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It's Time For Penn to Lead (Opinion)
It's Time For Penn to Lead (Opinion)

The Penn baseball team last week struck a blow for Ivy League athletics, one that hits at the heart of Ivy League administrators.  Despite not making it out of the NCAA Baseball Tournament Regionals, Penn beat Auburn and Samford before losing twice to Southern Mississippi in the Regional Final.  The victory over Auburn marked the first time an Ivy League school defeated an SEC school in the tournament, and it happened on Auburn’s home field.  This came shortly after Princeton’s basketball team won two games in the NCAA basketball tournament in March.

The success of Ivy League athletics marked almost a direct challenge to Ivy League administrators, who strive for excellence in everything - except athletics.  Despite enormous recruiting advantages related to the quality and prestige of their schools, Ivy League administrators seek to enforce mediocrity with their athletic programs, and look askance at the thought of success.

Fortunately, as the Penn baseball team and Princeton basketball team showed just two months apart, that refusal to achieve does not filter down to Ivy League athletes.  Indeed, in February Penn’s Justin Watson, a wide receiver for the Kansas City Chiefs, became a Super Bowl champion.

With the changing landscape of American college sports, and university life in general, it’s time to ask why the Ivy League continues to view sports almost as an embarrassment. Actually, it’s time for the Ivy League to review many of its policies and priorities, and for Penn to take the lead doing so. 

Given the current state of affairs, it is time for the University of Pennsylvania to shake off its traditional role of being a follower to the lead of Harvard, Yale and Princeton when it comes to Ivy League matters.  It’s time for Penn to assert itself as discussions go forward in terms of where these schools will stand in tomorrow’s educational, legal and cultural world.  

The recent leadership of the so-called “Big Three” has been a failure. College enrollment in the United States is dropping and a majority of Americans no longer believe that college is a good investment. (Source) The Ivy League, all colleges and universities in general, and indeed American society, could benefit from new leadership, and Penn should be prepared to provide it.

Penn is uniquely qualified to insist on a leadership role.   Wherever one stands politically, it is impressive that each of the two most recent presidents has deep ties to the University.  Donald Trump, an alumnus, graduated in the Class of 1968, and Joe Biden was an adjunct Penn professor when he was elected, as well as one of the driving forces in establishing the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. (Source) Trump’s son Donald, Jr., his daughter Ivanka, Biden’s son Beau, and daughter Ashley all graduated from Penn. 

Numerous Penn alums now hold positions of great influence and responsibility.  Gary Gensler is the Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Rohit Chopra is the director of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.  There are numerous others. (Source

During the Covid pandemic, Penn grads such as Bob Wachter, MD, Chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, played leading roles in helping cut through the often muddled and overly-politicized signals coming from different places.  

As an institution, Penn’s place at the very top of American - and indeed world - higher education is unquestioned.  While the school ratings are often unpopular to college administrators, no serious ranking of the top colleges and universities in the world omits Penn. (Source) Interestingly though, with respect to the other seven Ivies, Penn has a different history, especially when it comes to athletics.  Before joining the newly formed Ivy League in 1954, Penn was one of the preeminent powers in college football. 

It’s difficult in 2023 to appreciate what a colossus Penn football was in the 1940’s and early 1950’s. During the early days of television in 1950, the Dumont Network, one of the early large television networks, decided to televise nationally every home game of two schools that had national followings, Notre Dame and Penn.

Regularly in the Top 20 and often in contention for the national championship, the Penn football experience was the ultimate in college sports.  So prized was the ability to travel to West Philadelphia to take on Penn at Franklin Field that during the five-year period from 1949-53, immediately before Penn joined the Ivy League, Penn only played 7 road games!  During that time, 11 teams ranked in the Top 20 came to Penn, including a Number 1 ranked Notre Dame team in 1953 and a Number 2 ranked Army team in 1949.

