Missions, markets, and muscles: The intersection of ideals and realities in the debate over athletics at selective liberal arts colleges

Jesse Hickman Lytle, University of Pennsylvania


Liberal arts colleges have long distinguished themselves from other institutions of higher education as value-driven enterprises, focused almost exclusively on undergraduate education. At the turn of the 21st century, investment in intercollegiate athletics has prompted a new identity crisis among liberal arts colleges, compelling stakeholders to question these institutions' deepest sense of purpose. Sports have long been part of the traditional collegiate culture, but many small colleges have found that intercollegiate athletics—pricey in resources, time, and admissions slots—are often discordant with other institutional priorities. In determining what role athletics will play, an institution must articulate its values: what sorts of students it wants to educate, and what that education will entail. But institutions also must heed the market: what draws students to a particular college, and how a college can remain a viable, healthy enterprise. This qualitative study used interviews, media coverage, and college documents to investigate how missions and market forces intersected at Amherst and Swarthmore Colleges as they reviewed their intercollegiate athletics programs. Specifically, it looked at the forces that inspired the athletic review, how the process unfolded, and how it reflected the range of challenges that many institutions of higher education now face. Amherst's and Swarthmore's experiences indicate that the escalation of intensity of intercollegiate athletics brings a complex set of costs and benefits to campus, especially since fielding competitive teams often conflicts with a college's academic aspirations. Given a model of shared governance and the range of stakeholders whom athletics affects, policy changes become intensely political and value laden. While market forces impose constraints on possible outcomes, it is a college's culture and sense of mission that have the most bearing on how contentious issues like athletic reform are resolved. The tension over athletics is but one manifestation of the increasing level of competition among colleges and universities for the students, faculty, funding, and public appeal they need to survive.

Subject Area

Higher education

Recommended Citation

Lytle, Jesse Hickman, "Missions, markets, and muscles: The intersection of ideals and realities in the debate over athletics at selective liberal arts colleges" (2003). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3084867.