Furstenberg under fire for football comments

by Phil Salinger | 12/23/04 6:00am

WEB UPDATE, Dec. 23, 4:17 a.m.

Controversy within the Dartmouth community continues to mount in response to the publication of a letter Dean of Admissions Karl Furstenberg wrote four years ago calling varsity football programs "a sacrifice to the academic quality and diversity of entering first-year classes."

In the wake of this year's 1-9 season for the College's football team, some critics have called for Furstenberg's resignation.

A recent article in the Valley News quoted pieces of the letter that precipitated the outcry -- a personal note to Swarthmore College President Alfred Bloom after that school cut its football team.

"I am writing to commend you on the decision to eliminate football from your athletic offerings," Furstenberg wrote. "I wish this were not true but sadly football, and the culture that surrounds it, is antithetical to the academic mission of colleges such as ours ... A close examination of intercollegiate athletics within the Ivy League would point to other sports in which the same phenomenon is apparent."

The publication of the letter has sprouted especially widespread outrage among Dartmouth football alumni.

Bill Wellstead '63, a member of the undefeated 1962 football team, runs the Dartmouth Athletics weblog and stands at the forefront of the group of disgruntled alumni.

"Mr. Furstenberg's integrity is entirely in question," Wellstead said. "The only acceptable way out of this crisis is for Jim [Wright] to demand or ask for Karl [Furstenberg]'s resignation."

Some critics have blamed Furstenberg for the recent disappointing performance of the Dartmouth football team, which has amassed a meager 16-53 record in the past seven seasons. The team's poor performance culminated with the firing of head coach John Lyons at the end of this past season.

Defenders of Furstenberg have compared his long tenure at Dartmouth -- Furstenberg was named dean of admissions in 1990 -- with the varied success of the football program. The College's football squad dominated the Ivy League until 1998, earning a 58-19-3 record from 1990 to 1997. Furstenberg presided when the team reached its pinnacle in 1996 -- a season that saw the Big Green win 10 games, lose none and outscore their opponents by greater than two-and-a-half to one on average.

College administrators have reportedly not taken action to replace Furstenberg.

Wright released a letter on Dec. 20 that scolded Furstenberg for his comments but expressing continued confidence in the admissions director.

"That letter was a lapse in professional judgment," Wright wrote. "I very much regret the hurt that the dean's statements have caused within the Dartmouth community."

Despite his disappointment in Furstenberg's comments, Wright made it explicit that Furstenberg has carried out college policy.

"The Admissions Office does not determine Dartmouth's ambitions. Rather Admissions is charged by me and the Trustees to admit a class that will meet our ambitions," Wright wrote. "I am confident that the sentiments he expressed in the letter have never influenced his admissions decisions."

The Ivy League has strict rules for football recruiting. Each school is limited to an average of 30 football recruits per year over a four-year period. League rules also place limits on the allowed gap between the academic quality of football recruits and the rest of the class.

Furstenberg denied that Dartmouth's football woes are due to the alleged biases of the admissions department.

"We work closely with the coaches within the guidelines of the Ivy League," Furstenberg said. "The admissions policies of the institution are decided on by a wide range of people including the president and it's my job to implement those policies."

In recent years, Dartmouth football players appear to have been successful academically. The graduation rate of football players is routinely at least as high as that of the class as a whole.

"One of the things we've been able to do at Dartmouth is blend intercollegiate athletics and excellent academics," Furstenberg said. "The bottom line for us is that students have to have been successful academically."

Even though Furstenberg is confident that he has done the job he was hired to do, he was quick to apologize for his comments that have offended current and former Dartmouth student-athletes.

"My overwhelming reaction is one of disappointment and regret," Furstenberg said.

Hannah Plotkin contributed to this report.