Intercollegiate athletics crucial to academic values

Chancellor's Corner

Rachael Garner/File

Every so often, I am asked — by students, faculty and, on occasion, alumni — what I really think about the place of intercollegiate athletics on our campus. While the question is sometimes motivated by a concern that UC Berkeley doesn’t do enough to support athletics, the question more often comes from someone who questions whether intercollegiate athletics constitutes a serious distraction from our core academic mission. I have even been asked why I don’t follow the lead of Robert Maynard Hutchins, longtime president of the University of Chicago, who took Chicago out of the Big Ten and abolished the football program.

There is no doubt that our academic mission is paramount, but UC Berkeley as an institution of higher education has a number of goals in which our athletics programs play an important role. UC Berkeley celebrates the talents of its academic community — yet we select our students not just because they are “high achievers” in academic arenas but also because they have exhibited a range of talents in areas from music, art and performance to swimming and basketball. Athletic achievement is not something we value only for what it tells us about individual virtuosity and collective achievement — it also reminds us that the two are integrally connected. In some ways akin to work in a scientific laboratory or an off-campus public service project, athletics remind us that excellence is as social as it is personal.

Many of us accept that athletics play an important role in building and sustaining campus “spirit,” as well as in strengthening ties that bind alumni to their alma mater. Not so many of us understand, however, how athletic performance mirrors so much of what we seek to cultivate in all of our students. Student athletes appreciate that their talents alone do not produce greatness. They learn the art of discipline, the centrality of hard work and the relentlessness of training in order to realize and develop talent rather than assume that it alone is sufficient to do well in life, no matter what pathway one chooses.

Many of our students — whether they are athletes, musicians, performers or, for that matter, scientists — pursue their interests with an extraordinary degree of dedication and passion. Yet only a handful of students in each realm continue on to become actual professionals, and this neither invalidates the effort nor discounts the many other reasons to strive for excellence in all that we do.

We engage in both intellectual and physical pursuits to test ourselves, to teach us how to learn and excel in all pursuits, even in those that might seem unrelated at the time. Performative expertise — whether in music, dance or sport — is especially transferable to other domains. And we take great pleasure as performers and as spectators in the excellence that our fellow students achieve, whether the performance is individual, collective or both. Continual self-improvement, constant striving and the effort not just to work together but to lead together support the values and goals of our institution as a whole and, indeed, of the liberal arts education we position at its center.

When athletic and academic achievement is combined, we learn again how “thinking” and “doing” are both necessary components of our education. We have learned over the centuries that Cartesian dualism is hardly sustained in the real world, where cognitive and noncognitive ability are necessarily conjoined and where excellence, leadership and achievement are as predicated on effort and hard work — and the opportunities to pursue these activities — as on some prima facie idea of intelligence or ability.

It therefore seems perfectly natural that sport has become so important a part of the traditions that make up collegiate culture and education. From the Hellenic world — where athletic as well as intellectual prowess was famously celebrated — to every culture known to anthropologists, the sporting life has been seen as critical for real-world education.

There have been abuses, to be sure, from the use of athletic training to cultivate the value of winning above the importance of sportsmanship to the association of athletics with imperial hegemony or class privilege or, for that matter, the gendered assumptions and exclusions in sport that were present in the classical world (and just about every place and every time else as well).

More recently, we have seen abuses in collegiate athletics that threaten some of our fundamental assumptions and beliefs about the idea of the university. And we know these abuses include some of the problems that were recently identified on our campus in the task-force report of the committee on academics and athletics at UC Berkeley.

As a result, we are making sustained efforts to better integrate athletics into the fabric of undergraduate life on campus — something both student-athletes and nonathletes have asked for — while ensuring that we support our student-athletes in academic and social domains, as we do in athletic ones. Our coaches and our new athletic director have already made extraordinary efforts to show that the place of student athletes at UC Berkeley is both up to our high standards in every domain and exemplary for other institutions of higher education across the country.

At the same time, I feel adamant that — as a member of the aforementioned task force put it — we need not only to “bring more Berkeley to Cal” but also “more Cal to Berkeley.” Recognizing the whole value of sport, especially what it does for our student-athletes, but also for our educational community at large, will go a long way in addressing any residual suspicion that Hutchins had the right idea.

Chancellor’s Corner is a monthly opinion piece by UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.

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