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Hendrix football takes its hits

Despite campus opposition, president says team best for long-term



Hendrix College's recently announced decision to resume intercollegiate football is causing a stir at the academically rigorous Conway campus.

The move is conditioned on raising private money and a team won't take the field until at least 2010, 50 years after the last Hendrix football season.

Students, alumni, and faculty say the decision was made against the will of the broader Hendrix community. They worry that the small liberal arts college will change for the worse as a result. But Dr. J. Timothy Cloyd, president of Hendrix, and the school's board of trustees, which made the ultimate decision, argue they are looking out for the school's long-term interest.

The school first introduced the idea of resuming football a year ago. Hendrix created a task force of trustees, faculty, students, administrators and athletic staff to study the issue. The group was not unanimous in its opinion. It made no recommendation to the board on whether to add the team, though some members have said that was not the task force's charge. It instead issued a report that listed six potential pros and cons to adding football.

The report also presented the results of several surveys conducted among students, alumni and faculty. According to Kim Maslin-Wicks, a professor of politics and member of the football task force, they didn't show overwhelming support for the team. “The surveys did not come back particularly positive,” she said. “There was a fair amount of resistance.”

The report was not available for inspection.

According to Martin Rhodes, co-chair of the task force and a member of the board of trustees, results of a survey passed out to the entire student body showed a high rate of opposition. Both Rhodes and Cloyd noted that those results were difficult to interpret because only 44 percent of students responded.

In addition to the surveys, 70 of Hendrix's 114 faculty members voted on the issue. Thirty said they were neutral or supportive of a football team, while 40 were negative.

“I think that the administration decided they wanted to do this a while ago,” said Russ Montgomery, a former Hendrix student government president and a 2007 graduate of the school. “I don't know many students who supported it.”

Cloyd acknowledged there was opposition, but said the board had to tend to what's best for the college. “It's the role of the board of the trustees to look at the long-term best interest of the institution economically. You have to hear the concerns and take them under consideration, but that doesn't mean you make decisions about what's good for the long-term interest of the college based on a momentary snapshot of passion.”

Cloyd argued that competition for students will soon become fiercer, as demographic trends predict a decline in high-school graduates in the near future. Football will give students another reason to come to Hendrix, he said.

But others worry that a 60-member football team will adversely change the culture on this 1,200-student campus. “I think that Hendrix fills a niche in this part of the country where students can escape from a football culture,” Montgomery said. “This is an attempt to make Hendrix more like its competitors.”

The news has stirred up a storm among students and alumni. An item about football on the  Times' Arkansas Blog drew dozens of comments, some from students worrying whether the arrival of football would be accompanied by a de-emphasis on academic achievement.

Cloyd said there's no reason for students to worry about a decrease in standards. He said that, based on a survey the school conducted among high school football players with the academic qualifications to get into Hendrix, the board of trustees felt the players would share the school's values.

He added that current athletes at Hendrix, who constitute about a third of the student body, have slightly higher test scores than non-athletes and graduate at a faster rate.

Whatever the change in campus culture because of football, there's no question that Hendrix is quickly evolving. The timing of the decision to add football was based on the school's plans to relocate sports facilities in order to build the Hendrix Village, a residential and commercial development on campus.

Cloyd expects the school's population to eventually reach 1,500. He hopes that the number will move with football and the addition of women's lacrosse, with 20 players, will bring the student body up to around 1,300.

“We wanted a surge in growth, plus we're adding new academic programs,” Cloyd said. A neuroscience program might be in the college's future. He said that tuition from the new football players (currently $25,780 a year, not counting room and board) will be enough to pay for five new professors as well as the team's operational costs, which have been estimated at $400,000 to $500,000 a year. 

The team won't begin play until money has been raised for a field house, a grandstand and equipment through the college's current $100 million fund-raising campaign. By that time much of the current student body will be gone. Whether the new crop of students will have similar attitudes toward football remains to be seen.

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