SLC Registers as NCAA Exploratory Member

by Suzanne Walters Gray MFA ’04

There’s a hot-pink T-shirt for sale in the SLC bookstore that reads: “Sarah Lawrence Football: Still Undefeated.” The joke, of course, is that SLC has never had an official football team, and probably never will.

It's a move that the administration hopes will enhance the student experience and entice more prospective students to apply to Sarah Lawrence.

Yet participation in varsity sports has grown steadily in the past 15 years. The College currently has more than 125 athletes playing on 12 varsity teams, which compete primarily in the Hudson Valley Athletic Conference. And they hold their own: women’s swimming and tennis both swept the conference last fall, and women’s volleyball won the regular season championship. Almost as impressive, fully 250 people attended the men’s basketball homecoming game last fall. The Gryphons even won.

This spring, Sarah Lawrence is taking what Dean of Studies Al Green calls “a natural step”: the College is applying to become a member of NCAA Division III. It’s a move that the administration hopes will enhance the student experience and entice more prospective students to apply to Sarah Lawrence.

Why the Move?

NCAA Division III is designed for small liberal arts colleges—Bard, Skidmore, Wellesley, and Vassar are all members. In Division III, as at Sarah Lawrence, athletes are students first. They’re encouraged to take part in other extracurricular activities, and there are no athletic scholarships or stadiums full of roaring crowds. “Division III is about making sure athletics is folded into the rigor of the academics,” says Dean Green. In fact, he notes, Sarah Lawrence is already running a Division III caliber athletics program in most respects.

Sarah Lawrence helped found the Hudson Valley Athletic Conference, but in the past few years the conference’s makeup has changed, with several elite colleges moving to Division III. By joining them, the Gryphons will face more robust competition and will have the chance to compete at the national level.

The College’s strategic planning committee and Board of Trustees see another benefit to the move. According to Tom Blum, the vice president of administration and the College’s statistical guru, 25 to 35 percent of high school students who are interested in a liberal arts education are also interested in playing college sports. Many people believe that joining the NCAA will make Sarah Lawrence more appealing to those prospective students, thereby increasing the applicant pool. “It won’t cause a stampede,” Blum says, “but it might cause some students who are on the fence to consider Sarah Lawrence. And that goes for both women and men.” The more applicants, the more choices the College has in putting together a diverse and talented class.

But some faculty members are not so sure that the move will have a significant effect on recruitment. Literature teacher Ann Lauinger served on the financial equilibrium task force of the strategic planning committee; she and others think that the College has “unreasonable expectations” about the switch. She says, “It reminds me of the phony arguments that circulated around the building of the Campbell Sports Center,” which was hailed as a boon to recruitment. “We’re not suddenly going to get more minorities and more men on campus because we’re in the NCAA.”

What if the College just stayed the course? Does not being a part of NCAA hurt Sarah Lawrence? Alexis Gordon ’10, MSEd ’11 thinks so. When the former captain of the women’s crew team worked as a senior interviewer for the Office of Admission, she spoke to several prospective students who rejected the College because “they wanted a college with a more serious sports program.” Tom Blum says that since most of our competitors are in the NCAA (and, for that matter, have handsome sports centers), it’s reasonable to assume that not having such things would put us at a disadvantage.

Practical Questions

The move to NCAA Division III won’t happen overnight. First SLC will begin an “exploratory year” with the NCAA, in which both organizations make sure that Division III is a good fit. If that’s successful, the College will be accepted as a provisional member for four years. Only then—2016 at the earliest—will SLC be a full-fledged member of the NCAA.

Student athletes seem to be uniformly excited about the move. Max Mallory ’11, a pre-law student and co-captain of the basketball team, points out that they are already practicing and competing at a Division III level. “We are college athletes, and we do the same amount of work as athletes at bigger schools,” he says. He hopes that the move to Division III will bring athletes more recognition on campus.

The cachet of the NCAA name comes with a price tag, of course. The College estimates that once the probationary period has ended, being a member of NCAA will cost about $150,000 a year in fees, coaches’ salaries, and travel costs.

It’s a sizeable figure for a College that has been struggling to balance its budget, and some people suspect the price isn’t worth it. “The question of value for the money remains,” says Ann Lauinger. She argues that if students can have a reasonable athletic experience in their current conference, then the College should not spend the money to move to the NCAA.

Will SLC’s Culture Change?

One concern of some students and alumnae/i is that the move to NCAA Division III represents a shift in Sarah Lawrence’s unconventional campus culture. (When the SLC Facebook page praised the men’s basketball team for their 2009 homecoming win, an alumna wrote, “Spare me. That’s not why anyone attends Sarah Lawrence.” Another alumnus commented, “Good god. What’s next? Greek fraternities?”)

In Division III, as at Sarah Lawrence, athletes are students first.

But on campus, proponents and skeptics alike are confident that moving to the NCAA won’t affect SLC’s essential character. For one thing, student athletes must meet the same rigorous admission standards as everyone else. “Athletes do everything other students do,” Dean Green says. “I don’t think we have to worry about athletics overshadowing what SLC was or what SLC is.” Ann Lauinger agrees: “Our students will continue to be our students.” Literature teacher Ilja Wachs points out that the College’s educational philosophy is what sets it apart. “Extracurricular activities aren’t going to change the culture of Sarah Lawrence. It’s too small a move to make a difference.”

Although the nature of the SLC experience is not expected to change, there are hopes that a more visible athletics program will have a positive effect on student life. Participating in athletics is “a bonding experience,” says Max Mallory, the basketball captain. It’s also a chance to befriend people you would probably never meet otherwise, he says—a sentiment echoed by former crew captain Alexis Gordon. They note that postpractice get-togethers and social mixing counteracts the insularity that can sometimes result from intensive academic work.

And a sense of camaraderie can have a sizeable effect on whether or not a student graduates. Tom Blum says that social engagement is a key predictor of student retention. Insofar as a stronger athletics program increases social engagement among some students, it should help them thrive.

Of course, plenty of students are, and will remain, disinterested in sports. What do the non-athletes think about the move? History student and avowed non-athlete Tara Kearns ’11 says, “If it’s good for the school, then I support it. It could create new social groups and more overlap among existing ones, and that could only be a good thing.” Ultimately, joining NCAA Division III should enrich the college experience for all students, says Dean Green, since a stronger sense of community is good for everyone. And for those who just want some fun or exercise, SLC’s intramural sports and physical education classes will remain robust.

Whether or not joining NCAA Division III has the desired effects, the stellar record of the Sarah Lawrence football team should remain intact.