President Bush -- the 1948 baseball captain and a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Yale -- may unwittingly preside over the unraveling of the Ivy League. This improbable scenario is, with very little attention, already unfolding.
Many view the league as a powerful monolith whose stone buildings rest upon billion-dollar endowments. But the league itself, as opposed to the schools in it, is still young. And its one distinctive operational reality may not survive this winter. Negotiations are under way with the U.S. Department of Justice concerning allegations that the league's financial-aid program violates the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. Those negotiations will likely end the Ivy League's unique, coordinated, need-based approach to financial aid.
While the schools may be renowned and substantial institutions, the league itself is no more than an athletic conference comprising eight major research universities. Founded in 1954 to counter a growing emphasis on intercollegiate athletics, the league has six employees and operates out of a modest office suite on the edge of Princeton's New Jersey campus.
The Ivy League is not just another league. It is also a confederation of like spirits gathered around a good idea: world-class standards in academics and spirited amateurism in athletics. It has only three substantive operational realities: the administration of the athletic conference, some joint study and lobbying efforts, and a coordinated approach to need-based student financial aid.
The first two are common features in many conferences. The third has been the target of a lengthy and expensive Department of Justice probe. Its outcome may be a negotiated settlement in which the Ivy League will agree to cease and desist from its one unique operational reality.
The league relies on highly competitive admissions efforts, but none compromises its academic standards, even for that All-American linebacker. Students are admitted on the basis of their merit (yes, being an All-American linebacker counts for something). But the competitive recruiting efforts are followed by coordinated aid programs that fund only demonstrable financial need.
At a series of meetings known as "Overlap," involving the Ivy League schools, MIT and a number of highly selective, independent colleges in the Northeast, financial information and analysis is exchanged. The objective is to arrive at an appropriate aid offer for each student admitted to two or more of the Overlap schools. The overall intention is to admit on merit and assist according to need so that the student can decide which school to attend on the basis of its academic programs, extracurricular offerings, location, et al.
Without the Overlap process, the Ivy image may be all that is left. While a Stanford, Duke or Northwestern may, overall, be comparable to an Ivy League school, their varsity athletes receive athletic scholarships because they are varsity athletes. In the Ivy League, throughout the admissions and financial-aid process, linebackers, point guards and goalies are viewed, treated and judged like any other student.
More alarming than having the Ivy League at risk is the impact this inquiry is having on free and open discussion between officials at independent schools, colleges and universities.
The law has taken over the academy. Educators feel that TC statute inspired by and aimed at 19th-century robber barons looms over their work as a result of this federal inquiry. Though the damage cannot be undone, it can be contained in two ways: First the cooperative approach to financial aid of the Ivy League and other Overlap schools could, by an act of Congress, be exempted from the antitrust statutes. This is precisely the status granted to the NCAA to enable it to oversee intercollegiate athletics, and it would enable the Ivy League and other Overlap schools to continue on their offbeat, but benign, way.
Last December, an assistant secretary of education for civil rights stated that in most cases, it would be illegal for colleges or universities that receive federal funds to administer "race-exclusive" scholarships. After considerable public reaction, the Bush administration announced a radically modified reading of the law. Lamar Alexander, secretary of education, observed that, in such a case, "a warm heart and a little common sense sometimes are helpful." Both the law and the academy could benefit from that approach.
Lloyd J. Buzzell, a consumer credit counselor, is a former financial-aid administrator for Yale. He wrote this commentary for the Stamford Advocate.