Penn’s athletic prowess was so pronounced that it almost didn’t get in the Ivy League.  The other seven schools simply didn’t trust that Penn would be willing to give up its massive cash cow and prestigious football program.  It took a personal commitment by Penn’s new Athletic Director, Jeremiah Ford, to the Athletic Directors at the other seven schools to persuade them to allow Penn into the Ivy League - just barely. (Source)  

Ford proved to be the man for the job.  He wrecked the football program so thoroughly that in the two years after signing the Ivy League Agreement in 1954 but before league play started in 1956, Penn went 0-18 and was outscored 578-105.  In 1959, after Penn surprised the Ivy League by winning its first football championship, Ford fired his coach, Steve Sebo. 

In 1966, after the Penn basketball team won its first Ivy League championship and prepared to play Syracuse in the NCAA tournament, Ford refused to compromise with the NCAA over something known as the “1.6 Rule” that dealt with minimum academic standards for student-athletes.  The NCAA was willing to work out a face-saving gesture for all concerned, but Ford was not.  His stance forced Penn to forfeit the NCAA tournament, earning both Ford and the institution the eternal bitterness of the basketball team and its coach Jack McCloskey.  Prior to the Covid year of 2021, in which the Ivy League enforced another stupid athletic decision and did not play all year, 1966 was the only NCAA basketball tournament in history without a representative from the Ivy League.

Seventy years after the birth of the Ivy League, Penn still stands apart from the rest of the Ivy League in many areas, including its athletic facilities.  In Franklin Field and the Palestra, Penn possesses two of the premier, most iconic sports venues in the country.  In typical Ivy League fashion, when the "Ancient Eight" initiated its postseason in 2017, it played the tournament at the Palestra.  After two years, the Ivy League decided to rotate its annual tournament around the league.  This ensured that while the Big East showcased its finest in Madison Square Garden and other leagues chose their best venues for their premier event, in many years the Ivies sentenced its premier event to be contested at tiny gymnasiums in Hanover, NH, Ithaca, NY or Providence, RI.

Another Ivy League athletic decision that defies comprehension involves graduate transfers.  Unlike nearly every other collegiate league, the Ivies will not allow graduate transfers who still retain athletic eligibility to play.  Given the success of the Ivy League in 2023 post-season tournaments, one would expect that top athletes who are top students would love to seek graduate degrees at the Wharton School, the Kennedy School of Government, Yale Law School or any of the other innumerable fine graduate schools in the Ivy League, while continuing to play their sport.  Who believes the Ivy schools will suffer by having the best and brightest seek to finish their collegiate careers at Ivy institutions?  Apparently Ivy administrators do, for reasons known only to them.

Of course, the largest amount of ink spilled during the last year relating to Ivy League sports dealt with Penn’s transgender swimmer Lia Thomas.  Instead of just throwing her into intercollegiate meets, shouldn’t Penn have led the national discussion about the proper place of transgender athletes in athletic competition?  Feelings are passionate and polarized on this issue, and name calling exceeds rational discussion.  As the university most affected, Penn would be the natural to be out front.

Instead we hung back.  This reticence extends far beyond the athletic departments, but athletes often are affected.  Let’s start with money.  Ivy League institutions are blessed with enormous endowments, reaching into the tens of billions of dollars.  In typical Ivy League style, the Penn athletic department reacted to its baseball team’s success by sending out a mass email celebrating the Ivy League championship, wishing the team good luck in Alabama and asking for money to help defray the costs of the trip.  This from a school that has an endowment nearing $20B.  Dare we ask what that money is for?  It’s certainly not to help reduce tuition, which now closes in on $80,000/year.  

Put some real figures on that.  From a family of four in which both children get accepted to Ivy League schools, Ivy League administrators demand that the family come up with nearly $800,000 (factoring in incidentals) to educate both children.  What percentage of our country has that kind of money laying around?

