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Paxson addresses criticism of decision to demote 11 varsity sports

Community-wide email follows outpouring from students, parents, alums

By
University News Editor
Saturday, June 6, 2020

President Christina Paxson P’19 addressed circulating concerns regarding the recent demotion of 11 varsity teams to club status in a community-wide email Saturday, offering greater detail about how the decision was made and the motivation behind it. 

The email follows an outpouring of criticism from student athletes after the announcement of the varsity cuts and the new Excellence in Brown Athletics Initiative. Through petitions and online campaigns, athletes organized their communities of peers, parents and alums to stand with them in demanding both reinstatement of varsity status and more transparency from the University. 

Paxson acknowledged the timing of the decision, and expressed remorse for the overlap between the announcement and the death of George Floyd in police custody, which prompted nationwide protests and discourse about racism in our country and its institutions. 

“Unfortunately, there would never be a time to make these decisions that would not have an impact on some group of current student-athletes, new recruits and coaches,” Paxson wrote. “But I never could have imagined the release of the initiative would come on the heels of one of the most heart-wrenching moments in our nation’s history — the death of George Floyd and the illumination of the longstanding problem in this country of anti-black racism — and I am truly sorry for the impact the collision of these circumstances have had on so many in our community.”

The motivation behind the decision was “the result of many factors,” Paxson wrote, driven largely by past conversations with the athletics department about resources “stretched too thinly,” acknowledgements from alumni that there would be benefits to cuts and the findings of a confidential external review in the 2018-19 academic year detailing how to increase competitiveness in athletics. 

The Committee on Excellence in Athletics then conducted a “holistic review” starting in January 2020, that assessed competitiveness, squad sizes, diversity, gender equity, facilities, community affinity and available data. Given each team’s unique circumstances and the proportion of high-achieving teams, “the major consideration was to determine where Brown could focus its efforts to make significant gains in competitiveness,” she wrote.

In considering a team’s competitiveness, the committee evaluated its success in the “overall competitive landscape” of the Ivy League and other peers, she wrote. 

Many community members have critiqued the decision, often expressing particular concern with the demotion of the Men’s Track & Field and Cross Country teams, arguing that the decision to cut the teams is contrary to the University’s stated intent to increase diversity in athletics. 

The committee considered representation of historically underrepresented groups across the varsity roster, but also examined the “recent success of aggressive recruiting efforts in increasing team diversity, and envisioned an increase in diversity-enhanced recruiting over time,” Paxson wrote. “I have set the expectation that plans be developed in the Department of Athletics for broadening its recruiting strategies in (Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan) Phase II.”

Responding directly to concerns about implications for diversity in athletics, she wrote: “We understand there are critical questions to consider about the potential long-term impact on the Black community at Brown. We are committed to further exploring these important issues in the coming weeks with members of our community, specifically as it relates to men’s track, field and cross country.”

In accordance with the results of Cohen v. Brown University (1998), the University is required to maintain a percentage of women athletes closely proportional to the women student population. This requirement, in part, drove the University’s decision to cut larger men’s teams. The Men’s Track & Field and Cross Country teams comprise the second largest men’s team, following Football. Maintaining a football team is required for membership in the Ivy League, according to the email.

While “community affinity” was not a determining factor, the committee considered the “capacity of a sport to build interest and engagement throughout the Brown community and therefore build affinity, pride and collegiate loyalty,” Paxson wrote. 

A number of athletes have called upon the University to publicly release the data backing the decision as a measure to increase transparency. While much of the data is available for public viewing already — team records and squad sizes, for example — privacy requirements prohibit the release of data about the diversity and socioeconomic breakdown of teams, she wrote. The operating expense of each team was not a consideration. 

The University will offer opportunities for discussion between Paxson, Athletics Director Jack Hayes and athletes in the coming weeks by way of virtual meetings.

“I remain committed to the decision to reduce the number of teams at Brown, and my hope is to build understanding within our community by providing opportunities to address some recurring questions and explore issues of concern,” she wrote.

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