Faculty, students give input on chess program’s past, future

Dan Bauman
The Journal at Webster University

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Management Professor Jim Brasfield recalled watching highlights of this year’s NCAA men’s basketball championship shortly after the game had ended on April 7. Just as the sports anchor finished his commentary on University of Connecticut’s win over Kentucky, Brasfield was surprised when the sportscast turned to a subject he wasn’t expecting — Webster University and its chess team’s win at the Final Four of college chess.

“When you see that on television, I think all of us associated with Webster pump our chests out a little bit and say ‘We’re happy to have, happy to be considered kind of in the same news segment as Connecticut winning the NCAA championship,’” Brasfield said.

MEGAN FAVIGNANO/ The Journal Professor Jim Brasfield talks to faculty at Faculty Assembly.

Photo by MEGAN FAVIGNANO/The Journal
Professor Jim Brasfield talks to faculty at Faculty Assembly.

For Brasfield, his concern exists about the long-term and strategic vision of the chess team. Brasfield, as well as all of the faculty interviewed, commended Susan Polgar and the chess team for their success. Steve Schenkel, professor of music, said he has complete respect for Polgar and the Webster chess team. What concerned Schenkel was the decision in 2011-12 to invest in a chess program, as opposed to an academic program already in place at Webster.

Because the music department is unable to make full scholarship offers to exceptional prospective music students, Schenkel said the university constantly loses these students to schools who can offer better financial support. Likewise, Schenkel said the method of recruiting a top international practitioner of a particular discipline, like Susan Polgar in chess, could be replicated across many academic programs at Webster.

“It would be no different if the art department was able to hire an internationally-famous painter to teach in their department; or we, an internationally famous cellist to teach in our department,” Schenkel said.

In general, schools tend to devote discretionary funds to sports as opposed to academics because of what Ohio University Professor and Director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity Richard Vedder calls “sex appeal.” While sports teams can generate entertainment and publicity, investment in academics or scholarships for students is less likely to do so.

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 6.58.03 AMDan Hellinger, professor of political science, said a broad discussion about a potential chess program should have taken place before one was started at Webster. Rather than transplant a team from another university, Hellinger said he would have preferred if a team were built from the bottom-up at Webster. However, Hellinger said the value of the chess team should be judged on the opportunity it offers to students.

“The chess players add much to the university, and no ill-will should be held against them,” Hellinger said.

One school that built from the ground up was the University of Maryland at Baltimore County (UMBC). After starting the program in the 1990s, Alan Sherman, faculty member and volunteer chess director, built the team into a chess powerhouse, winning multiple Final Four chess championships in the 2000s. Sherman said UMBC did not have the resources to immediately create a chess team of elite players like Webster­ — instead, they used incremental funding.

“We found in our ramping-up period we were simply unable to recruit radically better players each year,” Sherman said. “We could recruit somewhat-better players over a period of five years. We ended up with a very powerful team.”

Financial concerns and administrative favoritism

Faculty Senate President Gwyneth Williams said some faculty were concerned about the financial costs of the program relative to the benefits to all students. Brasfield postulated that if the decision to invest in a chess program had been made in 2014 rather than in 2011-12, the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence might not have moved to Webster.

While he understood the funds budgeted to the chess team would not fix Webster’s fiscal troubles, Schenkel said he was concerned about the message the investment in chess sent to faculty and staff who had not received raises in recent years equal to the cost of living.

“The faculty — we all make in real spending less than we did three years ago,” Schenkel said. “I would like (the administration) to tell us what’s the message. What does this mean to us? I don’t want to put words in the provost’s mouth. I would like to hear him speak to that. And I don’t think they have been sensitive to that aspect of it.”

Jordan Fosburgh, athlete and Student Athlete Advisory Committee president, said the chess team’s national achievements give the university recognition. But, she said most people don’t play chess and she is not sure how much chess will help the university to attract new students.

She added that there are more people on the sports teams than on the chess team, which means more tuition dollars for the university.

“I just don’t think that they are putting their money where they should be putting it,” Fosburgh said. “I understand that it’s harder to fund the athletic department because it’s much larger, but at the same time the athletics department is probably bringing far more money in than what the chess team is, and I think that there’s a sense of where you allocate your money.”

Fosburgh said athletic teams do a lot of fundraising to pay for their travel while the chess team gets funds.

Fosburgh said she thinks the university should invest in chess, but invest more proportionately.

“They work really hard at what they do, and we should invest in the chess team, but I think that it definitely needs to be a little more fair than what it really is,” Fosburgh said.

Student Government Association President Katie Maxwell said she thinks the chess team helps increase Webster’s name recognition. While she said chess is not something that appeals to her personal interest, she thinks it exemplifies how unique Webster is.

She also said she thinks students on the chess team have a stigma placed on them.

“Chess students can be ostracized based on the stigma that’s associated with being on the chess team because a lot of people weren’t too happy about how the chess team was brought to the university,” Maxwell said. “They said they have nothing against the students.”

She said she thinks it has gotten better since the chess team first came to Webster, but she said she thinks there might still be some difficulties.

“When you take time to get to know the students on the chess team, they are really great people,” Maxwell said. “They exemplify what Webster is.”

Like Webster, Sherman said opinions about chess funding at UMBC are mixed. While Sherman said the chess team feels like it is not adequately supported, others believe it gets too many resources in comparison to other programs.

“I think a school can’t do everything, and they need to pick; and then for the things they pick they ought to support them properly so they can be successful,” Sherman said.

Long-term objectives

Brasfield recalled in the 1980s when the university was considering the creation of an athletic department. Brasfield said some people supported the installation, believing it would help the university grow its undergraduate student base. Others were concerned about Webster’s lean financial position and believed the university shouldn’t create and fund athletics. Ultimately, Brasfield said, the athletics program showed itself to be a success in the long-term. It is the long-term and strategic objective of the chess team that Brasfield said he is interested in.

Unlike athletics teams, Brasfield said the chess team seemed built around a single coach. Of concern for Brasfield was whether an infrastructure would be developed to facilitate the chess program if Susan Polgar were to end her relationship with Webster when her contract is up.

“And if the chess team is built around and completely dependent on one person — then that person leaves — is that going to fold?” Brasfield asked. “In which case, you might look back and say, ‘We’ll gee, we spent all this money and we got some temporary publicity. It wasn’t doing something that had long-term strategic value for Webster.’”

In the long term, University Spokesman Patrick Giblin said the university hopes to integrate the chess program into some sort of academic curriculum, perhaps a set of courses, certificate or minor. Giblin said chess play has been shown to help with math and science learning, and that chess strategy could be useful to future businesspersons.

While nothing had formerly been proposed, Giblin said a one-credit hour course taught by Susan Polgar called “Business Strategy with Chess” in mid-April was a hint of future possibilities.