The Brain Game

January 1, 1997

Carol Schlueter

As the Tulane bus rolled into Tiger Stadium on Nov. 23 for the LSU-Tulane football game, it passed thousands and thousands of purple-and-gold clad Tiger fans streaming into the stadium. A cocky LSU supporter saw the bus's Tulane sign and jeered, "Guess you're not used to seeing this many people at a football game!"

Yes, fans--and wins--in the Superdome have been as scarce as snow on Willow Street; just count back 14 years to the Wave's last winning season. Now, with one coach departing and a new coach leading the Green Wave, the question rises again: Can an institution that treasures its high academic standards also achieve a winning football program? A group of Tulane academic and athletic leaders say, emphatically, "yes."

"Prior to 1986 we had open admissions for athletics. Academics didn't interfere at all, yet we didn't have wins," says Rick Marksbury, dean of University College. "There is no connection between lowering our standards and having a winning season." Marksbury has a bird's-eye view of the issue; most athletes are enrolled in University College, at least initially.

Over the years, he has worked with seven football coaches in helping take care of the academic needs of student athletes. "The burden is on this college to get them (student- athletes) the support they need," he says. "Those students have to have a fighting chance to get through."

That view is echoed by faculty member Hugh Lester, who heads the University Senate's Athletic Admission Subcommittee, part of the Committee on Educational Policy. Lester's subcommittee "is charged with looking at every student the athletic department wants to admit on athletic scholarship," he explains. "We look at each one and determine if they have a good chance of success at Tulane University."

Several important standards are applied to the prospective students, whose paperwork comes before Lester's subcommittee. Tulane, of course, has one set of requirements for most of its prospective students, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has a set of minimum guidelines that those athletes must meet. The complicated NCAA requirements are based on a sliding scale that considers a student's high school grade point average on a set of core courses and SAT or ACT standardized test scores.

The prospective students considered by Lester's subcommittee have scores that fall somewhere between the two: below the Tulane requirements but above the NCAA standards. A very limited number of those "special admit" students will be approved for scholarships and that selection is a serious job , Lester says. Often the subcommittee pores through each applicant's admission material, looking beyond scores and grades to high school involvement, family background and the essay, which every prospective Tulane student must submit.

"We review this material very carefully and we recommend only those with a high probability of success here," Lester adds. Sandy Barbour, athletic director, sees this selection process in a slightly different way. In the overall admission process, she says, "the university takes exceptions for special talents, and athletic ability is one of them. We're not admitting anybody we haven't made a close assessment of, to be sure that they can navigate the curriculum."

But Barbour adds, "Our academic standards are not an impediment to success; in fact, they are our point of difference"--one way Tulane distinguishes itself from other schools in the highly competitive recruitment process. She also believes that new football coach Tommy Bowden supports that position.

"Tommy Bowden believes heavily in the student-athlete concept," Barbour says. "His players will be students first and athletes second, but they will be highly successful on the field and in the classroom. He feels that we don't have to change our academic standards to be successful."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000