"WHY YOU CAME"
REMARKS AT DEDICATION OF THE COLLEGE CENTRE
William G. Bowen
October 13, 2005
President Roush, trustees, faculty, students, alumni, friends: I am delighted to have been asked to participate in the dedication of this splendid new College Centre, which is really a pairing, and, if I may say, an inspired pairing, of two buildings—one the central academic facility of the college and one that is home to fitness, recreation, and indoor athletic programs. I speak of this pairing as "inspired" because of my strong belief that there is truth in extolling the virtues of "a sound mind in a sound body" (cliché-ridden as the phrase has become). Too much of college life, for too many students at too many places, has become one dimensional, with, as it were, the stereotypical nerds in one corner and the muscle-bound athletes in another. Centre College clearly stands against tendencies rampant in the land to create, or at least accept, an "academic/athletic divide."
In these remarks, I want to return to the subject of the role of sports on campuses, and I also want to talk about the importance of a commitment to social mobility and the challenges of scale facing a small college like this one in today's world. Then, at the end, I will explain the title I have given this talk: "Why You Came." But before turning to any of these topics, I want to comment briefly on some impressions of Centre College that I have gained from reading about it. Three themes, in particular, have real appeal to me.
Let me now return to the subject of college sports and related fitness and wellness programs. There is absolutely no question about the value of these activities. There are clear health benefits, of course, which society at large understands more and more clearly. Moreover, games are just plain fun and a way of introducing some balance into a student's life. In college I was a highly competitive tennis player, and I used to say, with only a hint of tongue in cheek, that for me competing was a more or less harmless outlet for aggression. Playing sports can also confer "life lessons": teamwork, discipline, resilience, perseverance, and learning how to "play by the rules" and accept outcomes one may not like. But it is also possible to learn from sports, as from other activities, wrong lessons: a "win-at-all-costs" attitude, lack of respect for one's opponents (or even one's teammates), and an arrogance that can lead to abusive and insufferable behavior. I resist giving examples. The newspapers are full of them. Fortunately, there are also "good" stories. At this year's US Open, the two men who played the longest singles match, a five-setter that lasted nearly four and a half hours, managed right to the end to exchange wan smiles. As another professional tennis player, Kim Clijsters, said recently: "You don't have to hate your opponent to play hard."
Especially at the college level, so much depends on getting program objectives right, doing everything possible to inculcate the right motivations in students, and having coaches and teachers who provide outstanding leadership. In my tennis-playing days at Denison, I was fortunate to have as my coach an outstanding professor of folklore who is another life-long friend. How much I learned from him—both when we won, which, fortunately, we did much of the time, and when we fared less well. How to think about winning is a perennial source of debate. Of course, competitors should always want to win, and should play hard to win. I know I always did. But we should guard against overemphasizing winning records and over-professionalizing in college what must remain a game. I was amused when an irate Princeton alumnus, angered by some blunder or other on the football field, was heard to yell: "They're playing like amateurs!" That would be simply a funny remark, if it had been so intended. But of course the alumnus was not at all trying to amuse, and his remark says more than he meant it to say about the attitudes of many of us toward college sports.
In big-time programs, the premium associated with winning has become so great that it skews the entire nature of the athletic enterprise. The sad reality is that some of the same assumptions and attitudes have percolated down to the Ivy League and some Division III programs. I am persuaded that the right mantra is one articulated by Richard Rasmussen of the University of Rochester: "When the ball goes up, the pitch is thrown, the whistle blows, or the gun sounds, the outcome should be in doubt." It has even been argued that there are virtues associated with losing. During one stretch at Princeton, the football team lost to Yale 15 or 16 times in a row. After one such depressing Saturday afternoon, a colleague of mine who was a minister said: "You know, Bill, Princeton does so many things well that these losses to Yale are really valuable—they give us a healthy dose of humility." I fear I was not entirely persuaded. But life did go on, and we did our best to resist reacting to disappointing won-lost records in inappropriate ways.
