What is the primary goal of intercollegiate athletics? To support student-athletes? To promote social bonding to one’s alma mater? To encourage lifelong fitness?
In 2012, a few years after becoming eligible for NCAA Division III athletics, Spelman College president Beverly Tatum made the decision to shut down intercollegiate athletics, moving the budget allocated to athletic programs to support a campus-wide wellness program. She justified this move by referring to demographic information about the population that the Spelman College student body is predominantly drawn from – African-American adolescents and young women. Spelman College is a historically black liberal arts women’s college highly regarded for its tradition of producing notable alumnae.
Do colleges and universities that serve students from particular populations and communities have special obligations to those communities that go beyond educating their students? Tatum thinks the answer to this is yes.
I’ve got a whole campus full of young women who would all benefit from being more actively engaged, and if we could create a culture of movement on campus and help them not only learn about healthy habits for themselves, but then spread that information to their families, their communities, all the places that Spelman women influence as the leaders they are, we could launch a wellness revolution from that decision.
As someone who works at a university that serves a particular population, I do think that we are accountable to the population(s) we serve, and I applaud Tatum for focusing Spelman College resources on wellness.
But my response to Tatum’s decision is mixed.
I worry about the missed opportunities for African-American women student-athletes, some of whom may be faced with the decision of choosing a women’s college that is also an historically black college or university (HBCU) or choosing to participate in intercollegiate athletics. Colleges that serve specialized populations are often forced to make these choices (they cannot be everything to everyone), but in the case of women’s sports it is especially poignant.
I’m not a social scientist, but the literature on women’s colleges (disclosure: I am an alumna of Mills College) is compelling, particularly the information on student engagement at women’s colleges (see summary of NSSE study), as well as the higher percentage of students enrolling in “traditionally male disciplines of math, science and engineering”. (Similar findings exist for HBCUs.)
The loss of inter-collegiate athletics at the only Division III HBCU women’s college closes off an option for African-American women student athletes. Although they do have the option of going to another HBCU or another women’s college if they want to participate in inter-collegiate athletics, they have to forego competitive athletics in order to gain a unique intersectional higher education experience.
The history of women’s colleges and HBCUs (among other institutions of higher education focused on particular demographics) runs alongside the more recent history of women’s intercollegiate athletics. I grew up with an athletic mother who lamented the limited opportunities for women of her generation to participate in sports. It was from her that I learned of old-fashioned women’s basketball rules (six on six basketball with a severely constrained zone play style that permitted only limited dribbling) and about K. Switzer’s courageous deception and the public scorn aimed at Babe Didrickson. My mother finally got her chance to be a competitive athlete as an adult, after she became a mother. She took that on with relish, running in numerous 5K and 10K races, even participating in the USCAA Corporate Cup, but she always regretted not having the opportunity to compete as a girl and young woman.
I am certainly not suggesting that Spelman College’s move to prioritize wellness at the expense of intercollegiate athletics is a step backwards to the days of limited opportunities for women. I applaud the emphasis on healthy living (I especially appreciate the reminder of sleeping well), I recognize the importance for institutions like Spelman College to lead educate future leaders who will lead by example, and I acknowledge that tough decisions are an outcome of limited resources.
That said, I still feel a little bit sad that the opportunity to be an intercollegiate Division III student-athlete at a HBCU women’s college is no more.