Saturday, January 16, 2010


A member of the football coaching staff at my university called me earlier this week to solicit my help. He had a potential recruit with top academic credentials coming for a visit with his mother on Saturday morning. Could I or someone else from the Honors College come over to the football offices and talk with them?

Over the years I've talked with plenty of potential college athletes. Anytime the recruiters are interested in someone who has great grades and standardized test scores, they call us in to provide a picture of what the university can do for the student academically. And many times those recruits end up coming to the university, entering the Honors College, and graduating. We've had our share of intercollegiate athletes in football, women's basketball, soccer, volleyball, and so forth. The only sport that we have trouble helping to recruit for is baseball; their brutal road trip schedule is difficult to combine with an academic program that prizes participatory learning, since the players have to miss so much class.

I'm happy to help out the coaches and recruiters, as I did this morning. We have a lot in common with athletics -- in some ways, more so than we do with some of the academic colleges in which our students major. We emphasizes types of performance that have real-world evaluative structures, rather than classroom assignments. Students test their ideas and creations out in public, and get judged by those standards. It's akin to a football team: you can assemble a squad with stellar credentials, but your success is based on their performance on the field, in a setting that's to a large extent outside of your control as their mentor.

I wish the university could devote as much energy and resources to the recruiting of top academic performers as they do to top athletic performers. Over at the football offices today, a couple of dozen people -- coaches, staff, student hostesses -- had gathered on a Saturday morning to woo one quarterback and his mother. But I understand the worldview in which this young man returns the investment far more readily on the field than in the classroom; his cash value for the university certainly is more easily quantified in booster contributions and notches in the win column than it is in GPA, undergraduate research, or grad school admission. I'm still glad that the coach calls me to participate. It means that there's a value to what I do and the student services I offer that the football program can hold out as a lure to their recruits. I'm just happy that the value is real and has depth -- that I've got something to talk about that I believe in and can demonstrate. A coach can't hide the truth when he brags about his winning program; an academic program shouldn't be able to, either.

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