2013 is starting off pretty well for Northwestern University alumni like my husband and myself. For those of you not in the US, Northwestern is a relatively small, private, intensely academic institution just north of Chicago. It’s consistently one of the highest-ranked universities in the world in everything from engineering to music to medicine. The term “academic powerhouse” gets applied to NU by journalists so routinely that it’s a cliché.
“Football powerhouse,” historically… not so much. Northwestern is a founding member of the Big 10 athletic conference. Most Big 10 schools are what we in the US call land-grant colleges, and they include some places with impressive academic resumes, such as the University of Michigan and Purdue. But Northwestern is the odd bird in that cage for at least two reasons.
First, size. NU is half – less than half – the size of the next smallest school in the conference. NU has 8,000 undergrad students, compared to 19,000 at next-smallest Nebraska. Second, Northwestern as a whole has the highest academic standards of any of the other schools in the conference – that’s understandable, since the other schools were designed to serve a broader population. And as college entrance competition increases, those standards get tougher and tougher. I interview prospective NU students every year as part of the admissions process through the alumni association, and the refrain every year among the interviewers is, “Man, I don’t think I would have gotten in today. These kids are impressive.” Look at class rank, SAT scores, extracurricular leadership… any of the conventional measures. Your jaw will probably drop.
But while many universities in the Big 10 and elsewhere will relax admissions standards for applicants that they think will star on the high-profile teams, or invent easier majors for those students, or look the other way when those students don’t do well in their classes or line up for graduation, Northwestern doesn’t. NU football players have to meet the same academic standards as every other applicant. And there are no cakewalk majors. And that has always been the case. The team’s best player when I was at NU 20 years ago majored in… electrical engineering. That’s right. In one of the best double-E programs in the nation. Not only did he later play in the NFL, he graduated with that degree. And that was completely expected.
Think about fielding a nationally-competitive American football team out of that kind of pool of applicants. Can you really expect the brightest students in the nation to also include some of the nation’s best players in a physically punishing, massively time-consuming sport?
When I was in school, the tacit answer was, no. My classmate the EE aside, it was assumed that you couldn’t really expect us to compete, to seriously compete. We fell back again and again on the “that’s all right, that’s ok, you’re gonna work for us one day” geek cheer as Something State ran roughshod over our guys 56-0.
That attitude started changing a few years ago, and the team has gradually gained a winning track record and increasing respect. The watershed came last Tuesday, when NU won its first bowl game in 64 years. Yes…first time since 1949. Granted, it wasn’t the highly prestigious Rose Bowl – I was there 17 years ago when we got crushed in that — but it was the victory that, back in 1990, or 1960, no one would have said was possible. And watching from the stands, with my throat in shreds and my husband choking back tears, as a bunch of kids in NU’s purple jerseys sang the fight song and hoisted a trophy, was a moment many thousands us will never forget.
Here’s the important part of the story: Those principles of academic excellence, of expecting the highest level of classroom performance, haven’t changed. At all. The team’s coach, an NU alum and member of that 1995 Rose Bowl team, embraces those high standards in a way that I don’t think he could if he had come from somewhere else. He gets it.
The other important part of the story is the culture. I think I can speak for the alumni population pretty confidently: Winning is great, but winning at the expense of those standards is not an option. Not negotiable. When’s the last time you heard the audience at a college pep rally cheer their team’s graduation rate, cheer a school’s academic rankings? I did Monday. And I cheered loud, but I wasn’t the loudest.
Standards matter. Principles matter. Sticking to what you know is right matters. It’s not the easy way. But it never stops being the right way. And it’s not just tilting at windmills. It’s entirely possible to win on the right terms.
A lot of you who read my columns are trying to live your convictions, trying to change your communities meaningfully, deeply, profoundly. In ways you know need to happen. And you are trying to do it in the face of something in your surroundings that says….
You can’t do it. You can’t expect that. The system is what it is. You can’t change politics, organizations, the boss. It won’t work. Live with it. Settle.
Maybe it’s time for you, and I, to put on our purple jerseys. Maybe this is our year to show them all.
Go U Northwestern. And Go U you. Have a great 2013. Let’s go and do it right.