Harvard academic scandal indicts athletics?

September, 19, 2012
That seems to be the thesis of a story in Wednesday's New York Times, headlined "Cheating Scandal Dulls Pride in Athletics at Harvard." It begins with the story of the Harvard hoops team's recent success -- in March, Harvard won its the first Ivy League title and earned its first NCAA tournament bid in 66 years -- and the rush of real, actual athletic joy experienced by a campus that rarely feels it.

Fast-forward to last week, when Harvard co-captains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry were among nearly 125 students implicated in a massive academic scandal at the school, and suddenly the Crimson pride appears to be fading. From the Times's story:
“I have foreign roommates who come from university systems where there is no role for athletics,” Patrick Lane, a Harvard senior from Beverly, Mass., said as he stood in Harvard Yard. “So when they see athletes cutting corners like this, their response is to say, ‘Good riddance.’

“And they are not the only students troubled. Some athletes are here working hard, but others avoid academic challenges. You know you won’t find them in a deductive logic course, but you will find them in a much less taxing sociology course. They sometimes exist apart, and collectively gravitate to the same majors, like sociology or government. It’s known.”

Apparently, this Patrick Lane fellow is positively abraded -- abraded, I say! -- at the idea that not everybody at Harvard enrolls in deductive logic courses. Sociology? Government? Pshh! How dare these men of sport enroll in such pedestrian concerns! How unfamiliar they must be with the joys of Hume's skepticism, of the fallacies of the closed world assumption? My dear, can you imagine? And when they leave this fair university, they will carry with them but a worthless piece of parchment -- a Harvard degree in government studies -- upon which their shame will be written! Heed my words, thou scoundrels! For shame!

I mean, come on. Are we serious? These guys are still going to Harvard. It's not like they're majoring in recreational studies. Even the easiest Harvard major carries with it a high degree of difficulty. Otherwise, what's the point of Harvard?

Of course, there have been concerns raised in the past -- both inside and outside the school -- that Harvard and the Ivy League is slowly but surely drawing distinctions of ease for talented athletes, allowing their sports teams to be more competitive. Depending on where you stand on the matter, that is a fair concern:
“I had this notion that Harvard and the Ivies were different, but I guess they’re not,” said Gerald Gurney, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and until last year the president of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics. “I know they have high standards, but we also know coaches and advisers find creative ways to place athletes in certain courses and majors that protect them.”

Sure, OK, fine. If Harvard and the Ivies are different -- or if they profess to be different -- then the trend of providing non-athletic scholarships, and making entry to the school less rigorous for athletes, is probably slightly disconcerting. Finding easier academic paths? I don't know. Maybe I'm cynical. Maybe I'm used to the big-state school way of doing things. That just doesn't seem like a major issue to me.

Anyway, that fair concern is also an old one. It's been raised before, time and again, as Tommy Amaker has recruited the most talent to the school's basketball program in its not-so-illustrious history. These are things Harvard and its Ivy League counterparts will have to confront eventually.

What happened in the now-infamous Introduction to Congress class that got 125 students in scalding academic water is something else entirely. It is an entire student body issue -- or a major issue within this one class -- that applies to all range of students, athlete or non-athlete. A handful of students in a group of 125 alleged cheaters were also athletes. That's a small but representative sample.

Why that incident would suddenly cause an indictment of the school's athletics programs is beyond my understanding. If you want to make that argument at Harvard, you could have done so already. If you didn't, there's nothing to see here.

And we don't need to call in the deductive logic prof to help us with that one. It seems pretty straightforward, actually.



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