Penn State: On the News!

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From the website of Penn State's president just now. Good to know that the most newsworthy item for university leaders is the excellent shoulder surgeon at Penn State Hershey.

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But to put Penn State news in perspective, this message comes in from a reader who is himself a Harvard alumnus and has many other family members who have graduated from, been faculty members at, or have otherwise been involved with Harvard, Yale, and Princeton:
When we think about the issue of jock schools, we usually think about schools like Penn State and Texas.  But interestingly, the biggest jock schools in the US are the smaller, very selective liberal arts colleges.  For example, schools like Williams reserve 25% of their freshman class for athletes.  Harvard and Princeton, which are larger, around 18%.  Of course, some of the athletes are fully qualified.  But it's also true that the parents of kids who emphasize athletics, with travel teams, etc. are right that it's by far easier to get in if  you are a decent athlete. 

The question to me is why schools like Harvard actually care as much about fielding teams as they do, especially for sports like football, where they aren't good.  I've learned that most administrative decisions come down to money, as the one main theme in our top universities is the increasing corporate mentality.  So the answer could be that they feel good sports teams make alumni contribute more.

But how can you explain Harvard asking [a prominent prep school] to make a hockey-playing junior a senior so they could take him one year sooner, when he was a barely passing student that they weren't sure could handle [a not-very-good state university]?  (The Headmaster did it and he went off a year early to star at Harvard.)  Or the Princeton basketball coach guaranteeing [a young woman] a spot, saying her application was a formality, since she was one of the top high school basketballers in [her state]? 

It seems to me that our connecting of sports to learning institutions is problematic in the end.  At the very least, it's made me much less inclined to support Harvard, as they pound their chests telling alums how great they are, while the  hockey coach is telling promising Canadian junior hockey players to "go to a PG year at a good prep school, then get an ivy league degree."  I listened to this pitch one time, to the parent of a great defenseman.  "All he has to do is pass all his courses, then he can still make the NHL and, if not, we'll get him a job in NYC so he can make good money on Wall Street..."

To the extent this all bears on the question of equal opportunity and (metaphorically) level playing fields, you can (loosely) classify this as another installment in the annals of casino capitalism.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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