Thursday, January 2, 2014

I Value Student-Athletes and I Signed the Open Letter on Athletics

by Lesleigh Cushing
Associate Professor, Religion and Jewish Studies

Tim Mansfield recently asked me, as a member of the faculty who signed the open letter on athletics, to speak with the Alumni Council about the letter.  As a signatory of the letter, I endorse its main points.  But I am also a strong supporter both of Colgate athletes and our athletic program generally.  There seems to be a common misperception - evident in many of the comments I have read online and in conversations I have had with students that anyone who signed that letter devalues Colgate athleticsI hope it will be helpful, then, if I explain both why I have such high regard for so many of the student-athletes I have encountered and why I signed the Open Letter.

Why I Value Student-Athletes

I have had many high-achieving student-athletes in my classes over the years.  I know well that some of our student-athletes are among our very best students academically, and I have had the pleasure of teaching some of these truly exceptional students. 

I have also taught a lot of student-athletes who are not at the very tops of their classes, and I have been struck consistently by the receptiveness of these to constructive criticism.   Perhaps because they are accustomed to losing as well as to winning, perhaps because they are used to working as a team, perhaps because they strive constantly to improve themselves, I have found student-athletes to be especially able to hear critical feedback without becoming defensive.

I often teach at 8:20 in the morning, and I am grateful for the presence of student-athletes in the classroom at that hour.  They are the students who have already been up for some time, who are alert and responsive because their days are already well underway.  In my experience, they are the students who energize my early morning classes.

I am concerned about the health of our student body.   On a campus where binge-drinking is rampant, I value the fact there is a core of students who endeavor to treat their bodies with respect, students who are profoundly aware of the potential and limitations of their own bodies.

I am thankful for the many athletic events on our community’s calendar. I like having my own children go to Colgate games. I hope that they will see our student-athletes as modeling healthy, active living, as exemplifying the power of teamwork, as exhibiting dedication and discipline.

Why I Signed the Open Letter on Athletics

I signed it raises important structural questions.  It raises concerns about classes missed.  It wonders how tenable it is for a student-athlete to balance well the (sometimes competing) demands placed on her by academics and athletics.  It speaks to the encroachment of athletic programming into the academic week. 

I signed it because I know of teams whose schedules necessitate students missing more than three classes a semester, which seems to me and to many other faculty members the limit of class sessions a student should miss.

More specifically, I signed it because as a professor who tries to build community and to engage students intellectually outside the classroom, I am frustrated by the near-impossibility of convening students after 4 pm for dinners or lectures or screenings.  This is not a problem exclusive to student-athletes, but student-athletes consistently have the most difficulty weaving these events into their schedules.  I signed the letter because I hoped it might prod us all into a careful examination of our collective schedule and a sustained discussion of how we organize and use time. 

More particularly, I signed it because it speaks of an encroachment of athletic demands on the academic week.  This is an encroachment with which I am very familiar: for three and a half years, I served as University Professor for Core 151: Legacies of the Ancient World.  As a result, I sat at a table at drop-add twice a year trying to find sections of Core 151 for the hundreds of students lined up before me.  Over and over again, I watched students scour the course offerings for classes that did not conflict with their teams’ lifting or practice schedules.  Every semester, I received countless emails from students asking to be admitted to a particular section because it was the only section that worked with their training schedule.  In my view, this was a clear sign of a loss of balance.

I am committed to my student-athletes and to athletics at Colgate.  I am committed to academics at Colgate. In my view, there is often little tension between these two statements.  But some of the time—at add/drop and course registration, in particular; in evening programming—the tension is obvious.   I signed the letter because I believe it is time for all of us to have an open, thoughtful, respectful discussion about finding a better balance between these two strengths of our institution. 

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