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Constructing Unity: Why Tufts Athletics is Upgrading

News & Features | October 1, 2012

Everyone knows that Tufts undergoes many construction projects over the summer. It seems that every year, we return to campus and several buildings have been renovated and transformed. But this year, the unveiling of the new Tisch Sports and Fitness Center is in its own category. A project that cost more than $15 million, the center is eye-catching and impressive. And there’s more to it than that—an investment of such magnitude sends a loud, clear message about the priorities and values of the university. To some, this may seem totally justified: at a school where nearly a fifth of the student body plays a varsity sport, why shouldn’t our facilities be state-of-the-art? But to others, this project may carry a hefty price tag for something that doesn’t seem to benefit everyone on campus. (In the interest of full disclosure: I am a varsity athlete myself; I compete on the Women’s Cross Country and Track & Field teams, but I wrote this piece with the intention to find how the project affects everyone on campus.)

With Tufts as a top-tier academic institution, students, faculty, and members of the community are well aware of the University’s elite scholastic standing. But Tufts is not a school known far and wide for its athletic programs. We boast many extremely strong varsity teams which have gone on to win championships and earn impressive titles. But in most cases, “Tufts” is not a name that many outsiders associate with athletic prowess.

Johanna Clair, a junior psychology major and the catcher on the women’s softball team, said, “You tell someone that you go to Tufts and they say, ‘Oh, great academic school.’ Well, I’m hoping that in the next few years they might say, ‘Great athletic school,’ as well. Academics shouldn’t be undermined in any way; ultimately I’m here getting a degree in psychology—I’m not graduating with a degree in softball—but at the same time, all of our teams are very good and should be recognized for it.”

There are many other student-athletes at Tufts who feel this way, and it certainly seems that the university has picked up on the feeling. Bill Gehling, the university’s athletics director, said, “When [Dean] Lee Coffin first came [in 2003], one of the things he said right off the bat, was that he felt Tufts didn’t do a good enough job marketing to student-athletes, and that we didn’t do a good enough job celebrating the achievements of our athletes. So that’s something that, since he’s been here, we’ve been trying to do.” Among other objectives, the new facility helps accomplish both of these goals. While to some the Tisch Center may seem to have popped up out of nowhere, the process of improving the university’s athletic facilities has been over two decades in the making.

A key counterpart to this process begins in admissions. Matt Alander, an alumnus of the Tufts Class of 2008 and a veteran student-athlete, is an Assistant Director in the Admissions Department. Part of his job is to act as a liaison to the Athletic Department from Admissions, and work with coaches to identify what he refers to as ‘impact athletes’ from within the applicant pool who have the potential to make serious contributions to Tufts’ athletic teams. He stressed the fact that “coaches are not admissions officers, and athletics are never the only reason a student gets into Tufts.” Alander also reflected on his own experience as a student-athlete at Tufts, and said, “Tufts is extremely successful athletically. If you are an athlete here, you are able to compete at a really high level and be on a successful team, but you’re here to be a student. Athletes really are ‘student-athletes’ in the truest sense of the word.”

Clair, in addition to her position on the softball team and other activities around campus, is also a campus tour guide. She said that in her experience, Admissions has urged her and the other guides to talk about the new athletic facility. In regard to this emphasis on athletics, Alander commented, “It’s always our job to make sure students are learning about the Tufts experience, and athletics is a part of that. So we are definitely highlighting the new athletic center when we talk about athletics. It’s something that we are pushing, just because it’s a great new facility, whether or not you’re a varsity athlete.” He added that if it seems that Admissions is putting excessive focus on the new facility, “It’s only because we’re happy that it’s a resource available to students.”

Walking into the Tisch Center feels distinctly different than it used to feel to walk into the old Cousens Gym. The new entrance is bright, clean, and inviting, whereas the old building felt outdated, dark, and musty. It is obvious that Tufts is upgrading, but the motivations for this upgrade may be less clear. To some, the new facility may appear a pricy marketing ploy, an extravagant way to reel in more prospective student-athletes. And in part, it is. Said Gehling, “We wanted to create an entrance that gave the message that athletics—not just varsity sports, but health and fitness—matter at Tufts. It was important to say [to prospective student-athletes]: ‘this piece of your life that you care so much about, matters to us too.’” Gehling has been a part of the Tufts community for over 35 years. He graduated from Tufts in 1974, and enjoyed a very successful soccer career as a student-athlete himself, before moving on to coaching and breaking his way into the athletic administration.

