Knowing When To Discuss A Subject Matter

By Siahyonkron Nyanseor

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

October 15, 2002

Throughout my life I have had the fortune or misfortune, depending on the situation, of coming into contact with mostly people who are either too bright and well rounded that they make instant authority on almost any subject matters, or people who are somewhat mediocre by any standards imaginable but wouldn’t hesitate to go on a wide geese chase on any subject matter simply to impress. The first group of people I would call knowledge givers or seekers, and the second group I would describe as knowledge polluters who don't really know anything about most subject matters but will always pretend to know just to impress others. Suffice this to say that when I was in Houston, Texas, mid last month, I found myself once more witnessed in a spirited debate involving individuals of the two groups - the egotistical Impressionist and the knowledge giver or seeker.

As boyhood friends and family, we were in Houston to bury an aunt, and after the burial and repass we gathered together to greet each other and share some personal stories. Midway into the conversation one of our friends introduced the subject of "Ivy League" schools, and proceeded to state that by Liberian standards the Ricks Institute (high school) in Liberia is an Ivy League institution because of its "longevity", having been established in 1887. He then said that by American standards, Ivy League schools are schools that were founded in the 1800s and offered bachelor’s degree.

But when asked if by his definition of Ivy League, Howard, Atlanta (now Clark Atlanta), Lincoln and Morgan State Universities would qualify as Ivy League institutions, he said NO because they were not established in the 1800s and did not offer bachelor’s degree at the time they were established. He even went so far to state that unlike, Ricks Institute, Liberian high schools such as St. John, St. Patrick, Lott Carey and Fatima wouldn't qualify as Ivy League high schools because they were not established in the 1800s, though St. Francis and Fatima, for example were established in Liberia in the 1800s. So the question boiled down to whether our friend knew the definition of Ivy League, or whether he was just trying to impress us!

Most probably, he was just trying to impress us, or he was just too self-confident to entertain the notion that his definition of Ivy League was incorrect. And, as the discussion dragged on, we decided to call it quit for the evening and exchange email addresses with the purpose of researching the true definition of Ivy League and sharing our findings with each other. But our friend responded to the suggestion by saying, "I do not have an e-mail address because the Internet is not regulated." He even argued that, "They (Internet providers) do not accept 'Carte Blanche.'" Whatever that meant! We did not bother to ask, since he might have already concluded that we were so ignorant as not to understand the meaning of the French word, 'Carte Blanche". At that point, we all shook hands and bid each other farewell. But to set the record straight, I have researched the true definition of Ivy League as applied to a few U.S. institutions of higher learning, and wish in this article to share my findings with my friend, relatives (who participated in the discussion) and the public.

In his book, Sports and Freedom: The Rise of Big Time College Athletics (1988; repr. 1990) R. A. Smith writes, “The Ivy League is a group of seven universities and one college in the Northeastern United States: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale. All but Cornell were established before the American Revolution, and all have very selective admissions standards. Social and athletic competition among the colleges dates from the late 19th century. The concept of the league began when policies for athletic competition were set down in 1956. Ivy League college presidents, directors of athletics, and other officers meet periodically to discuss common problems of admissions, financial aid, and administration.”

In fact, originally, the phrase--Ivy League--had more to do with varsity sports than with academics or the longevity of a particular degree granting institution. The phrase Ivy League was first coined in the early thirties by the New York Herald Tribune Sports Writer Stanley Woodward long before the student newspapers partly popularized it. For instance, in 1936 the undergraduate newspapers of the concerned universities simultaneously ran an editorial advocating the formation of an "Ivy League," but the first move toward this end was not taken until 1945. In 1945, the eight presidents entered into an agreement ``for the purpose of reaffirming their intention of continuing intercollegiate football in such a way as to maintain the values of the game, while keeping it in fitting proportion to the main purposes of academic life.''

To achieve this objective two inter-university committees were appointed: one, made up primarily of the college deans, was to administer rules of eligibility; the other, composed of the athletic directors, was to establish policies on the length of the playing season and of preseason practice, operating budgets, and related matters. Two other inter-university committees on admission and financial aid were added later. As President Dodds pointed out at the time, the general principles agreed on by the eight universities were essentially the same as those set forth in the Harvard-Yale-Princeton Presidents' Agreement of 1916 (the Big Three).

