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Op-eds, Opinions

Champa P’21: An Open Letter from a Parent to President Paxson on her Excellence in Athletics Initiative

By
Op-Ed Contributor
Saturday, July 11, 2020

President Paxson, there will be no winners in this dispute. During an intense and ongoing public debate, you have succeeded in destroying the athletic careers of the members of eight of Brown’s varsity teams. Amid a worldwide pandemic, nationwide racial strife and while carrying the banner of “excellence in athletics,” you have unceremoniously and covertly changed the landscape of athletics at Brown. In the process, you have diminished the reputation of one of the nation’s foremost educational institutions, causing many to question your leadership as well as your commitment to transparency, student welfare, gender equity and inclusiveness. 

This dispute is not just about athletics. It has never just been about which team on campus is more excellent than any other, and it certainly isn’t just about the small number of Ivy League Championships won by Brown. Brown is different from the rest, so it is unsurprising that athletics has followed suit? We are not among the top athletic programs in the League, and the mandated elimination of eight varsity teams will not change our athletic fortunes. The public outrage that you and the administration have been able to stare down (so far) is about your total lack of transparency and honesty, the inability of your administration to deal with differing opinions and your unwillingness to tackle tough problems by building a broad consensus. Any petty despot will tell you that it is easier to make changes when you have no concern about the constituencies you serve. 

Your administration hasn’t given the university community the credit they deserve.  You have acknowledged that the affected athletes, coaches and the broader university community were not consulted prior to the announcement and implementation of your recommendations. Regardless of the intellectual discomfort, the proper role of scholarly inquiry is to consider all sides of an issue to discern the truth. To deny access to the decision-making process to individuals that you believe may have a different opinion than your own is a violation of the basic tenets of academic inquiry. As we have seen in recent weeks, if the process by which decisions are made is flawed, so too are the decisions that result.

You have said that the changes you are implementing were the result of a data-driven study of athletics on campus, yet you were unwilling to share the data. You have said that the recommendations came from a blue-ribbon panel of university alumni, yet we are told by your Athletic Director that the committee produced no written set of recommendations. You have said that over the years you were merely listening to alumni and reducing the number of varsity teams was the right thing to do. Yet it is difficult to identify these numerous alumni who you say supported your decision. Did these secret voices outweigh the tens of thousands of Brown community members and other petition signatories who publicly raised their hands in opposition to your athletic initiative? 

If you do an assessment of where you are today, you will see that none of the stated benefits of your initiative will accrue to the University. You damaged Brown’s reputation by trying to eliminate some of the most racially diverse teams on campus. But following the reinstatement of men’s track, field and cross country, you have serious Title IX compliance issues that have again landed you in court, you may not even get the planned benefit of additional recruits to distribute to the remaining teams and the cost to support an enlarged club program may still increase considerably. Squad sizes cannot now all be increased as you claimed, and you may now be required to pad the rosters of the remaining women’s teams in an insincere effort to counter yet another Title IX violation. When also factoring in the promotion of the sailing team to varsity status, you end up where you started, with almost the same number of varsity athletes — so much for the desire to unburden athletic facilities. 

In a recent community meeting, Athletic Director Jack Hayes beamed about the prospects of now being able to hire a nutritionist and a sports psychologist; it seems he believes that his drought of Ivy League Championships is about to come to an end. Hayes would be well-advised to look more closely at the performance of his own department and the support received from the university in contributing to the drought of Ivy League championships. Further, President Paxson would have us believe that the failures on the athletic field are solely the result of the number of varsity teams that Brown supports. Brown’s decades-long history of limited success in athletics points to systemic failures of the University and the Athletics Department to support its athletes and to do what is necessary to compete at the Ivy League level. Unless these systemic problems are addressed, the Excellence in Athletics initiative will simply produce continued failures by the smaller number of varsity teams that remain. I would recommend starting with new Athletic Department leadership.

Let me acknowledge where we do agree: Brown should examine the role of athletics and its costs; it should evaluate the performance of its varsity teams and administrators. Athletics is a significant part of Brown University life, and it deserves the thoughtful and considerate approach to decision making that we apply to other programs on campus. Around 20 percent of Brown students are members of varsity teams. Many more students participate in club and intramural sports, and countless alumni have a special attachment to Brown because of past associations with athletics on campus. Brown needs to address the decades-long systemic failures overseen by the University of its Athletics Department without having student-athletes pay the price for limited support and administrative malfeasance. It’s time for an open and transparent deep dive into the role of athletics at Brown and in the Ivy League. For example, it’s time to examine the protected status of large, all-male teams, like football, that will always skew an analysis of appropriate athletic expenditures and the commitment to the loftier goals of gender equity and racial diversity. And, it’s appropriate to question the privilege extended to athletes, often disproportionately white, in the admissions process. We need to reconcile our athletic priorities with Brown’s stated values and culture. President Paxson, how will you direct such an effort? 

Finally, I ask you to remember, as you yourself have said, that it is Brown’s students that have had to suffer through this process. It is tough for a group of 100 athletes to face off against one of the world’s wealthiest universities. These athletes will continue their vigorous efforts to restore the canceled programs with the knowledge that advocating for fairness, integrity and transparency is always a struggle worth pursuing. President Paxson, please know this: These kids are great athletes, some of the brightest and most motivated students on campus and they will now move forward with the newly acquired knowledge that being right sometimes comes with a high cost. Unlike Brown’s administration, these student-athletes are doing what they have always done; they are giving Brown their best. That’s all we can ask of our children, our students and our athletes. That is excellence in athletics, and they are all still champions in my eyes. 

Michael Champa P’21 is the parent of an undergraduate student-athlete at Brown University. He can be reached at michael.champa@comcast.net. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com

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  1. Steven Fern says:

    Very true, and very well said.

    It takes a strong leader to rethink and change course as a storm gathers in the distance. Unfortunately, I fear that we have no such great captain at the helm of our beloved university.

    I pray that we do not all go down with the ship.

    -Steven A. Fern, M.D. ‘86

  2. Audrey Alton says:

    Thank you, Mike Champa, for providing a forceful and eloquent description of what we, too, have been experiencing as a family impacted by the athletic cuts.

    As a Brown parent with a first-year recruited athlete, who turned down Yale and Penn, her motivating desire to chose Brown, due to the open curriculum, now seems like a poor choice. We are obviously angry to have our child to be unable to transfer at this late date as all other recruiting spots are gone for 2021-22. We have dedicated 12 years of our child’s life to our sport and did this with joy, and not necessarily about securing a recruiting spot. Our family is devastated. We had looked forward to college competitions and now we have nothing.

    Brown’s president’s secretive actions are infuriating. All of us wonder what could be possibly motivating her to be so secretive and obtuse.
    Brown is better than this!

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