Can athletics and academics coexist at a liberal arts college?

Forget the legendary school rivalries such as Williams-Amherst. Less visible but more pervasive on campuses across the country is the competition between academics and athletics. The Alumni Review asked philosophy professor Will Dudley ’89 and athletics director Harry Sheehy ’75 to discuss the relationship between the two at Williams (excerpts of that conversation follow). As one would expect, it’s hardly a zero-sum game.

Harry Sheehy ’75 (left)

  • At Williams: American studies major, All-American basketball player and team captain
  • 1983: returned to Williams as head basketball coach, racking up numerous awards and honors with his teams
  • 1990: received master’s in educational policy studies at University of Washington
  • 2000: named Williams athletic director
  • 2002: published Raising a Team Player and was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame’s inaugural class
  • Since Sheehy’s return, Williams has won 13 of 14 Directors’ Cups awarded in NCAA Div. III and was named a Jostens Institution of the Year five times for being the ECAC institution that best combines excellence in academics and athletics.

Will Dudley ’89 (right)

  • At Williams: Philosophy and math major, junior advisor, swimmer, All-New England water polo player and team captain, winner of Herchel Smith Fellowship to Cambridge University
  • 1998: received PhD in philosophy at Northwestern, returned to Williams to teach
  • In addition to courses on Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche, Dudley has taught “Big Games: The Spiritual Significance of Sports.” He was integral to the restructuring of residential life in 2006 and has been a faculty mentor to the women’s ice hockey, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s golf, and men’s and women’s swimming teams. He is now the College’s Gaudino Scholar.

Will Dudley: Maybe we could start by talking about how athletics have changed at Williams over the 25 to 30 years you’ve been associated with them.

Harry Sheehy: Women came in to play in the first [fully coeducational] class starting in 1971. Immediately we established three or four women’s varsity teams. Bob Peck, the [athletic director] was brought here, and one of the main pieces of his job was to integrate women into the athletic program. The women’s side has been key for us, but obviously it’s a challenge for the facilities, for support staff, trainers—all that has had to grow.

WD: Help people understand the role that athletics does or doesn’t play in admission now and how that’s changed over the years.
HS: Back when I was first coaching here, we used to hand in this enormous list to admission and not really have any idea who was going to get in. Then Tom Parker ’69 (who joined the admission office in 1979 and was director from 1991-99), who’s down at Amherst now, decided that they were wasting a lot of energy and resources to read all these hundreds of athletic applications. A lot of them were students we had no interest in.

WD: Either academically or athletically.
HS: There might have been kids I was interested in academically, as an alum and someone who wants Williams to be a great place. They just weren’t going to help our teams be competitive athletically. So we pared [the process] down and gave each team a very limited number of “tips.” Those student athletes need to be representative of our student body, young men and women that we think will be academically engaged.

WD: My understanding is that, over the last 10 years that the system has been in place, both the academic standards for athletes have been strengthened and the absolute number of tips that we distribute has been reduced—that both of those changes have improved the overall academic quality of the kids we have.
HS: It’s improved us at every level. This was a challenge for our coaches. Every time you raise the bar, you shrink the pool exponentially, because it’s a pyramid. So we’re now competing for young men and women with the Harvards and Yales and Stanfords, and we win some of those, which is why we still have good teams.

WD: Another thing that seems to have changed is the number of kids who are really focused on their sport all year round, in the weight room all year round. Or they’re holding captain’s practices without a coach watching them.
HS: I tell parents this all the time: If you’re going to specialize, specialize out of passion, not a plan to have this turn into a payoff. There’s nothing that a young person should be doing 100 times a year. If you’re playing three different sports, it balances your body.

WD: Prior to 1994 (when Williams joined the Div. III league) the focus was really the Little Three and the Amherst game. For many sports that was the single focus or the end of the line. Your basketball teams occasionally went to the ECAC tournament. Now, a lot of our teams point toward NCAA competition.
HS: And league formation has actually created NCAA competition. I do miss the impact of Little Three; in a lot of our sports it has become secondary. I understand it. The kids grow up watching NCAA press conferences, NCAA games. One year we went and played Roman University in the Sweet 16. They had five Div. I transfers, and everyone was like, “Oh, that’s awful.” But I want my players to be exposed to that, and, just as importantly, I want the rest of the country to be exposed to how we do it.

WD: So is the only exception now football? The end of the season is still the Amherst game, which is obviously very special to everybody who participates.
HS: Yes. I think it’s the one sport where the NCAA tournament would be anti-climactic. The Amherst game is that big in football. And at the end of the year the two Little Three games are very special.

WD: What is the relationship between athletics and other aspects of life at Williams? I know you think about athletics as cocurricular rather than extracurricular.
HS: This is something that I am incredibly passionate about. And I demand that my faculty not use the term “extracurricular.” The reason is—and this is not to say that the experience is academic, but it is educational. To me cocurricular falls into the general realm of teaching much more than extracurricular. We’re trying to teach some lessons to our young men and women that are not replicated in the classroom, so that we can actually add value to their education here at Williams in a way that dance does and theater does.

WD: Could you elaborate on the values and the lessons that you think participation in sports can provide that are harder or impossible to get in the classroom?
HS: One of the most important things we do is teach our young men and women how to be a good teammate, whether it’s an individual sport or a team sport. The very real life lessons of sacrifice, of giving up something to make the whole greater, of actually stretching your personal limits. I had a co-captain by the name of Seth Mehr ’96, and he never started for us. He played about 10 minutes a game his senior year. Seth wrote me a letter his first year out. He’d gone to Emory Medical School, and he said, “Coach, I just want to reflect on my experience at Williams. First of all it was just the best place for me academically. It’s the reason I’m in med school. But the thing that prepared me best for med school was basketball, because you would not take anything less than my best every day.”

