April 1, 2010

Big Red Support For the Core Mission

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Cornellians past, present and future were captivated by the men’s basketball team’s run to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 last week.

Cornell sports have obviously enjoyed success on the national scene before — within the past year, men’s lacrosse and women’s hockey have played in the national championship games for their respective tournaments — but for various reasons, the men’s basketball team captured imaginations like no other Cornell team in recent history. The team has deservedly received its share of congratulations, so we will avoid that for now. Instead, the end of an unprecedentedly successful winter season (for sports other than men’s basketball, too) seems like an appropriate time to review the role that athletics play at Cornell University.

It is true that athletics are not part of the University’s “core mission,” which in the most traditional sense is to educate and research. But athletics is, and always has been, a crucial support pillar to that core mission, and one that cannot be easily replaced. Last week’s run through the NCAA tournament brought a number of benefits to the University. It likely stimulated some additional donations from nostalgic alumni, but an arguably more important side effect was how it united the community, raised morale and gave us all something to cheer for. Seeing our classmates draining buckets on national TV inspires a unique type of pride in the alma mater that an army of Nobel laureates and learned scholars could not replicate.

At a time when the University is enduring a steady stream of bad publicity, these athletic achievements portray Cornell in a positive light — as a multifacted institution that is world class both in and out of the classroom. And while Cornell’s reputation as an elite university already attracts a large number of top tier prospective students, this attention will undeniably prompt more high schoolers to schedule a trip to Ithaca once college visit season comes around.

Other aspects of the athletics department are easy to overlook with the sports teams competing on national TV. Intramural sports, fitness centers and physical education classes can have an enormous benefit to the average student’s stress levels and life habits. A healthy, happy student body undoubtedly makes the University a better place to live and learn, and making regular exercise accessible to the non-varsity athletes is an essential part of that goal.

There is no doubt that the athletics department will have to bear its share of future budget cuts as the University trims and repositions itself for the future. However, as financial decisions are made, those holding the pursestrings must keep in mind the substantial intangible benefits of a robust, dynamic athletics department.