Burning Question

For S. Georgia Nugent, President

One of the first courses designed by S. Georgia Nugent, a young classics professor at Brown University, was called “The Intellectual and the Athlete,” and it attracted hundreds of students.

“It became a huge course,” said Nugent, who would later become president of Kenyon. She approached athletics in the context of the Greek epic The Iliad. “You could claim that Achilles … is really a character who is about physical power. He's bigger and stronger than anybody else. And you could claim that Odysseus is really about winning through intellect and cunning,” she said.

Athletics has come a long way from the big away game at Troy. And in its long history in United States higher education, athletics has rarely heaped so much glory on players, generated so much interest, and brewed so much controversy as it now does. Given Kenyon's historic run of swimming national championships, a new era in Lords football with head coach Chris Monfiletto, and a cascade of corruption in Division I athletics, the Alumni Bulletin asked Nugent to share her thoughts
on the relationship between academics and athletics.

What comes to mind when you hear the words “student athlete?”
At Kenyon, it would probably be pretty fair to say typical student, because it's very typical of our students to combine those, even those students who aren't varsity athletes. We have large numbers of students who partake in club sports. More and more of our students engage in recreational athletics. I think the more we can do to promote lifelong fitness in our students, the more we're contributing to satisfying lives and healthy lives.

The link between U.S. higher education and sports is foreign to the rest of the world. Is it beneficial?
It's unusual that the United States took this direction. A lot of this seems to have happened in the mid- to late nineteenth century, largely beginning with football. The first football game was between Rutgers and Princeton. Princeton loses. And the colleges begin to take this on as part of themselves. I guess it's moot to ask if it's good or bad because I don't see any way that the American system would change. It's deeply embedded in American higher education.

What's the value of sports for colleges?
Some people would talk about school spirit, that athletics and rooting for teams provide a kind of unifying force. I think that's true of large, state schools, but I don't tend to see that a whole lot in the liberal arts arena. Some people would say, as well, that team sports are important for developing character, perseverance, discipline, and for understanding collaborative work. Folks who think that athletics has an educational role are typically looking at those kinds of things.

What challenges do you see for colleges in athletics?
One of the real challenges … is really outside our control, and that's the larger social context. I think, by and large, it's been a negative development for young children and their families to become so heavily invested in a single sport at an early age. I suppose Division I athletics contributes to this to some extent, in that many families believe that strong athletic performance is going to be a ticket to a college scholarship. This is not a problem that Division III has, but at the Division I level if you put all your eggs in the athletics basket … that's likely to be a bad outcome for the future of those students.

As president, how much of your time is spent on athletics?
The NCAC (North Coast Athletic Conference) is actually pretty prominent in the NCAA as a conference in which the presidents are very hands-on. My involvement largely takes that form of participating with the other NCAC presidents in a lot of decision-making. This is going to be hard to believe, but it sometimes literally gets down to how the schedule is going to work, when the playoffs are going to be.

What role do coaches play in the education of students?
It's really important that we have coaches who understand that they are educators and who take that very seriously. Students spend much more time with coaches than they do with faculty. That's just a fact.

What emphasis should be put on winning?

I feel that in Division III, the way we talk about it typically is that our objective is for kids to be competitive, and competitive doesn't necessarily mean you're winning all the time, getting to post-season play. But it also doesn't mean you're losing all the time. If the student is playing on a team that never wins, it becomes demoralizing.

If we don't expect coaches and teams to consistently win, what do we expect?
One of the things I'd like for us to do at Kenyon is to be able to articulate more clearly what we mean by excellence in the athletics department. For us, I think it cannot be all about, for example, making it to the post-season tournament. There has to be a broader understanding of what constitutes excellence. I was reading earlier this year about an athletic director at a small college and they have decided that what excellence means for them is you try to get better all the time. I think that's a fine definition.

The Kenyon swimming program has been excellent by any definition. What does the program mean to Kenyon?
We're tremendously proud of having that kind of excellence. It has brought many wonderful students
to Kenyon and raised Kenyon's profile nationally. Of course when you have an exemplar like that, to some extent I think it … does tempt everyone to be the world beater and that may not be the main objective of all sports at Kenyon.

Kenyon's Admissions Office looks for high-achieving, well-rounded students. How much should athletic performance figure in?
We try to ensure that a recruited athlete has academic records comparable to a non-athlete. In virtually no admissions decisions are we only looking at one aspect of an individual. You're looking across the whole spectrum of what an individual brings.

How can Kenyon sustain a quality football program?
We're looking for a mutual understanding between the coaches and the Admissions Office, so that admissions understands what a coach needs in a recruited athlete and the coach isn't frustrated by bringing forward candidates who are not going to be admissible. We really work to build that partnership. One of the things we are trying to do now, which I hope will be successful, is engage our alumni more in helping us with recruiting.

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