Varsity ski cuts spark outcry, discussion

The economic crisis has finally hit home.   Last night, Wednesday, March 11, 300 Whitman students, faculty, staff and concerned community members filed into Maxey Auditorium to discuss the controversial decision to convert the varsity Alpine and Nordic ski team to a club sport.

President George Bridges, Athletic Director Dean Snider and other top administrators were on hand to answer questions from the audience about the decision which was announced to the community on March 10.

Varsity ski team member Brad West, '12, voices his concern to George Bridges while teammates Aurora Bowers, '12, left, and Chris Machesney, '12, right, listen in. Credit: Zipparo
Varsity ski team member Brad West, '12, voices his concern to George Bridges while teammates Aurora Bowers, '12, left, and Chris Machesney, '12, right, listen in. Credit: Zipparo

This decision comes only days after the Nordic ski teams returned from the United States Collegiate Ski and Snowboard Association (USCSA) national championships in Winter Park, Colorado, bringing with them several top finishes.

“The biggest frustration is how blind-sided everyone felt. There was no transparency in the process to cut the team or where the money is going or how it got cut so quickly,” said Varsity Nordic ski team member senior Lindsay Records.   “It was so sudden.”

The team and their coaches, Tom Olson and Calisa Schouweiler, were notified on Monday, March 10 of the decision, only hours before their teams.   According to the letter Bridges released to the community, the varsity program will be converted to the club level starting next year for both student experiential and financial reasons.

Specifically, Bridges cites the difficulties of competing at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I level, saying that it is “unrealistic and not necessarily desirable.”   His letter continued, saying that he believes “our students will experience more success athletically and, by virtue of limiting their travel to competitions with Northwest colleges and universities, more opportunities to participate in on-campus programs at Whitman.”

Bridges’ second reason derives from the significant cost the program incurs. Combined, the ski teams consume 95 to 100 percent of the Athletic Department’s national travel budget for varsity teams as well as require the highest per-student cost of $5, 625, excluding staff salaries.

“In these economic times, we cannot justify augmenting or even sustaining the current ski budget while adequately supporting our other athletic teams, and maintaining the SSRA travel budget for competing in NCAA sanctioned sports,” Bridges wrote in his letter.

This year, the college has seen a 30 percent dip in its endowment, causing the college to reduce its operating costs by $2 million for the coming academic year.

“You have to understand, this is an extremely unusual set of circumstances,” said Bridges. “No one my age has ever witnessed an economy unravel so quickly and an endowment downward drop of over $100 million dollars so fast.”

A crowd of nearly 300 listen to George Bridges respond to a question. Credit: Zipparo
A crowd of nearly 300 listen to George Bridges respond to a question. Credit: Zipparo

While many of the forum’s attendants understand the difficulties the economic situation presents, overwhelming criticism of the way in which the decision was made and announced was apparent from the crowd.

“The fact that this came out of the blue, with no consultation with any of the skiing staff, no one affiliated with skiing, it seems like it’s almost a rash decision, but I know they put thought into it,” said first-year Nathan Ord, member of the Men’s Varsity Apline Ski team.   “The fact that they didn’t collaborate with us to find other options seems both disrespectful and petty. They didn’t respect our opinion enough to talk to us about this and see if we could try to keep our program.”

Members of the team also expressed concern with the timing of the decision, which came unexpectedly after the Nordic teams’ success at the USCSA nationals and during mid-terms.

“I accept the criticism that the timing was problematic. But there was nothing that we could really do about that,” said Bridges.

The decision was made by Bridges, Snider and Provost and Dean of Faculty Lori Bettison-Varga, in consultation with faculty, staff, alumni and coaches of other varsity teams. Although Bridges says that his mind is set, the decision must still be approved by the Board of Trustees.   The Board is expected to make a decision by April 10.

A second campus forum is scheduled for April 6 at 7 p.m. in Maxey Auditorium.

“I’ve consulted with [the Board of Trustees] extensively, and thus far they understand the action,” said Bridges. “I believe they will approve it, but they’re independent thinkers and care very much about the students.”

If approved by the Board, approximately $40,000 of the total $240,000 used to fund the ski teams and their coaches will be reallocated to expand the travel budgets of the other varsity sports. The remaining $200,000 will be added to the college’s annual savings.

“Dean Snider told us in our meeting that in the interest of academic and athletic excellence, they were going to bolster some of the other programs with money from the ski team. That seemed almost hypocritical, considering the fact that Whitman just came back with multiple All-American titles and a great job at the national USCSA level. That is some of the most success that Whitman has ever seen,” said Ord.

The college has made significant budget cuts including implementing $1.8 million in reductions, most coming from the deferral of eight faculty searches and 5 percent cuts in all academic departments.

“We tried our best to protect the academic core,   and we hoped to have as little impact on athletics as possible, but in the end, the ski program is simply too expensive to support while continuing to maintain a level of adequate funding for all other areas within academic affairs,” said Bettison-Varga.

Coaches Olson and Schouweiler will serve the remainder of their contracts due to expire July 1. They will also receive severance.

Olson, a former nominee for the Whitman Athletic Hall of Fame, has been involved in Whitman athletics for 19 years. Schouweiler has coached the Nordic team since the 2007 to 2008 season.

Neither wished to comment at this time.

Throughout the forum, members of the ski teams remained hopeful that efforts could be made to save the team.   Since Monday’s announcement, the team has made a huge push to garner support from the community, sending multiple listserv e-mails and making calls to alumni and trustee members.

“This budget problem could very well affect any of the other teams soon, and I think it’s a good idea for everyone involved to be more informed on what the hell is going on with our athletics program,” said first-year varsity alpine skier Torey Anderson. “One day we were winning national championships, and the next we were cut, so it kind of goes to show that changes this drastic can happen in the blink of an eye.”