The first book that some of us at the Mellon Foundation published on college sports (called The Game of Life) elicited strong responses from alumni passionate about sports—and about winning. A trustee of one college argued that we just didn't get it. "Let's be honest," he said, "Winning is what this is all about. These kids get to learn about winning, and once they get out of school, that's what the whole thing is about, isn't it?" At one level, this view reflects what those of us who love sports love about them—their clarity and simplicity. Fair is fair and foul is foul. The game ends and there is a winner. But my co-author, James Shulman, and I believe that this single-minded focus on winning is fundamentally at odds with the educational values of a liberal arts education. Complexity is an integral part of such an education. Providing definite answers—who won and who lost—is not what the liberal arts do very well, or indeed, what they aim for. What is Hamlet really all about? The liberal arts are about teaching complexity rather than reductionism, telling us not simply to accept at face value the Whig view of history, the half-proven hypothesis, or even the teaching of our parents. If one really comes to believe that "winning is everything," then the message of a liberal arts education—appreciation of complexity, rigorous questioning of what seems obvious, and the impulse to learn how to play an active and thoughtful role in a complicated world—may be seen as either empty rhetoric or muddled ramblings.
One aspect of today's college sports scene—at some Division III schools as well as in Division I, I am sorry to say—is that athletic recruiting has gone to such lengths that there is no longer any real opportunity for "walk-ons" to play. Coaches often know before seasons begin who will play what position, and those not on the coach's list are sometimes told, rudely, that they should just stay out of the way. One consequence of this over-zealous recruiting is that recruited athletes are often so focused on their sport that they lose track of what should be first priorities at an educational institution; they then end up underperforming academically (doing less well academically than we would expect them to do on the basis of their incoming credentials). One of the goals of the Foundation's College Sports Project, in which Centre participates, is to find ways of ensuring that teams are made up of regular students who will be representative of their classmates, as they often are not today, and who will perform academically at the same level as their fellow students. Another objective is to re-integrate athletics into campus life. President Roush has been a real leader among college presidents in the effort to "Reclaim the Game," and we are grateful to him. Until some of these problems get fixed, college sports will continue to send wrong signals to the world at large, and especially to high school students and their parents who may conclude that, as one young person put it: "If I want to go to college, I should work on my running, not on my chemistry."
Let me make one other comment that relates more directly to the fitness and wellness programs that exist within the College Centre. Having the courage to spend money on such activities, as well as on club sports, is enormously important. A terribly disturbing finding of The Game of Life is that, at many colleges as well as universities, spending on intercollegiate athletics dominates spending on these less highly publicized pursuits to an embarrassing degree. Centre is leading the way in getting its priorities straight.
Giving every student who is so inclined the opportunity to participate in sports, at one level or another, says much about the values of a college. But the concept of "opportunity" has of course a much deeper and even more consequential meaning in a country that cares about social mobility and equal opportunity. In America today, and for that matter all over the world, a young person's life chances depend increasingly on the individual's educational attainment. Yet, access to educational opportunity is conditioned heavily on how one grows up: specifically, on family income and on parental education, which together are so influential in providing both preparation and motivation. In a recent book, Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education, my colleagues and I found that students from the bottom income quartile are only one-sixth as likely as students from the top income quartile to be in what we define as the credible pool of candidates for admission to academically selective colleges and universities; students who lack a parent with some experience of college are one-seventh as likely as other students to be in the credible pool. These are enormous disparities, which can be eroded over time only by determined efforts to improve pre-collegiate educational opportunities and by related efforts to improve health and environmental conditions that also affect college attendance. The challenge is enormous, and it would be naive to expect major changes in anything approaching the near term.
Right now, colleges and universities have to live with the unequal distribution of preparedness that is so evident. But even in the face of these troubling realities, there are four things that colleges like Centre that care about opportunity can do to help.
In Equity and Excellence, we point to a surprising disjunction between the rhetoric used to describe institutional commitments to diversity and present-day realities. The rhetoric regularly includes language like "admissions officials give special attention to ... applicants from economically and/or culturally disadvantaged backgrounds....and those who would be the first in their families to attend any college...." What is striking is the juxtaposition of this clear statement of intent with the equally clear empirical finding that, for the '95 entering cohort at the 19 selective schools in our study, there was absolutely no admissions advantage associated with coming from a poor family and only a very small advantage (about 4 percentage points) associated with being a first-generation college-goer.
