole), suggest that the impetus may be directed at resources and future investments in athletics overall and in an extensive, and in parts aging, physical plant. She also touches on “the culture of our programs,” but in the context of “strategic planning…over the coming decade.”

Undergraduate athletic programs elsewhere have been the subject of multiple concerns, ranging from big-conference sports schools where students frequently turn pro before concluding their education (and where the education itself is watered down in the big-money sports, and tainted by athletic scholarships), to the revelations last spring in the Varsity Blues scandal that parents had paid huge bribes to gain their children’s admission to selective schools where coaches fraudulently represented that the applicants were athletic prospects.

At Harvard, the extensive athletics program—with 42 varsity teams, engaging about one-fifth of the undergraduates, and facilities on 76 prime acres in Allston (plus others elsewhere)—has been at the center of many students’ College experience, and happily so.

But the department has also endured its share of traumas, administrative and otherwise, in recent years. In 2016, two men’s teams were implicated in crude, sexual characterization of their peers on the women’s teams (the men’s soccer team had the rest of its schedule canceled; the cross-country runners were put on “athletic probation”). In 2018, the department had to adjust compensation to address longstanding, and sometimes large, pay inequities among coaches. The scheduling of the Ivy basketball tournament has pointed out the relatively disadvantaged status of the women’s team. A senior coach was recently dismissed after violating Harvard’s conflict-of-interest policies. And athletics in general has tiptoed into greater commercialization, with professional marketing representation and more visible advertising support.

As for facilities, the hockey and basketball venues were upgraded as part of The Harvard Campaign’s largess, among other capital improvements, but extensive reconfiguration and restoration of Harvard Stadium has been discussed in the context of Allston planning, and other parts of the complex may be affected by development there.

Gay’s message does not spell out details of the study, and she did not comment about her rationale for undertaking it, beyond the announcement itself. In an earlier interview, apart from today’s announcement, she expressed enthusiasm for the athletes’ tenacity, commitment to their teammates, and immersion in and exposure to leadership—and her interest in seeing those lessons and experiences shared across the undergraduate body. So perhaps the study should be viewed in that spirit. A report on the findings is to be made public in the spring semester.

Her text follows.

Dear members of the Harvard Athletics community,

I write to you today to announce the launch of a study of Harvard’s Department of Athletics. Rooted in the Harvard College mission and our Ivy League principles, this study will engage our community to learn about our student athlete experience, the culture of our programs, and the structure of our department. This important work will inform strategic planning for Harvard Athletics over the coming decade, drawing on the proud history, traditions, and the values of Athletics at Harvard. 

With a legacy of distinguished leadership, we engage in this study to set our aspirations for the support of athletics at Harvard. As a League, we recognize the power of sport to develop students as individuals and leaders in the context of a liberal arts and sciences education. We recognize the particular role of coaches as educators, and the many ways in which they uniquely nurture the development of the whole student. And we recognize that understanding better how participation in athletics forms powerful bonds between students and pride in Harvard can provide new tools and approaches as we seek to serve all students better. I am excited about the opportunity to learn from our coaches, our students, our faculty, our alumni, and from the department staff through this process. 

This ambitious undertaking would not be possible without the support and guidance of a strong advisory committee. I am enormously grateful to Bob Scalise, John D. Nichols '53 Family Director of Athletics, Jack Reardon, Senior Adviser for Alumni Affairs and Development, Rakesh Khurana, Danoff Dean of Harvard College, Leslie Kirwan, FAS Dean for Administration and Finance, and Armin Afsahi, FAS Dean for Development, who have agreed to serve. The study process will launch in the coming weeks, and will include interviews, surveys, and other opportunities for input from across our community. It will conclude with a public report that will be available in the spring semester. In this work we are fortunate to have support from Mercer, a consulting firm that brings deep expertise in the study of culture, as well as organizational best practices, from across sectors.

This is a moment in higher education when the role of athletics is the subject of much discussion and review. At Harvard, we are motivated to join this discussion by a desire to reinvigorate our Ivy League principles for a new generation of Harvard students. Through this work, we hope to enable Harvard to continue to provide the best possible experience for our student athletes for years to come.

Sincerely,

Claudine Gay
Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences 

 

 

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