Q & A with Steve Bilsky

On June 17, the Council of Ivy Group Presidents passed several measures aimed at toughening academic standards for athletes that already are considered the highest among schools that play Division I sports. These included raising the minimum academic requirements for admission; reducing the number of recruited athletes as a percentage of each incoming class, and requiring that all student-athletes perform academically on a par with the general student body. Penn Athletic Director Steve Bilsky W’71 spoke to Gazette sports columnist David Porter C’82 about the changes and what they portend for Penn and the rest of the Ivies.

How would you classify the measures?
The overall reform package I would classify as moderate. And I think there were some presidents who would have liked to have seen something much more aggressive. I think the fact that they came to a much more moderate conclusion is why I feel somewhat satisfied by this. Because obviously Penn was of the position that it made sense to make some changes, update the standards because they hadn’t been looked at in a while, but to try and do it in a way that would not negatively impact the athletic programs. So I think in that regard we were satisfied.

Do you agree with the statement by another Ivy League athletic administrator that the league is apologizing for something that it doesn’t need to apologize for—specifically, the academic performance of its student-athletes?
I think that’s the general sense of the athletic directors, and the coaches and the student-athletes. We think we have the best model in the country. It’s legitimately a model that’s based on a balance between academic interests and athletic interests. No Division I conference does it as well as the Ivy League does, when you look at the criteria for admission that athletes meet, and when you look at their performance in the classroom. The average GPA for student-athletes at Penn is over 3.0. So when people say it needs change, the normal reaction is, well, let’s not be defensive about this but let’s be positive about what we have.

Will these changes make it more difficult to attract good coaches and athletic directors to the league?
I can really only speak for Penn, and the changes for us are not dramatic. One, the overall package is very moderate. Two, in a lot of the areas we upgraded our standards over the last couple of years of our own accord. So the effect on the academic end on Penn is very minimal. But where we contributed to the good of the whole was in limiting the number of [athletic] matriculations and having a fixed number. The percentage of student-athletes at Penn will be one of the lowest in the league. Every school contributed something to the whole; that’s what we contributed. That would be one area that I, selfishly, would have liked to have seen not change. But again, you don’t create a consensus proposal unless everybody gives something.

Do you see the reform-minded spirit of the Ivy presidents continuing?
We face an interesting future, because with President Rodin leaving [see story on page 24], with Cornell having a new president, with the Princeton president basically being a year into her job, it’s a new group of characters. I can only speak for President Rodin—and I worked very closely with her on these issues—that she was a strong advocate for maintaining the balance between the needed academic reform and the rights that schools have and students have, to be able to be successful outside the league. She was a real champion of that.

With conferences contracting and expanding seemingly every year, could you see Penn someday leaving the Ivies and joining a Big East or an Atlantic 10?
I think we still have pretty much the same fundamental policies and beliefs, so I don’t see anything like that happening. But over the next 10 years, there could be a rift, if changes continue to happen and schools feel strongly that the philosophies of some of the members are more Division III [which emphasizes the impact of athletics on participants rather than spectators] and there are remaining schools that like the status quo, the Division I status.

My biggest fear is at some point we look back and say, “How did we get to this stage? We didn’t make an announcement that we want to be Division III,” but we’ll get to the point over a long period of time that we de-emphasize athletics and we’re no longer able to compete. I don’t think that’s in Penn’s interest, and I think there are some other schools in the league that would agree with that.

David Porter C’82 writes for the Associated Press.


2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 09/02/03

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