A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Why do they call it the Ivy League?

June 28, 2001

Dear Straight Dope:

Please help me.  A friend of mine and I have been arguing for almost ten years over the origins of the term, Ivy League. There are many conflicting stories on the Internet. Some say, as my buddy believes, that it comes from the Roman numeral IV, indicating the four colleges (Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth and Yale) that initially competed against one another. Others say, as I believe, that the term referred to the ivy that grew on the walls of these hoity-toity institutions. I have written to the historical department at Harvard, but they have not gotten back to me. Please help stop the insanity!!!!

Who's right? Congratulations, you're the winner. This tends to bear you out:

Ivy League

Ivy League is the name generally applied to eight universities (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale) that over the years have had common interests in scholarship as well as in athletics. Stanley Woodward, New York Herald Tribune sports writer, coined the phrase in the early thirties.

In 1936 the undergraduate newspapers of these universities simultaneously ran an editorial advocating the formation of an "Ivy League," but the first move toward this end was not taken until 1945. In that year, the eight presidents entered into an agreement "for the purpose of reaffirming their intention of continuing intercollegiate football in such a way as to maintain the values of the game, while keeping it in fitting proportion to the main purposes of academic life." To achieve this objective two inter-university committees were appointed: one, made up primarily of the college deans, was to administer rules of eligibility; the other, composed of the athletic directors, was to establish policies on the length of the playing season and of preseason practice, operating budgets, and related matters. Two other inter-university committees on admission and financial aid were added later.

As President Dodds pointed out at the time, the general principles agreed on by the eight universities were essentially the same as those set forth in the Harvard-Yale-Princeton Presidents' Agreement of 1916 (see Big Three).

The first step toward organizing full league competition came in 1952 with the announcement that, beginning with the fall of 1953, each college would play every other college in the group at least once every five years. This plan was superseded in 1954 when the presidents announced the adoption of a yearly round-robin schedule in football, starting in 1956, and approved the principle of similar schedules in "as many sports as practicable."

Thereafter, the Ivy Group (as the league was called in the Presidents' Agreement of 1954) established schedules in other sports, including some in existing leagues with non-Ivy members. As of 1977, the Ivy League colleges competed, round-robin, in football, soccer, basketball, and, with certain variations as noted, in baseball (also Army and Navy), fencing (except Brown and Dartmouth), ice hockey (except Columbia), squash (except Brown, Columbia, and Cornell), swimming (except Columbia, but also Army and Navy), tennis (also Army and Navy), and wrestling (except Brown and Dartmouth). Ivy championships in cross-country and track were determined at the annual Heptagonal Meets, in golf at an Ivy championship tournament, and in rowing at the Eastern Association of Rowing Colleges Regatta.

From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright 1978 Princeton University Press.

So you see, there were never four. At one time there were three (see italicized section), and then there were eight. The passage above doesn't specifically say sportswriter Woodward was referring to the ivy growing on the walls, but it seems the obvious conclusion. By the way, notice that Princeton had the answer. Ivy grows a little less thick there, I guess.

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