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An open letter to Rice

The following open letter is an opinion weighing in on Rice’s current debate over the future of its athletic programs. The lower academic standards for student-athletes and net loss of $10 million each year by the department have led to the reevaluation of the program by Rice’s Board of Trustees. The independent McKinsey & Co. Report, released to the public on May 3, is available at http://professor.rice.edu/professor/athletics_report.asp. The Board will read comments submitted on the page before May 17 when they will begin to wrap-up their review.

Dear Rice Board of Trustees,

First of all, I would like to commend the Board of Trustees, faculty, and athletic department for taking the very unpopular step of reevaluating Rice’s current Division I athletic programs. At any institution, including top tier academic schools like Rice and the University of Chicago, athletics are an important part of the student experience that few dare mess with. Yet the commercialism of college athletics has grown out of control, and institutions are now in a rat race to keep up.

As a devoted fan of Maroon athletics, I strongly encourage you to consider the UAA’s standing invite into the conference. You have the opportunity to make a statement for your institution during the board’s vote set for later this month. By accepting this invitation, a step that was praised in McKinsey & Co.’s independent report on Rice athletics, you will be sending the message to your students and the rest of the nation that student-athletes should be just that—students who just happen to be athletes.

After all, Rice has established that, as a member of the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE) along with UAA members Washington University of St. Louis, University of Rochester, and University of Chicago, it values higher education more than anything else. Joining the UAA would show that you believe that college athletics are truly supplemental to a Rice education and that athletes, on the whole, should not be any different than the general student body.

That statement would mean that you would no longer have a specific admissions committee for athletes that has neglected to ensure that student-athletes buy into academic missions of the school. Evidence can be seen in the difference in graduating GPAs, as male athletes graduate with a half point lower GPA on average and female athletes graduate about a third of a point lower. The problem is exacerbated with those participating in programs such as basketball and football, where the pressure to lessen standards is even greater.

If we have that same pressure, it certainly doesn’t show in our football team, which had 60% of eligible players earn All-UAA Academic distinction for having a 3.2 GPA or higher. Our men’s and women’s soccer teams, the latter of which made the NCAA Division III Championship this year, have earned awards each year of their existence for having a team GPA of 3.0 or higher. An educational peer like Rice should be able to boast similar academic achievements.

The report mentioned that a possible drawback to joining the UAA would be “coaches working through practices with team members absent for academic reasons.” Coaches here certainly do not view that as a negative and stress to their players that they prioritize their academic life. Coaches understand it is the reality of being an educator and a leader at an educational institution.

Another issue that has sparked the current debate at Rice is the current cost of the athletics program. The net loss of the department is nearly $10 million per year, which is disproportionately high compared to other universities’s spending. The shift to the UAA would cut that cost in half, according to the report’s estimate. A lot of that money, about $2 million of which goes to athletic scholarships, could be channeled into more academic scholarships, which would also be open to student-athletes.

A number of people also make the point that shifting to Division III will lead to a loss of a number of top-tier athletes. As can be seen in a recruiting feature that the Maroon ran recently, that assumption is only partly true. In reality, a number of our top athletes contacted our school first because they did not want to go to a Division I school where their scholarship was contingent on their athletic participation. Our softball, women’s soccer, baseball, and track teams all have examples of student-athletes who declined Division I opportunities for our well-rounded experience.

Also, as the report indicates, the UAA is a highly competitive conference that contains some of Division III’s best teams. Bringing Rice into the conference would only help strengthen the competition, and I think your students would still respond well to the on-field performance. Although you may experience a decline in total spectatorship, your fan base won’t disappear. Rice has a fantastic athletic tradition; the student body will always appreciate the efforts of its student-athletes.

I know that you have a difficult decision ahead of you and that each institution must decide what is best for itself. In my opinion, the McKinsey report showed that a switch to the UAA is a very viable option for Rice’s future. Hopefully, whatever the vote settles on will set the best course for your fantastic institution.

Good Luck,

Sean Ahmed

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