Alma Mater 
Athletic competition at more than 1,000 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada is governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which maintains three divisions to offer “level playing fields” for the smallest liberal arts colleges and the most committed and funded major-university athletic programs. Some 340 schools in Division I are covered regularly by the media. But the largest division in terms of number of schools and number of participants is Division III, which comprises more than 170,000 student-athletes at 444 mostly smaller institutions.
The casual observer regards Division III as the colleges that don’t give scholarships. Actually, more than 80 percent of Division III student-athletes receive financial aid—but not for playing a sport. The students on the intercollegiate teams of Division III member schools like mine come to college for an education and play their sport for the love of the game. We assume our student-athletes compete not because they expect a financial reward or because booster clubs and alumni have a vested interest in their performance, but because they are driven to excel. Without million-dollar coaches and multi-million dollar revenues, the challenge and commitment to do their best is personal.
At the same time, the student-athletes at Division III institutions share many characteristics with the much more visible scholarship athletes at Division I and II schools: They work just as hard in practice and compete just as intensely. They strive to win and in the competition learn lessons about discipline, leadership, and teamwork. They are passionate about their sport.
Liberal arts colleges that subscribe to the Division III philosophy enable students to integrate—and balance—their athletic experience with academic interests and other co-curricular activities. At Gustavus it’s not unusual to find a basketball player equally talented on the keyboard and on the backboard. The same drive that marks our student-athletes makes them dedicated and innovative partners in student-faculty research projects. The focus, whether on the field or in the classroom, is on the educational value.
Alumni who are now successful business leaders, lawyers and judges, doctors and medical researchers, and teachers look back on their participation in intercollegiate athletics—or likewise in student government, a music ensemble, the student newspaper, or competitive forensics—as a critical part of their development. Their academic success was complemented by the challenges and skill sets provided by their out-of-the-classroom experiences.
The late sportswriter and commentator Heywood Hale Broun is credited with saying that “sports do not build character—they reveal it.” The character of Division III student-athletes is revealed in their passion to learn, to excel, and to compete. As the soon-to-be chair of the Division III Presidents Council, I hope we can always stress the importance of giving students who are passionate about learning an opportunity to be as passionate about opportunities outside of the classroom as well.
Jack R. Ohle, president of Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minn., since 2008, is currently vice chair of the Division III Presidents Council and will become the chair for 2013 in January.