We do not believe that admissions officials are dissembling when they suggest (or even insist) that their situations differ from the empirical findings that we have assembled. In most cases, admissions offices lack the data needed to compare rigorously the characteristics of those offered admission and the characteristics of all those in the applicant pool. Moreover, there is a natural human tendency to live in "the anecdote range;" these schools do enroll many wonderful students from poor families and all of us like to talk about them. The empirical findings are also affected significantly, we think, by the presence in the admissions process of "champions" for the other special groups that enjoy sizeable admissions advantages—and the lack of similarly visible champions for applicants from modest backgrounds. Finally, it is entirely possible—highly likely, in fact—that applicants at given SAT levels from well-to-do families will present more impressive non-academic credentials than applicants from poor families, who are less likely to have had opportunities to be outstanding musicians, leaders of clubs that have traveled the world, social activists, and so on. In any event, we believe that there is a strong case to be made for putting at least a modest-sized thumb on the scale when considering applicants from low SES backgrounds.
This last link in the opportunity chain is much more significant than many seem to recognize. There is often a tendency to emphasize access (enrollment) more than attainment (doing well in college and getting a degree). This balance needs to be redressed, and the current research at the Foundation places major emphasis on understanding differences in attainment among those who matriculate. Without burying you under a mound of dizzying statistics, let me report some simple tabulations that colleagues of mine have made based on a national longitudinal database (NELS). As I have already suggested, the odds of getting into a 4-year college¾crossing the enrollment barrier¾are much lower for a student from a poor family than they are for other prospective students. Specifically, for students in the NELS database, the odds of enrolling at a 4-year college are 33 percent for students from low-income families versus 50 percent for students from middle income families and 74 percent for students from top income families.
But this is far from the end of the story, even though those who focus on enrollment are inclined to stop there. Looking at attrition, we learn from the NELS database that among those who do enroll in a 4-year college, just 41 percent from the bottom third of the income distribution graduate, as compared with 54 percent from the middle of the income distribution and 72 percent from families in the top third. In short, there is a real retention issue to confront, and higher attrition among students from low income families compounds the effects of low initial enrollment rates in creating such a huge gap in educational attainment. Collapsing all stages in the educational progression, and concentrating on final results, we see that less than 14 percent of students from poor families earn a degree from a four-year college, as compared with 53 percent from families in the top third of the income distribution.
When we compare first-generation college-goers with students whose parents have had some experience of college, we find equally dramatic results: less than 14 percent of students who would be first-generation college-goers earn BA degrees—whatever their family income—whereas about 45 percent of other students, who had one or more parents attend college, earned degrees. Similarly, we know that the odds of a black or Hispanic student earning a BA are much lower than the odds facing a white student. The factors leading to attrition are complex, and surely differ from one institutional setting to another, but any college that is serious about its commitment to extending opportunity clearly needs to focus on this problem as well as on increasing the number of students from modest circumstances who enroll initially.
I turn now to the last of my broad topics: the challenges faced by small colleges like Centre in providing an excellent education for their students in a world in which scale and "world presence" often seem to count for more and more. My main thesis is that information technology can do much to enable Centre to achieve its educational objectives, its small scale and its location notwithstanding. One of the projects at the Foundation that has given me the greatest satisfaction has been the creation of JSTOR, originally an acronym for "Journal Storage" and now a name recognized all over the world as a highly searchable repository of the back issues of journals that contains all the articles ever published by its journals, going back to the first issue. JSTOR is now used in 95 countries, and Centre faculty and students are active users of this resource. On this campus there are now well over 60,000 meaningful accesses of JSTOR in a single year. A student at Centre can read the original article by Newton on transmission of light in the exact form in which that article was published by the Royal Society in London in 1671.
The Foundation is now at work creating a parallel database of art images from all over the world (ARTstor), and we are also involved in the creation of other electronic resources that can be used, for example, to study the struggles for freedom in Southern Africa as captured in letters, fugitive journals, and other primary source materials. And then of course we all know about how Google has changed the way people find and use information of every kind. This revolution, which is exactly what it is, will continue to transform the way libraries such as yours function and will have ever more profound effects on how students learn and how faculty do research. The ability to link content produced worldwide, and to encourage exchanges of ideas across divides of all kinds—geographical, religious, political, socio-economic—is transformative. One of the Foundation's commitments is to do all it can to be sure that outstanding small colleges, all over the country, participate in, and contribute to, developments of this kind that utilize collaborations and the sharing of resources. Another entity created recently by the Foundation, called "NITLE" (National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education) exists to address exactly this problem by allowing regional collaborations of liberal arts college to benefit from economies of scale in staying abreast of developments in technology—and, thereby, to take advantage, on their own campuses, of opportunities that might otherwise be limited to students at larger places. Again, I am pleased to report that Centre is an active participant in NITLE.
