Saving Our Sports

Students Need to Stand Up, Think and Act

Last August, I had no idea MIT had a pistol team. I didn’t even know that pistol was a collegiate sport. “Pistol?” I asked. “You mean like guns?” Coming from a high school whose prime directive in making policy was to avoid lawsuits, it had never occurred to me that a college would allow 17 and 18-year olds to handle firearms. But, in fact, MIT has a thriving pistol team which has captured two national championship titles in the past four years.

And pistol isn’t the only team you might not have expected to find here; alpine skiing, gymnastics, fencing, rifle, and squash also complement the mainstream collegiate sports to round out MIT’s 41 varsity sports — more than nearly any school in the country. Unfortunately, the recently announced budget cuts bring into question the continued existence of some of these programs. Cutting certain varsity programs threatens a key element of diversity and vitality at MIT and highlights a deepening lack of communication within the MIT administration and a destructive level of bureaucratic inflexibility.

In almost every meaningful way, MIT is truly unique. Our students are not like those at other universities. Our classes are not like those at other universities. Most importantly, our campus culture is not like that of other universities. Which is why it continues to confuse me that the MIT administration insists on drawing from policy at other schools to guide our own. The Blue Ribbon Committee’s outside consultant did it with dining, and we all know how that turned out. Now, DAPER rationalizes cuts in our varsity program by claiming “benchmark programs” at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and the like have made similar cuts.

As experience shows, this methodology is fundamentally flawed. MIT does not operate the same way other schools do. We work harder than any other students in the country, and we are justly rewarded with the opportunities to participate in a wide range of quality athletics that cater to the diverse interests across campus. “Benchmark programs” at our Ivy League neighbors are no benchmarks at all. MIT needs to devise fiercely MIT-specific policies to deal with the current economic downturn. “Let’s just do what everybody else is doing” didn’t cut it for MIT in the past and doesn’t cut it now.

In order to make any kind of informed policy, it is crucial to communicate with those whom the policy affects. As an admissions tour guide, I was instructed by the Information Office to promote MIT’s athletic offerings to potential applicants and future students. In my experience, many, many people outside the MIT community are totally unaware of how strong and diverse our athletic program is. They’re shocked to learn we boast one of the highest rates of athletic participation in the country and offer 41 varsity sports. Telling tourists and potential applicants about our pistol range and my personal experiences is always a surefire way to engage them and get them interested in sports at MIT. In light of this, I would urge DAPER and the administration to carefully evaluate the impact of these cuts from an admissions perspective.

To many potential applicants, our extensive varsity program and athletic facilities are an unexpected attraction. Consequently, these programs contribute to our ever-precious admissions yield, which in turn contributes to our esteemed public perception and high national ranking. Indirectly, these factors may influence alumni donation rates, which further influence our national ranking. From a long-term admissions and financial perspective, continued investments in programs like varsity sports today may pay off huge dividends in the future.

Finally, DAPER and the entire MIT administration must be as genuinely committed to creativity and flexibility as they claim to be. One day, we have Julie Soriero, athletics director, confirming with finality that sports will be cut out of the MIT varsity program, and the next day, Provost Reif “strongly encourages” students to come up with “other ideas.” “The crazier the ideas, the better,” he explained. There’s very little motivation for us to come up with a crazy ideas when it’s already been announced that sports will be cut. We deserve a unified voice and a unified stance from the administration on this issue — that’s for certain. But as students, we do have an obligation to come up with ideas.

The administration’s collective lack of creativity and ingenuity has left them helpless.

They’re so short on ideas they’ve reduced themselves to looking up to benchmarks at Harvard to inform policy. They’ve searched and searched, and apparently there is just no way to keep our sports. As students, we need to stick up for the programs we want and prove them wrong.

Here’s a crazy idea: maybe we do need to micromanage the budget cuts, Provost Reif. Maybe it is worthwhile to see if some departments can dig a little deeper to subsidize DAPER. Maybe we should devise a smarter alumni outreach strategy. Maybe we should consolidate personnel and resources for separate offices with similar missions. Being passive is the only thing that stands no chance of saving sports. Come up with ideas and be vocal about it. If the administration is smart, they’ll listen to us.