Monday, April 25, 2011

The Tail Wagging the Dog

John N. Gardner

Recently I was a co-chair/co-moderator of a panel presentation/discussion at the annual meeting of the nation’s largest regional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission.  The title of this “Roundtable” session was “Rural and/or Small Institution Environments: Challenges for New Student Success”. I blog here about the most interesting point (for me) to emerge from this 75 minute activity: the tail wagging the dog.
Specifically, the tail wagging the dog in many, many small and/or rural institutions, is the extraordinary influence of athletics on every aspect of institutional life and operations:
·      admissions
·      financial aid
·      the curriculum
·      levels of classroom engagement
·      faculty/staff relationships
·      institutional governance
·      the role of alumni
·      town/gown relations
·      student discipline issues
·      patterns of student dating, socializing
·      patterns of student alcohol and drug use
·      student priorities for time allocation
·      student sleep deprivation
·      standards  of ethics in all areas of campus life
The session focused on many aspects of the ways in which small and rural colleges attempt to work with their students, with many opportunities, problems, challenges, strengths and advantages. But the area of greatest consensus was that the tail was wagging the dog, that the allocation of attention and resources to athletics was the primary driver for institutional values and rewards. One institution reported that this year its student body was “only” 73% student athlete which was a great improvement over several years ago when it was over 90%. This concern about the excessive influence of athletics was characteristic of institutions from all 20 states represented, and both four-year and even community colleges—some of which in rural areas do have not only athletics but on-campus residential accommodations.
This conference followed shortly on the heels of the annual US obsession with March Madness, the athletic equivalent of the college basketball World Series. What struck me was the contrast between the stereotypical institutions where we think the role of athletics looms large (Division I, large, fraternity/sorority/heavy drinking, on campus residential culture all associated especially with football, returning alums, and the corporatization of collegiate sports) and these small, rural institutions. In reality, it appeared that when considering proportionality, the impact of athletics was far greater at the small places than the big ones, even though to the naked and untrained eye one would never assume this.  Conclusion: the influence of athletics and its value systems and their inherent conflict with the traditional values of the academy, have truly trickled all the way down the food chain. There is almost no place we can escape this.
So I have asked the Commission if next year we couldn’t have a session specifically focused on the tail wagging the dog and what is its relationship between how we go about academic quality assurance in the US: through a process we call “regional reaccreditation.” I am confident they will arrange such a session and I predict it will fill the house and result in a lot more educators leaving more disturbed than when they walked in the door. But that would be a good thing.
Author’s note: this blog was written by a former, small college, Division III, varsity athlete!


  1. John,
    Athletics do have a profound affect on all of the areas of college/university life that you suggest. As a newcomer to a small, rural (extremely rural), Division I school, I am seeing how growth in athletics is increasing diversity in the student body, pride and loyalty among alumni, and a more defined campus culture. This week a 9 foot tall, 18 foot wide, 2,800lb camel arrived on our campus. A gift to athletics, strategically placed in front of our basketball arena, and adored by the campus and surrounding community.
    There are many challenges that athletics brings, but I am witnessing amazing strengths--for now.
    Best Wishes-and thank you for continuing to write and share your thoughts.

  2. Thank you very much. More posts have been written and are therefore coming!” Nothing like a little reinforcement.