Having access to information, and to new ways of processing information, is of course crucial, but even more important is the spirit with which content is presented, explored, and debated. There is simply no substitute, as I'm sure all of you will agree, for unfettered pursuit of that elusive thing called truth. And there is no substitute either for maintaining a mindset that is open to new ways of seeing the world and ourselves. There is nothing quite as exhilarating as a new idea. Understanding something for the first time is a thrill that is hard to match. My own conviction is that colleges such as Centre provide unusually good settings in which to reflect, to debate—with passion but always with civility, one hopes—and to learn to express one's self with clarity and vigor, but also with a decent respect for the opinions of other people.
This kind of educational process, central to a liberal education in the arts and sciences, has very practical pay-offs, especially in a world in which the ability to analyze, to communicate, and to keep on learning count for more and more. There is, however, much more involved here than merely acquiring tools and skills that will prove invaluable (as they will). The indirect consequences of this kind of learning can be profound. There is, I would argue, a direct connection to another concept perhaps as elusive as "truth." I am referring to "character," and since Centre College continues to quote a predecessor of mine, Woodrow Wilson, who was a great admirer of Centre, I hope you will allow me to quote what Wilson said to the Princeton Class of 1909 at a time when he was being criticized by some alumni for not teaching character. He urged the undergraduates (all men, at that time) to be aware that character is not something easily acquired:
I hear a great deal about character being the object of education. I take leave to believe that a man who cultivates his character consciously will cultivate nothing except what will make him intolerable to his fellow men. If your object in life is to make a fine fellow of yourself, you will not succeed, and you will not be acceptable to really fine fellows. Character, gentlemen, is a by-product of a life devoted to the nearest duty: and the place in which character would be cultivated, if it be a place of study, is a place where study is the object and character is the result.
In concluding these remarks, I want to observe that much of what we have been saying today is value laden—having to do with the reasons we play sports, why the pursuit of equality of opportunity matters so much, and how we approach our studies. I am now going to tell you the origin of the title of this talk, "Why You Came." It will help if I refer us back to our earlier discussion of athletics and athletic recruitment. One of the reasons, I believe, so many heavily recruited athletes underperform academically at excellent colleges and universities is that they came to college with a different set of motivations and expectations than many other students. I regret the loss in educational opportunity that at a student experienced who went to a certain university because she was, as she explained to me, "a catcher," and the school in question had an excellent softball team. Not, I would have thought, a compelling reason for occupying a scarce place at a prestigious academic institution. Similarly, when I taught Economics 101 (as I did every year I was in the president's office at Princeton), I was saddened to encounter the occasional student who thought that the purpose of my instructing him or her on the mysteries of supply and demand was to prepare the student to thrive on Wall Street—and who foolishly believed that I could actually teach someone to do that. So much depends on what you, as students, want to accomplish, and on what you think you will gain from your college days—on why you came to Centre College.
Adlai Stevenson was another Princeton graduate, who, like Wilson, was interested in public service, and who, like Wilson, had a lofty sense of why there are colleges and universities and of what students should take from them. Stevenson gave a talk to the members of the Princeton Class of 1954 in the spring of their senior year, and while this is the fall and not the spring, and while only some of you are seniors, I hope the conclusion of his comments on that occasion will resonate with you as they always have with me. Here is what Stevenson said:
Your days are short here; this is the last of your springs. And now in the serenity and quiet of this lovely place, touch the depths of truth, feel the hem. You will go away with old, good friends. Don't forget when you leave why you came.
Quotation is from the amicus brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court in Grutter v. Bollinger et al. and Gratz v. Bollinger et al. by Harvard University, Brown University, the University of Chicago, Dartmouth College, Duke University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Yale University....
Founded in 1819, Centre College is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges. Centre alumni, known for their nation-leading loyalty in annual financial support, include two U.S. vice presidents and two Supreme Court justices. For more, visit http://www.centre.edu/web/elevatorspeech/
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