WD: Your anecdote makes me think about the ways in which academic and athletic faculty members—and you guys are officially faculty members—have some things in common, but also differences. We don’t throw kids out of class. We don’t get in their ear and chew them out the way you guys do.
HS: There are some differences in our realities. You have probably never been booed in your professorial career—at least not to your face. I think one of the major differences is how public what we (coaches) have to do is. What I used to tell our players is practice is our classroom, and every Tuesday and Saturday we have a test. The difference between our test and your classroom test is we’re going to let 1,000 people in to watch you take the test. As your professor, if we don’t pass it, I’m going to be embarrassed.

WD: I don’t notice a sharp difference in my classroom between students who play sports and students who don’t. But one thing that I tend to see in athletes is a receptiveness, a familiarity with genuine criticism. Those kids I find are less likely to express surprise or frustration or anger if I tell them, “This is B-minus work. We’ve got to make it better.”
HS: They come here out of high school with a halo on their head. First day of practice they get here, and I am all over them like a cheap suit. But they have come through criticism along the way that makes it possible for us to coach them even harder.

WD: Talk about how you see the role of sports teams and the way kids on those teams interact playing out in residential life, dorm life, social life, more broadly. That’s changed too over the years.
HS: Dramatically. When I came here teams weren’t social units. As a team we had one party a year—the end-of-season basketball party. We were very involved in our houses at the time. I was in Bryant House, and that’s who I socialized with. When that [system] went away one of the things that filled the social vacuum was the team structure. Aspects of it took on the fraternization of athletic teams. The school has spent a lot of time trying to break that down, and I don’t think that’s a negative reflection on athletics. I want our athletes to be integrated into the student body.

WD: I played a significant role in the restructuring of residential life in 2006, and one of the reasons I took that on is when I came back to teach in ’98, I noticed a seismic shift. The College had stepped out of the organization of residential life, with the house system that we knew ending in the early ’90s. The kids needed an affiliation, and sports filled that gap. What we’ve tried to do more recently with the “neighborhood system” is provide a place in which athletes and non-athletes live together in an integrated way. You can still live with a handful of your teammates, but you and I can both agree that it’s not healthy to have an “athletic” dorm at Williams or have the whole basketball team or swim team living together. They spend plenty of time together already.
HS: Sports teams are one piece of their experience, and a relatively small piece if you look at the whole picture. [Coaches] have them from 4 to 6 p.m., and the rest of the time they’re not thinking about you, about the team. They’re off being 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds.

WD: Do you think of athletes as having special opportunities to be leaders on campus? Are there particular ways in which you hope that they would lead?
HS: I want our captains to be more than popularity contest winners. I meet with the captains on our campus and have a conversation with [them] about [making] sure that [their] team is in line with the mission and goals of the institution. I don’t want the captain to be simply the one who’s old enough to buy the beer. I’d like for the captain to be the one who’s old enough to say no when he or she should.

WD: What are you most proud of?
HS: I’m most proud of the way our coaches and student athletes compete. This year our men’s soccer team was at the Final Four. I got a note from the person that works at the hotel telling me that of all the teams that stayed there, our young men were the best behaved, the most polite. Second, we’re providing a real addition to the education here at Williams for a large number of students. Finally, I would never undersell the level of success we’re having. When I go out on the road, people are astounded at what we’ve done.

WD: One program that you have developed is identifying faculty mentors or liaisons for teams. I’m currently doing that for the women’s hockey team, a sport I knew nothing about. I’ve been to all their games this season, having lunch with those young women. It’s just a great experience, and that increases their comfort level with me. They’re more likely to show up in a philosophy class, even though that is not the goal of the program.
HS: I stole that from Gary Walters, the AD at Princeton. He felt that it was very important to break down some of those barriers. I can’t tell you the number of faculty who are participating and coming to me and saying, “I had no idea the experience was like this for the kids.” It’s been wonderful.

WD: So what could we do better?
HS: I come in Monday morning and look on my desk and pray there is nothing on it from security. We’re going to have young men and women who make mistakes. Those are always challenges. The integration issue is the one I would come back to. To make sure that the experience that our young men and women have athletically is representative of the experience that someone who is not an athlete has.

WD: It’s interesting that the behavior of the kids is a responsibility that weighs heavily o n you. I don’t go to bed at night worrying that some kid in my philosophy class is going to do something idiotic over the weekend. If they do, that lands on the dean’s desk. It doesn’t land on mine.
HS: It’s also not in the paper: “Philosophy major arrested on Spring Street.” (Laughing.) We have a more direct link to bringing these kids to campus. The first call that a parent of a non-athlete makes might be to the dean’s office, and they don’t know who they want to speak to. But if one of our young men or women has an issue, the parent knows exactly who they want to speak to. They want to speak to a coach.

WD: The budget and sustainability are two challenges for the entire institution at this point. How are those things playing out?
HS: We’re at the point where we’ve cut horizontally about as much as we can. Everybody is going to feel pain across the board. But our goal has been to protect the teaching we do. So all the decisions we’ve made have been to keep the player-coach relationship and our assistant coaches in position. And I would say this about sustainability. We’ve looked at the way we’ve handled recycling at the Amherst homecoming game. This year was much better than past years. When you travel with 75 kids, where you eat is fairly important, how you travel. We’re always telling buses to please shut their engines off.

WD: Final thoughts?
HS: I think if you work hard and you understand Williams, it really is pretty hard to fail. It’s a very supportive place, and I think we certainly are a reflection of that support. We’re not a great school because we have a great athletic department. We’re a really good athletic department because we have a great school.

To listen to the entire conversation between Dudley and Sheehy, click here.