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Policy Perspectives

"When Values Matter"
November 2003
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This essay explores how competitive intercollegiate athletics affects both admission practices and the nature of academic community at private colleges and universities that practice selective admissions. As the competition intensifies for admission to these leading institutions, so too does the contention over how athletic ability should figure in the mix of factors that determine which students gain admission from a pool of highly capable and promising applicants. The subject of athletics has in fact become a focal point for a deeper set of uncertainties within the academy, including preeminently the question of what values these institutions seek to foster in their students and their learning communities. The essay argues that the missing element on many campuses has not been a discussion of athletics per se. What is missing is rather the articulation of institutional and educational values to provide a context for considering the role that athletics should play and the resources it should command. No one except the president can provide the leadership needed to begin these explorations. At the same time, no president can expect a productive result without the help of others, notably faculty and trustees. The essay argues that the decisions institutions begin to make on the basis of their own core values must ultimately become the subject of presidential discussions within athletic leagues, conferences, and national organizations. At stake is nothing less than the necessity of reaffirming—and in some cases, reintroducing—the positive values associated with participation in intercollegiate sports.