February 22, 2008

Financial Aid, Principles Should Be Priority

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I discovered the “crisis” in Cornell athletics at the beginning of the semester, when I started asking questions for a story about Cornell recruiting. Naturally, I went to some Cornell Athletics staff and coaches (the people with direct knowledge of recruiting). Instead, I discovered an enormous and mounting sense of fear: the recruits were committing elsewhere across the board for Cornell sports, and financial aid was a significant factor. (I can only imagine the same being true for non student-athletes, though I have no information to support this).
Investigating initially, I found fears that financial aid discrepancies would tear apart the competitive balance mandated in the Ivy Statement of Principles. I soon found, however, that the problems weren’t limited to the influence of HYP (Harvard, Yale and Princeton). HYP created the imbalance, but now was causing an avalanche of change, one too powerful for Cornell to fight. The other schools had adapted; we have not, apparently.
Penn Director of Athletics Steve Bilsky said that competitive imbalance from financial aid is the greatest problem the Ivy Conference has ever faced, and I find it hard to disagree. How could this not be a huge issue? This has the potential to violate the core principles of the Ivy League: valuing competition, and choosing your education based on the school, not the finances, among others.
Creative solutions will be needed to level the playing field. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have a strong idea about what the solutions are, myself included. Hopefully, the next Ivy meetings will lead to a resolution, or Cornell could find some of its sports in big trouble.
Strong leadership by the Ivy League and its Executive Director Jeff Orleans is critical right now. Cornell’s leadership needs to more forcefully address the issue of financial aid as well. Financial aid needs to become a University priority — I have no doubts about that.
As for athletics, they are a fundamental part of campus life at colleges across America. Sports programs can drive happiness on campus, and you can’t attract strong students without the benefits of quality life, national/media exposure and opportunities that Athletics can bring.
Take Duke and Stanford: a big part of what separates them is their athletics programs and life on campus. Sports have such a positive impact on student bodies. You can see it at Cornell whenever hockey wins a game — let alone has a strong season, as it often does — and with the magical run the men’s basketball team is having now.
Remember the Madison Square Garden game? That game probably increased our alumni support, school spirit, visibility and even our revenue for some time. We outsold B.U. by a significant margin in the tickets department … yet, they kicked our ass. Cornell won’t get many more chances to give itself that kind of national visibility if it can’t field a competitive squad on that kind of stage. We won’t get invited or nobody will watch.
On the subject of winning teams, men’s and women’s basketball are succeeding in historic fashion. While working on this story, I kept asking myself: isn’t this contradicting the story?
Well, no. It’s an excellent example of what makes this story difficult for some to grasp: the effects of this year’s poor recruiting won’t be felt for another couple years; we’re seeing the effects of the last two or three years right now.
Competitive balance isn’t about two teams: it’s about every team and school in the league. Cornell has a grand total of zero championships in 2007-08, and is on pace to take only two through the winter season. What’s more, after a record pace of titles from 2001-06, Cornell hit a five-year low last year. So, between last year and this year, it’s pretty safe to say Cornell is on the decline … I won’t speculate why.
So, without solutions, is this the end of Cornell Athletics or the Ivy League? Dealing with the latter part first, I asked, could Cornell get kicked out of the conference? Would HYP leave the conference? Would the conference dissolve? No, was what I soon found out from ADs and coaches alike, for many reasons (so many, in fact, that I won’t burden you with them here).
As for the end of Red athletics, picture this: top students (including student-athletes) no longer want to come to Cornell, so Cornell drops out of contention in a number of sports. What happens then? Do our coaches leave? How do we bring in good coaches? Does athletics start losing more money from the university — Cornell is already on one of the smallest budgets in the conference, if not the smallest — and do we start losing interest and fund-raising money? Do teams start having to fold up? Do current and prospective students start losing interest in the University because the student life and well-being is worse? Do we start to see less Cornell spirit on campus and with alumni?
When I pressed coaches about these issues, especially the part about leaving their jobs, a number of them hedged or declined to comment. I stopped asking the questions not so much because nobody wanted to talk, but more importantly, because the answers are obvious. Yes, any of these things could happen, and perhaps even worse things. These clear-cut answers are the reason why addressing the problems is so important for Cornell.
Furthermore, I found coaches in particular to be scared for their jobs when talking to me. One coach gave me information on the record, and then asked that I do everything I could to give him, as we say at The Sun, “retroactive off the record status.” He feared the school would reprimand him or his program in any number of ways. A few coaches feared that talking to The Sun would drive away recruits because admitting Cornell couldn’t match packages would be like telling kids to “not even bother looking here.” Still, they all felt there was such a problem at Cornell that they had to speak publicly.
Finally, at one point in the story, a coach implies that other Ivies are trying to catch up to HYP’s packages, ignoring the “need based” system and brazenly bidding for athletes. Although The Sun could not confirm it, I believe it could be.
But is it? I don’t know, but I want to.
So, I hope some enterprising well-intentioned people with information will come forward, or some of my colleagues across the Ancient Eight can dig deeper on this and see what they find. If the allegations are true, confirming blatant and egregious violations such as these would speak volumes to the incredible power financial aid is having on the conference. It would point back to the foundation of the Ivy League principles, how the league was formed to be “above” issues of money, and be about pure collegiality. When you look at it carefully, that’s what this whole debate is about: removing money from the equation to make quality education the real focus.
I certainly hope we can get back to that focus, and I hope to see swift and decisive action from the league and Cornell. I think everyone agrees that more work needs to be done on this issue.
Let’s get it done.