The first step toward organizing full league competition came in 1952 with the announcement that, beginning with the fall of 1953, each college would play every other college in the group at least once every five years. This plan was superseded in 1954 when the presidents announced the adoption of a yearly round-robin schedule in football, starting in 1956, and approved the principle of similar schedules in ``as many sports as practicable.''

Thereafter, the Ivy Group (as the league was called in the Presidents' Agreement of 1954) established schedules in other sports, including some in existing leagues with non-Ivy members. As of 1977, the Ivy League colleges competed, round-robin, in football, soccer, basketball, and, with certain variations as noted, in baseball (also Army and Navy), fencing (except Brown and Dartmouth), ice hockey (except Columbia), squash (except Brown, Columbia, and Cornell), swimming (except Columbia, but also Army and Navy), tennis (also Army and Navy), and wrestling (except Brown and Dartmouth). Ivy championships in cross-country and track were determined at the annual Heptagonal Meets, in golf at an Ivy championship tournament, and in rowing at the Eastern Association of Rowing Colleges Regatta.

The mid-seventies brought the inclusion of women's teams in the Ivy League program with the institution of championship tournaments in basketball and ice hockey, and a move toward round-robin competition in field hockey, lacrosse, and other sports. Other instances of increasing formalization of the Ivy League occurred in the seventies -- two of them involving Princetonians.

Since 1971, the Bushnell Cup has been awarded to the Ivy football player of the year, who is selected by vote of the eight coaches. This trophy, presented to the Ivy League by the Eastern Association of Intercollegiate Football Officials, was named in honor of Asa S. Bushnell '21, the first commissioner of the Eastern College Athletic Conference, in appreciation of ``his great contribution to the advancement of college athletics.''

In 1973, in order to provide greater coordination of the athletic interests of the eight universities, the post of executive director of the Council of Ivy League Presidents was created, and Ricardo A. Mestres '31, financial vice-president and treasurer emeritus of Princeton University was elected first incumbent. Mestres served in that post until 1976, when he was succeeded by James M. Litvack, visiting lecturer in economics and public affairs in Princeton University (Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, Princeton University Press, 1978).

Now, let’s return to the spirited debate involving my friend. One sad practice that we Liberians inherited from our founding fathers is imitating or copying anything foreign - starting from our flag, form of government, names of important places, etc. -- and now it has to be Ivy League, too. Why Ivy League? Why not the best schools with academic standards in Liberia? But, even where we wanted to copy Ivy League, in its original definition or sense, to apply to Liberian schools, Ricks Institute will still not qualify as an Ivy League school as our friend had wanted us to believe.

Only four Liberian high schools would qualify as Ivy League at all, If we must use the intercollegiate cooperation policies set forth in 1956 by Ivy League college presidents, directors of athletics, and other officers "to discuss common problems of admissions, financial aid, and administration," as a yard stick. By Liberian standards, the four schools that come to mind are St. Patrick High (SPS), College of West Africa (CWA), Monrovia College (MC), and Booker Washington Institute (BWI). In the late 50s and early 60s, the Liberian Senior High School League was centered on these four schools – The Big Four-- if you may. It was not until later that schools like St. John and others joined the league.

Therefore, the argument put forth by our friend - the Impressionist-- was not only incorrect but also misleading. As a matter of fact, I found out while doing this research that our friend is not alone in thinking this way. There are many who believe Ivy League is based solely on longevity and academic requirements. While this may be part of the requirements today that was not the criteria around when the league was first organized. Ivy League was established to promote inter-collegiate sports amongst a group of higher institutions of learning along the American eastern shores. To the best of my knowledge, the Ivy League designation is unique to the eight institutions mentioned earlier. No other American institution, no matter how old or how high its academic standards, is considered an Ivy League school. In short, my advice to my friend and others is to always be careful not to thread into unfamiliar territory so as not to make a BIG FOOL of oneself. Similarly, it is NEVER good to underestimate one’s audience no matter how self-confident we become!

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