For this English professor, one of the surprises of becoming a college president has been the extent of engagement with the athletic program. While most of the work I do is of course closely aligned with that of the academic program, I have found that it is a rare day that I'm not engaged with some aspect of Alma's athletic program.
A competitive cyclist and college football fan myself, I find this work comes naturally. But I have some studying to do: it will be a while before I understand the intricacies of the rule book for women's volleyball, for example.
Just this week, I approved the addition of men's and women's lacrosse as varsity sports, a recommendation that came to me from a campus-wide task force of coaches, faculty and board members following months of debate. The risks are clear: Can we hire coaches in the next two months? Will student-athletes decide in the next few months to come to Alma this fall so that we can field a team in year one? But the upside is just as clear: lacrosse can bring terrific student-athletes to Alma who might not otherwise have considered us. As I've come to learn, lacrosse is a growing sport across the Midwest, having been popular on the East Coast for decades. This new sport will give us an opportunity to reach out to new recruiting regions, even as we recognize growing interest right here in Michigan.
Little in my graduate work in American literature prepared me for this kind of decision, it's true. Transparency and broad dialogue on such thorny matters help to make the decision easier. While not everyone agreed with the final decision, all of us recognize that such efforts can contribute substantially to our college's success: as many as half of Alma students make their decision based on their interest in D3 athletics. Terrific students all, they want a great education first and foremost. But they want that education at a school where they can pursue their passions as athletes.
And we know from decades of studies, the lessons students learn on an athletic team can be among the most important of their college years. Our student-athletes learn about discipline, motivation, challenge, and leadership. Retention and GPA for many of our teams are higher than the average for the student body as a whole.
All of this work with our athletic program has brought to mind a story from years ago. I was sitting at a basketball game at a former college with a group of faculty colleagues. Our coach was an animated sort and had called a time out to give his players some encouragement and guidance. He was yelling over the crowd noise in the background, red in the face, getting more and more excited as he punched his finger on his clipboard. And the sweaty student-athletes around him hung on every word. 'When,' quipped a friend of mine in the history department, 'do we ever see students so rapt in the classroom?'
I expect that we traditional academics can learn a lot from coaches, and vice versa. Certainly no president can ignore a source of learning and growth as important as athletics. The questions that we’ll face at Alma in the years to come are critical: how will we balance growth through athletics with growth in the college's main priority, the academic program? How can we ensure that our student-athletes keep their primary focus on their academic achievements? How can we recognize the growth and learning in co-curricular programs as one chief advantage of the residential liberal arts college experience? And, just maybe, what can we academics learn from our coaches about motivating all of our students to find that place where their great gifts will do greatest service?
As we form a plan for the years ahead, these will be among the questions we'll take on. I'll return to them in this space.