The tradition of the Iowa walk-on

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You don’t have to have lived in Iowa for long if you follow its sporting news to discover a distinctive Iowa tradition. It may not be Iowa’s alone — it probably is not — but it feels Iowan and resonates with where we are. I am speaking of the Iowa walk-on.

Dallas Clark is a famous example, but new ones emerge each year. Others have had professional careers at the level of Clark’s more or less. But that is not its main point or achievement, which is that players who were not recruited by Division I schools but who challenge themselves to play at that level get the chance at Iowa, or Iowa State, to show that they can make the team and play head-to-head with what you might call the Ivies of Division I football: Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, and Alabama.

But there is another walk-on tradition, less heralded, in fact not heralded at all, composed of students who come to one of our universities because they know of it and have access to it, because, perhaps, neither counselors nor parents were able to guide them elsewhere, but discover with us their ability to compete with the best. It is almost an accident, they find, that they study here rather than at Stanford, Chicago, Harvard, or Yale, and in a good many cases at the next stage they do since education at its higher levels continues well beyond college.

I speak as a retired professor of English at the University of Iowa and so will refer to instances I know: a young man who went on to get a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Brown, a young woman who got hers in English from Pennsylvania and now teaches at Grinnell, another who came from Forest City, caught a taste for poetry and found her way to the University of Michigan, where she took her MFA and is now off in the world with her first book of poems in hand.

I am but one teacher and mention students who come to mind quickly and resonate with me, and I could cite a good many more. And so could my colleagues, probably all of them. Not only in English but in History, Philosophy, the Classics, Mathematics, and more. Jacob Soll is another example; he went on to win a MacArthur Award and is now a professor at the University of southern California. He started at Iowa because that is where he could and was in a class of mine during his first year. By now he has gone a good deal beyond that.

I have come to believe that this is the best thing we do: take students who do not know how good they are and give them access to the highest levels of aspiration in the fields they discover. We are able to do so because we work on a continuum with the best universities anywhere and contribute to that excellence.

Consider how many students that implies, from all over Iowa’s cities, towns, and farms, through forty years of teaching on my part alone but multiplied by numerous colleagues, and our generation by those before us: consider how many Iowans have gone on to distinction in learning and in the arts and got their starts here.

That is exactly what seems to be threatened by the Regents’ appointment of our new president. We do not know, since they have not shared their full plans, just what is in store. But we infer a great deal. The trajectory implied is to diminish liberal education, to emphasize the professional schools at the expense of what was our core and become indifferent to providing a continuum with the highest levels of learning in all fields. That would be like dropping out of Division I competition, not just for athletes, but for all our students.

Very few become Dallas Clarks; that is why we can name him. Very few become professors at USC or Grinnell either. It would be an enormous diminishment of democratic possibility to undermine that chance at Iowa.

But perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps, despite his seeming lack of promise, Mr. Harreld will proves the successful walk-on here. Several of his early statements offer hope. The liberal arts? Yes, they are the core of the university. The arts? Yes, a central place at Iowa. Where should the university stand in the world? “One of the things I will fight for is to make sure ... we stay on a national level.” I assume that means that we compete academically, not just athletically, with the Big Ten and other major universities and hold our own there. It means also, as he has also affirmed, that we look beyond Iowa, as well as within it, for our attachments and our students.

Those values seem to be exactly what the Regents wish to downplay. But perhaps our Regents, who hand-picked our new president, will be able to hear what we value from him better than from ourselves. If so, Mr. Harreld could prove our next heralded walk-on. And if he goes on from Iowa to Dartmouth, Michigan or Cornell, as several of his predecessors have, so much the better for us all.

• Before his retirement in 2012, David Hamilton edited The Iowa Review for more than 30 years.

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