Last night's victory of fourteenth-seeded Harvard Crimson over the third-seeded New Mexico Lobos, 68-62, drew predictable displays of celebration — it was Harvard's first win in the NCAA tournament, ever — and, at the same time, pretty serious accusations that Harvard, in its desire to raise the stature of its athletic program, had recruited academically ungifted (but athletically phenomenal) student-athletes. Harvard, as NBC reporter Luke Russert put it, was guilty of enforcing two standards — one for students, and a lower one for recruits:
Remember Harvard, you won because you became like the rest of us, lowered the standards to get the goods.— Luke Russert (@LukeRussert) March 22, 2013
The evidence for this theory is, at first glance, pretty obvious: in 2008, The New York Times reported that, under a new (and apparently unwritten) policy intended to bolster its athletic rosters, "Harvard is willing to consider players with a lower academic standing than previous staff members said they were allowed to." And — guess what! — five years later, after students recruited under the old, tougher policy had graduated, Harvard notches its first ever March Madness victory.
That's not to say there's universal agreement. According to the same Times article, Harvard has denied lowering any of its standards on behalf of Crimson coaches. And, today, former Deadspin editor Will Leitch takes up a lengthy defense of Harvard's recruitment policy, which he believes hasn't changed at all:
It's still really hard to get into Harvard. The current group of players ... was among the top 25 recruiting classes three years ago, which is an incredible fact when you consider (a) they still have to not only get into Harvard but keep up academically and not drop out (something that Robert Frost, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg didn't do!), and (b) they don't get an athletic scholarship.
"Giddy Harvard alumni have nothing to apologize for this morning," Leitch concludes.
Actually, they might!
It is still really hard to get into Harvard, yes, but the question is whether certain athletic recruits — in this case, basketball recruits — get a leg-up compared to other applicants. And recent events suggest they do: in the fall of 2012, two of the Crimson's basketball captains withdrew from the University amidst a massive cheating scandal in Harvard's "Introduction to Congress" course, which the captains had taken in the spring of that year. (On that note, comparing athletic recruits to Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates is a bit odd: both of those men dropped out of Harvard to run technology companies, not because they were academically inferior — and certainly not because they were playing Division I basketball.)
And yes: Harvard, like its Ivy League peers, doesn't provide athletic scholarships. But as The New York Times pointed out in December 2011, the school's famously generous financial aid often makes up the difference. It's true that financial aid packages don't always make up the difference — the Times quotes a recruit who was paying $20,000 per year to attend Harvard — but for applicants coming from low-income families, Harvard pays the entire bill for tuition, room, and board. (Which is way, way more generous than many partial NCAA scholarships.)
Of course, nobody really knows if Harvard's win over New Mexico was a fluke, or a sign of a fundamentally stronger roster. For that we'll have to see how Harvard performs in the rest of the tournament — beginning with its match against the sixth-seeded University of Arizona, scheduled for tomorrow.
While the basketball team is getting all the attention today, it's not the most scandalous team on campus: Harvard's quiz bowl team was stripped of four championship titles today after evidence surfaced that several students "had improperly accessed information that could have included parts of questions used in the college competitions."
Still, that probably won't quell celebrations of the truly dedicated, like Harvard alum and Houston Rocket Jeremy Lin: