October 11, 2000
Fellows program brings together academics and athletics
By Matt Golden '94
preoccupied, self-important. They teach out of obligation and live
for their research. Many have been at Princeton for decades, but
they couldn't find Jadwin Gymnasium with the help of an Orange Key
guide. They are members of the Princeton University faculty, and
that is how they are often perceived by student-athletes.
They are simple, boorish,
and beneath Princeton's standards. They are the "dumb jocks"
who rob precious admission slots from deserving young scholars.
They are Princeton's student-athletes, and this is the stereotyping
they face from many within the university community.
have long polarized faculty and student-athletes at Old Nassau.
Hectic schedules and heavy class loads make it difficult for professors
to develop close relationships with all of their students. And student-athletes,
like many other students, are often reluctant to approach professors
outside the classroom. Recruited student-athletes face different
admission standards from other applicants, and so frequently begin
freshman year unsure of themselves and their scholastic abilities.
In new and intimidating surroundings, they wonder, "Can I possibly
handle all the labs and papers, prepare adequately for precepts,
write two junior papers, and complete a senior thesis while I devote
20 hours per week to practices and games? And do my illustrious
and renowned professors, whom I see twice a week in crowded lecture
halls, really care?"
This overwhelming and
impersonal view of academic life at Princeton is slowly changing.
Last year, Director of Athletics Gary Walters '67 instituted the
Academic-Athletic Fellows program in an effort to better support
student-athletes in both their educational and athletic pursuits.
In the program, university professors and administrators volunteer
their time and energy to provide academic and personal support to
members of specific athletic teams. Walters says, "It's our
hope that the fellows will not only become trusted advisers, but
confidants and friends of the coaches and student-athletes in ways
that make the educational process at Princeton more personal."
The program initially
grew out of the long-standing friendship between Marvin Bressler,
professor, emeritus, of social sciences and former head of the sociology
department, and the coaches of the men's basketball team. Pete Carril,
then the team's head coach, would occasionally ask Bressler to help
or advise a player. Bressler says, "I no longer recall when
I became a certified Kindly Old Mentor, but I do know that I learned
as much as I taught, from several generations of knowledgeable players
whose intelligence belies the stereotypical image of the 'dumb jock.'
These associations have been the most rewarding of my time at Princeton."
Once his relationship
with the basketball team took root, Bressler began scheduling alumni
speaking engagements in conjunction with the team's away games.
The events were generally scheduled during the day, before the team
played. "Quite coincidentally," says Bressler, the timing
of the alumni engagements
provided an opportunity for the professor to catch
many road games. "On the road, players talk about things
that students talk about, including academic issues and
personal matters. I guess they trusted me because I
was a fan."
Players are often reluctant
to discuss their concerns with
parents, friends, and coaches. Student-athletes face
enormous expectations. Many fear failure and being
considered weak. So when team members learned that
Bressler could be a trusted ally, his role began to expand.
He says, "Over the years I've tried to reach out to players
who seemed troubled by something or were having academic difficulties."
Now, Bressler reaches
out even before the players arrive on campus. During late August,
as he does annually, Bressler met three incoming basketball recruits
for a get-to-know-you dinner. He says, "It's tough enough to
make the transition from high school to college, even without carrying
the equivalent of a double-major. It is important at the outset
to orient [student-athletes] to the joys and tribulations of the
classroom and campus life. Later, if they need advice or comfort,
they can approach a professor who has a familiar face."
Faculty and administrators
have recognized the program's merit and signed on in significant
numbers. With about 40 faculty members participating, every men's
and women's varsity team now has at least one fellow, and many teams
have several. Last spring, Walters charged each team's head coach
with developing a plan of action for utilizing the fellows. Walters
hopes this will maximize the benefits of the interaction between
the faculty fellows and the coaches and student-athletes. He says,
"We want to make sure that, as an athletic department, we do
our best to assure that none of our student-athletes fall through
the cracks and that there is a support system in place which enables
and encourages them to reach out for help."
History professor Sean
Wilentz, fellow for the baseball team, believes the program provides
benefits of varying scale to both the student-athletes and the fellows
themselves. He says, "For some students, the experience makes
Princeton possible. . . . For others, the benefits have more to
do with gaining a greater sense of discipline and camaraderie."
He adds, "I much enjoy the time I spend with [head baseball
coach] Scott Bradley, talking baseball in general. He and the rest
of the staff have become good friends of mine. I especially enjoy
meeting the players and their parents."
Walters was anxious to
formalize the relationship established between Bressler and the
men's basketball team and then replicate it throughout the athletic
department. However, he refuses to establish strict guidelines for
the program or to list the faculty members involved, saying, "This
program is not about specifics. It is about creating an ethos and
a culture that supports the development of the mind as well as a
respect for the self-esteem that our student-athletes derive from
their athletic involvement."
The program is young
and still taking shape, but Walters ultimately envisions it as a
complement to the long-established residential college advising
system - not a replacement. Primary responsibility for student academic
advising still rests with the residential colleges, but through
the fellows Walters hopes to expand the options for student-athletes
in need of advice or counseling and to make these services more
Bressler is flattered
that Walters has modeled the program on his longtime approach to
building relationships with student-athletes, and he agrees with
Walters that a rigid structure could limit the program's potential
benefits. He says, "There is no job description for this work.
It depends on the personalities of the individuals involved. It's
gratifying to me, not that programs are modeled on what I did or
didn't do, but that I managed to help a few people."
Players, coaches, faculty,
and alumni alike have expressed their pleasure with the early direction
of the fellows program. Walters is pleased with the results to date,
but believes success will ultimately hinge on the ability of the
coaches to establish significant relationships with the fellows.
Religion professor Jeff Stout, who is the fellow for the men's soccer
team, seconds that, saying, "The barriers that separate the
athletic and academic spheres at a place like this can be formidable,
especially in the eyes of student-athletes who are unsure of their
own abilities or who suspect that professors would prefer to have
them purged from campus life. It's mainly up to the coaches and
faculty to knock down those barriers. That is exactly what this
program is designed to do."
Former Princeton student-athlete
Matt Golden '94 is PAW's assistant