Is there a justification for this level of tuition?  Administrators often claim that few students actually pay full tuition (not true) and that they give prodigious amounts of financial aid.  Were these particular universities facing financial woes such tuition amounts might be explainable, but unlike so many colleges and universities, Ivy League schools each have multi-billion dollar endowments.  Princeton’s endowment fund, which exceeds $30 billion dollars, has reported an annual return over the last ten years of 12.2%. (Source)  In most years that return would generate enough money each year to allow Princeton, without touching its principal, to pay tuition for every Princeton student.  Instead, Princeton layers on the next generation of the “best and brightest” a crippling debt, apparently believing such outlandish tuition charges somehow make it seem elite.

What type of education does the student receive in return for this money?  Does the student get to explore all sides of all issues - to have his/her ideas questioned and challenged by his/her classmates and professors and learn from the various viewpoints of others?  Does the student get to hear the wit and wisdom of various speakers from off-campus who come to visit these institutions and challenge all of the assumptions these young adults have held, showing each how the world is rarely black and white but almost entirely various shades of gray?

More and more frequently the answer is no. University faculties increasingly are politically one-sided, with any deviation from an accepted viewpoint being not only frowned upon but often not even tolerated.  It has become a cliche to state that universities no longer educate and much as indoctrinate.  It is a sad comment on modern higher education to state that a liberal speaker has a far better chance of having a respectful and intellectually stimulating discussion with students at Liberty University than a conservative speaker has of engaging in thoughtful discourse at Harvard or Yale, to say nothing of Stanford Law School.

At Yale, Halloween costumes became an issue in 2015, with the administration attempting to dictate what types of costumes were permissible.  Remarkably, a professor was forced to resign when she objected to this and stated that students should be free to push boundaries. (Source). Harvard has faced numerous controversies in recent years relating to professors and others who don’t appropriately follow the party line, including firing well-respected professor Roland Fryer on sexual harassment charges that many believed were exaggerated to rid the school of a Black professor who challenges current ideology. (Source

One last point on athletics.  From its inception in 1954, the Ivy League has banned athletic scholarships.  In light of recent Supreme Court decisions, that may no longer be permissible.  It also raises a basic question.  Why wouldn’t the Ivy League want to showcase the greatness of our institutions by showing off our students in all endeavors?  

In what way was Princeton denigrated by having its basketball team reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in 2023?  To the contrary, the Tigers’ success was a boon to Princeton at all levels.  Last month, Princeton announced that it was partnering with an NIL marketplace to host platforms for Princeton students who wish to participate in NIL activities. (Source) During the 1970’s Penn was a national power in basketball.  We reached the Elite Eight three times and the Final Four in 1979.  Almost 50 years later, nearly everyone connected to those teams remains a credit to the University. 

Whether by skill or luck, Penn has avoided many of the pitfalls that have befallen our sister Ivy League institutions, except when it comes to tuition.   The university is not in the forefront of the “safe space” and "microaggression" movement that seems destined to dissuade any student from facing viewpoints different from his/her own - which seems to defeat the entire purpose of higher education.  Our University professors and administrators are of the highest quality and can compete with any at any school in the country.  Penn Carey Law School remains a place where speakers from all political persuasions can appear on campus.

It’s time to take that leap.  It’s time for Penn's new President, Elizabeth Magill, to let it be known that she intends to speak out forcefully on the important issues of the day, and to disagree publicly with the pronouncements of the Big Three, if necessary.  It’s also time for Penn to lead the Ivy League in showing how an Ivy League school can seek the same excellence in athletics that it demands in academics.  In a larger context, it’s time for Penn to lead the country on issues such as tuition reduction, the free exchange of ideas and maintaining the diversity of thought and expression.  

If we do so, we can help restore the lives to their place as leaders in all levels of academia, including athletics.  We can help restore American higher education to the pedestal that it has so long occupied, instead of being a place where whole segments of Americans believe they don't want to go because higher education simply is no longer worth the cost.

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