A first-ever study of Harvard Athletics found that the majority of student-athletes consider their experience on teams to be formative, rewarding, and demanding, and they feel supported by coaches, teammates, and the athletics staff. It also revealed that many find it difficult to balance academics, athletics, and social lives.
The study, released last Friday, was commissioned by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to inform strategic planning for the department, as it approaches its centennial anniversary in 2026. A team of researchers from the organizational consulting firm Mercer studied the culture of athletics at Harvard and documented the experience of student-athletes and members of the department. Using various data-collection techniques, including interviews, surveys, and on-campus observations, researchers gathered feedback from students, coaches, staff, faculty, administrators, alumni, and fans from September 2019 through May 2020.
“When reviewing the results emerging from the Mercer study, I was particularly struck by the voices of our student-athletes, who spoke so honestly and openly about their experiences,” wrote Claudine Gay, Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, in her letter to the Harvard Athletics community. “In that candor, I see both opportunity and motivation for our work together to support them and enable their success, on and off the field.”
A survey of student-athletes, conducted as part of the study, found that the vast majority of the 827 respondents feel they are learning important life lessons at Harvard (93 percent) and feel happy about their decision to attend (91 percent). Of the student-athletes who completed the survey, 65 percent said that they valued the sense of community, camaraderie, and friendship that their team provides.
Survey results also indicated student-athletes face some challenges. The majority (524 out of 827) of respondents reported difficulties balancing their academic, athletic, and social lives. They also reported struggling to find free time to relax, unwind, and take advantage of community experiences, with 45 percent of respondents reporting that they felt as if they were active members of their residential communities. Student-athletes also reported higher levels of emotional health compared to physical health. While 83 percent reported feeling generally happy with their lives at the moment and 78 percent felt they had enough tools to manage stress, 53 percent indicated they were getting enough sleep to feel healthy, and 59 percent were able to maintain a healthy diet.
The study also looked at the staff experience. Survey results showed that coaches and staff are highly engaged and deeply committed to the mission of Harvard Athletics and Harvard College. Ninety-four percent reported that their jobs gave them a sense of meaning and purpose. The same percentage reported that they were motivated to go “beyond what is normally expected to help Harvard be successful.” However, coaches and staff felt less satisfied with their work-life balance, with 55 percent reporting that they had a reasonable balance, and 25 percent reporting that they did not.
Many expressed their desire to see more collaboration between Athletics and the FAS, including Harvard College. Just under 50 percent believed athletics is viewed as an important part of the Harvard experience, and about the same number of respondents did not see a high level of collaboration between the College and the department. That sentiment appeared to be shared by faculty and administrators interviewed for the study, who also saw opportunity in maintaining and growing partnerships between Athletics, Harvard College, and the FAS. Administrators, faculty, coaches, and Athletics staff were largely united in their interest and enthusiasm for helping student-athletes better integrate their dual roles on campus.
Recommendations from the study included renewing Harvard Athletics’ vision and commitment to Ivy League principles for a new generation of students through community engagement and discussion as the department transitions to new leadership. The survey also suggested increasing efforts to support and strengthen integration between athletics and academics for student-athletes and conducting further research into specific issues, such as mental, physical, and social health and wellness, and those that Athletics staff deal with, such as work-life balance.
“As the recommendations make clear, we need more opportunities for faculty, staff, coaches, and students to talk to each other about our priorities, our aspirations, and the barriers we confront in supporting our student-athletes,” said Gay. “This process is a first step to building stronger relationships among all those who are committed to the success of our students.”
Looking ahead to next year, incoming John D. Nichols ’53 Family Director of Athletics Erin McDermott said she looks forward to continuing to build on the legacy of Harvard Athletics and its educational and mentorship mission.
“I look forward to the work we have ahead internally, with FAS and campus partners, and with our extensive Harvard community in developing the future vision for Athletics, integrating athletics and academics in mutually beneficial and substantial ways, and fostering a culture of wellness and well-being within Athletics and across campus,” said McDermott. “The Mercer study has provided us with an aspirational and forward-thinking path while affirming the excellent and strong foundation already established from which to build.”