Report on the Study of Harvard Athletics

June 5, 2020

Dear Colleagues, 

I am writing to share the results of the first-ever study of Harvard’s Department of Athletics. As we approach the Department’s centennial anniversary in 2026, we sought to gain insights that would help answer a fundamental question—how can Harvard build on a century of success to continue to set the standard for collegiate athletics for the next hundred years? To that end, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences commissioned the organizational research firm Mercer to study the culture of athletics at Harvard and document the experience of our student-athletes and members of the Department. Using a range of research techniques, including in-depth interviews, the research team developed a set of findings and recommendations. Their report provides our community with important insights that will inform the Department’s strategic planning efforts, preparing us for a future that will include the myriad challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This study would not have been possible without the guidance of an engaged, informed, and experienced advisory committee. I am enormously grateful to Bob Scalise, John D. Nichols '53 Family Director of Athletics; Jack Reardon, Senior Advisor for Alumni Affairs and Development; Rakesh Khurana, Danoff Dean of Harvard College; Leslie Kirwan, FAS Dean for Administration and Finance; and Armin Afsahi, FAS Dean for Development, for their willingness to support this ambitious community conversation. Additionally, the study benefitted from discussions of preliminary findings with the Faculty Standing Committee on Athletics, head coaches and program managers, and the Harvard Varsity Club. I am also grateful to the many coaches, Athletics staff members, faculty, alumni, and students who participated in interviews, group discussions and surveys, and together provide the perspectives the study presents.

When reviewing the results emerging from the Mercer study, I was particularly struck by the voices of our student-athletes, who spoke so honestly and openly about their experiences. I found in their words compelling testimony of the unique power of sport to forge strong bonds and a deep sense of belonging, and about the valuable role of our coaches as mentors in their Harvard journeys. They report learning important life lessons, establishing strong relationships with their coaches and their teammates, and feeling happy about their decision to attend Harvard. Our students were equally candid about their struggles. They do not always feel well understood by their non-athlete peers or well supported in their efforts to integrate their athletic commitments with their academic passions and responsibilities. They pointed to structural issues, like the current course schedule and House dining hall hours, that they experience as barriers to this integration. In that candor, I see both opportunity and motivation for our work together to support them and enable their success, on and off the field. 

The study also revealed the deep commitment of our coaches and Athletics staff to our student-athletes and to the twin missions of the Department of Athletics and of Harvard College, which they see as fundamentally complementary. When talking about their jobs, they used words like “calling” and “vocation,” and coaches in particular saw their primary role not as winning games, but as building character in our students. Faculty and non-Athletics administrators recognize this dedication and, in interviews, praised coaches and Department staff for the positive impact they have on student-athletes. The core challenge reported by coaches and Department staff was a “gap between athletics and academics” in their everyday work, and they were eager for “a way to bring that connection closer.” 

Faculty and non-Athletics administrators also voiced the need for more collaboration, both to find ways to expand the positive experience that student-athletes enjoy to more of the student body, and to ensure that priorities of the Department are aligned with the academic mission. Faculty and non-Athletics administrators emphasize that they want to ensure that student-athletes are having an enriching, healthy, transformational educational experience, one in which they are able to make authentic academic choices and take full advantage of the entire spectrum of opportunities available to all Harvard students. Further integration of academics and athletics was recognized as an important opportunity to enhance the student-athlete experience and to bring the benefits of athletics, and its emphasis both on fitness and character development, to the broader student body through new health and wellness programming. 

Just as important as the findings the study presents is the process that yielded them. As the recommendations make clear, we need more opportunities for faculty, staff, coaches, and students to talk to each other about our priorities, our aspirations, and the barriers we confront in supporting our student-athletes. This process is a first step to building stronger relationships among all those who are committed to the success of our students. Through engagement in honest and open dialogue we can create understanding and find practical solutions to challenges while remaining grounded in our academic mission and our institutional identity. I know that these conversations will not always be easy, especially at first. But I also know that we have a strong foundation to build on in our shared commitment to the success of our student-athletes, to the health and well-being of our students more broadly, and to Harvard. I am excited to participate and to do my part to make those efforts successful.