It can be tempting to look at the Tisch Center as Tufts’ way of shouting out that our athletic programs are worthy of attention. While this was part of the motivation for construction, it’s not the whole picture. If you are not a varsity athlete, and you perceive the Tisch Center exclusively in this way, then frustration is inevitable. Why would Tufts drop $15 million on something inaccessible to many of its students? The crux of the issue is that the facility is actually for everyone. There is a section exclusively designated for non-varsity athletes, there is a new multipurpose room for scheduled classes and courses, and most notably, the building is enormous. If the new center were designed for varsity athletes alone, it would not look the way that it does.

It is also noteworthy to recognize that Tufts’ varsity athletes are not solely, or even primarily, focused on their athletic endeavors. Ethan Barron, head coach of the Men’s Cross Country and Track & Field teams said, “I don’t think there are athletes and non-athletes. There probably are some people who view themselves as [just] an athlete or whatever, but that’s rare. Some of the most fun moments I have as a coach are when I get to see one of my athletes dancing, or singing, or playing an instrument—doing things that are completely non-academic and non-athletic.” Since Tufts students are generally well-rounded with a variety of interests, this shapes the athletic environment surrounding the University. For the most part, there isn’t a strong divide between varsity athletes and other students, and the new athletic facility is designed to reflect that.

Both Gehling and Clair mentioned the “Fan the Fire” initiative as a positive way that athletics are bringing students together, rather than compartmentalizing them into groups. To those who may be unfamiliar with the project, its goal is to build a stronger Tufts community by bringing service involvement to athletic events. “To me, Fan the Fire is actually about uniting Tufts,” said Gehling. “It didn’t start that way; it started as a way to generate more attendance at sports events, using the connection with service as a way to do that. But we’ve found there’s a potential to go way beyond sports.” Clair is involved with the initiative herself, and credits it for the visible improvement in the sense of school spirit since her freshman year. The new facility, she said, “will only add fuel to that fire.”

Branwen Smith-King, the assistant athletics director, said of the Tisch Center, “I’m just really, really proud of what Tufts has done here. I’ve been here for 31 years, and it’s a statement. It’s really a big statement that Tufts values the health and welfare of our students.” She described how the facility has a multipurpose space for classes and programs, and she has started scheduling classes that range from spinning, to Zumba, to kickboxing. “It’s all about providing a service to the Tufts community,” she said, “and we’re all at different levels for where that might be.”

In addition to emphasizing the importance of the facility for the general student body, she does recognize the significance it has for varsity athletics. “Athletics always meant something to Tufts,” she explained, “but the university is now acknowledging the value of athletics in the education of a college student. And they value how our teams have done—there’s nothing to be ashamed of about winning!” Smith-King also shared the view that Tufts teams deserve the upgraded facilities: “Athletics matter, and our student-athletes work really hard. It’s a huge commitment, and we can’t dance around that.” After dedicating so much time to Tufts athletics, Smith-King could hardly hide her excitement for the way the program has upgraded—both over the course of her career, and with this significant new project. She genuinely sees the benefit of the project both from the lens of high-performance varsity athletes, as well as general community members who deserve a space to exercise and lead healthy lifestyles.

It is true that the new Tisch Center was built in part to reel in prospective students, and to give the varsity teams facilities to match their performance level. But more important, the university is using this building as a tool of rebranding; Tufts is announcing itself as an institution that puts health and wellness in the foreground. Our school has many fantastic sports teams—that is indisputable—but the Tisch Center wasn’t designed to proclaim our focus on varsity sports. Rather, it signifies the university’s initiative to unite the student body, and show that we are no longer willing to sell ourselves short of our potential in any area, whether it be academics or wellness.

As Coach Barron said, “Tufts, in my 11 years here, has never gotten complacent. Every year, it strives to identify ways of getting better, always asking everyone for ways to improve the quality of the experience… I would hope we can hold onto that constant growth, and maintain that outlook of always looking for the next step.”