Brandeis celebrated its annual Homecoming a few weekends ago, inviting alumni back to campus and hosting both the highly-ranked men’s and women’s soccer teams in competitive UAA conference matchups. While it is great when students can support the Judges in high-stakes conference matches, it usually isn’t quite as easy as it was during Homecoming. That same weekend, in fact, the volleyball team was at their UAA Conference Tournament at Case Western Reserve University.
While being part of the University Athletic Association is a great honor and increases the connection the university has with other highly-ranked research universities, the major drawback is the distance between members. With member institutions located in Chicago, St. Louis, Atlanta and obviously Waltham, the UAA is more spread out than some NCAA Division I conferences. The travel costs associated with the conference forced one of the founding members—Johns Hopkins University—to leave the conference and join the more localized Centennial Conference.
Associations with schools such as the University of Chicago and Carnegie-Mellon are great academically; the UAA is the only conference in the country to have every single member affiliated with the Association of American Universities. The geography of the conference, however, make it a pain for traveling. While the majority of conference events and matches occur over weekends during the season, which allows the athletes to not miss tremendous amounts of class, being part of the UAA makes it nearly impossible for student fans to travel to away games.
Looking at other college athletic programs, regardless of the division, there is usually a strong showing of support from fans and students traveling to the away games. This is impossible to accomplish with the current structure of the UAA; the closest conference rival is NYU, roughly four hours away by car. After that, the University of Rochester is six hours away. I could never imagine a group of students traveling that far over a weekend to support the soccer team, nevermind heading to St. Louis or Chicago.
What makes this set-up even more absurd is the incredible number of colleges in New England. As part of the out-of-conference schedule, the Judges compete against local institutions like Tufts, Lasell, MIT and cross-town rival Bentley in virtually every sport. Of course you can’t immediately create a conference with all of the closest institutions, since these schools already have their athletic affiliations in place, but there are conferences already created that might be open to add a new member.
One such possibility is the New England Small College Athletic Conference, which would be the ideal situation for Brandeis. Comprised of some of the top liberal arts institutions in the country, such as Williams, Bowdoin and Amherst, the NESCAC currently has 11 members across New York, Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine. That’s an odd number, meaning adding a 12th member to the conference could even out the schedule and create a greater level of competition. Brandeis, being half research university and not totally a liberal arts college, wouldn’t even have the largest enrollment were it to join. That distinction would still belong to Tufts, a member of the NESCAC since the conference’s inception in 1971, when Tufts was still seen as a liberal arts college and not the research institution it is today.
In an interview last week with The Brandeis Hoot, Vice President of Students and Enrollment Andrew Flagel said he wanted to see the level of school spirit shown during the 24-Hour Musical and Orientation to be matched at sports games. If away games were closer, school spirit would be able to travel to those games. Additionally, fans for the visiting teams would be able to come to Brandeis to support their team, creating actual rivalries. Rivalries would increase the interest in the athletic teams and school spirit at the same time.
Multiple Division I conferences are mocked for their absurd conference structure (Rutgers and Nebraska are both in the Big 10 for example), and the UAA features the same illogical setup. Even though Brandeis’ athletic affiliations haven’t been a real problem for the university, school spirit can be much improved with a different alignment. The constitution of the UAA states that members wishing to leave the conference have to notify the governing body two years prior to departure. The athletics department should file this notification as soon as possible and look to join a conference that is much more local.