Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

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.”

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  • W

    whitman profMar 24, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    “Whittie” on March 17 suggests: “Forgo salary increases!”

    We’ve already done that. Faculty and staff are getting NO raises for next year. Unless inflation moves to 0 percent, this is in effect a pay cut (obviously).

    Also, out of 13 full-time faculty positions that needed to be filled for next year, 8 are being left vacant.

    Just setting the record straight.

  • M

    martyMar 19, 2009 at 10:10 am

    The President’s actions and how he carried them out are a disgrace. Does the President really have the school’s best interest’s in mind, because the way he went about the process suggests that he does not. And will he make future decisions, atheletics or otherwise, in the same manner?

  • M

    Mark ParrMar 18, 2009 at 6:52 am

    As a prospective applicant parent, I am confused by the process of gathering feedback for budget reductions. My son is now considering colleges that offer Nordic skiing and Whitman was on his list of possibilities when I heard that the program is in jeopardy, I began looking into what process was used to determine budget reductions. I did not hear that the community was involved much. If fact, I understand that the decision was made when the skiers were competing at an away meet. I happen to work in an area that frequently goes through budget reductions and it is a painful process indeed. Since parents are paying substantial amounts of money for their children to receive a first class education at Whitman, it behooves the leadership to involve them as well as other community members and frankly, those that could be affected by budget reductions most in the process of recommending what programs could be reduced. I have found that when parents and community members are involved, not only do the recommendations have the chance of having more support, those involved in the process frequently come up with budget reduction ideas that are more palatable even during these difficult economic times. Perhaps a more logical approach would have been to invite budget reduction ideas first and then allow Whitman faculty, staff, students, parents and community members the opportunity to “weigh in” on those ideas. After all, we do live in a democratic society where involvement and process are paramount to effective decision making. I will keep my eye on this situation and hopefully a positive outcome is in the making.

  • T

    TimMar 18, 2009 at 4:04 am

    Save the team, period. Act with integrity. Enlist stakeholders. Walk the talk.

  • W

    WhittieMar 17, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    Whitman’s administration needs to rein in their capital spending and allocate resources to maintain the current student experience. Blaming the economy is unacceptable for the school with the “strongest endowment”… Go sell some some real assests! Forgo salary increases! Stop building new buildings! Skiing is an itegral piece of the Whitman culture. The total cost of eliminating the ski team’s attention-grabbing budget line will far outweigh the expense reduction.

    By the way, Whitman should not compete at NCAA level. USCSA + Varisty sport funding and staff is sustainable and is the right decision for the future of the school.

  • J

    Jeanne DrechselMar 16, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    To Members of the Whitman Community:

    Before the ski program at Whitman is destroyed, it is imperative the Whitman community understands all the ramifications, as perhaps was not the case with football.
    The announcement was made after the transfer deadline had passed, and the college only began to attempt to help those wanting to transfer after the public outcry. Since the present coaches were apparently taken totally unaware, I respectfully ask what individuals with real knowledge of competitive ski racing were consulted before it was decided to take the ski team all the way from NCAA Division 1 down to club status?
    Many of these athletes, committed to their sport, attended ski academies where they developed vital time management skills in order to maintain academic excellence while competing in far more rigorous, race-filled schedules than in college. The assertion that varsity ski racers take too much time away from the campus with training or competition to be academically successful is both patronizing and inaccurate. These teams have historically had superior GPAs. Aren’t Whitman students capable of meeting numerous challenges? In point of fact, the tennis, swimming, and baseball teams had far more off-campus competitions to such places as Mobile, AL, Hilton Head S.C. and Waterville, ME.
    These ski racers have competed and medaled in Junior Olympics, come back from horrific crashes, and diligently trained either on dry land or on snow 12 months a year. Now they are being patted on the head and told they should go have fun and succeed on the club level. That is like telling the basketball team to play only in pick-up games at the “Y.” After all these athletes have invested in their sport, they do not want to be reduced to weekend warriors. They want to compete with their peers at least on the USCSA level as a varsity team. When they chose to come to Whitman, they were assured by coaches and Dean Snider that they would be able to race as a varsity team for 4 years. The credibility of Whitman’s administration is in jeopardy.
    These athletes are asking for the very basics. They are prepared to make sacrifices. They need a coach, gate training during the winter, and transportation. Is this something that Whitman finds impossible to accommodate, or simply doesn’t want to accommodate? It appears the latter is the case, since no other sport has been asked to give up anything. Where was Whitman’s “collaboration” when this edict was prepared ?
    Those who care about Whitman’s ski heritage and its future need to hear the truth. Otherwise, let the ski community have the opportunity to find the necessary funding, with the help of the Whitman administration, to fulfill the unwritten promise made to these students who now justifiably feel betrayed and heartsick.

  • B

    Brian Abery, Ph.D.Mar 14, 2009 at 9:05 am

    As the parent of a Whitman skier I am extremely dismayed about how the school has treated the nWhitman ski team. When our son, a freshman Nordic skier, accepted admission to the school we were explicitly told by the College’s Athletic Director that a NCAA varsity level program would be in place during our son’s 4-years at Whitman. The decision-making process through which this decision was made took place behind closed doors and in the absence of input from critical stakeholders in the Whitman community; the financial analuysis was flawed failing to include coaches salaries, and the idea that Whitman athletes should only compete at venues in which they can win suggests a lack of understanding of athletes and warped sense of the purpose of intercollegiate sports. Neither President Bridges nor any of the administration has returned phone calls or e-mails in response to the MANY parents of Whitman skiers and alumni who have attempted to contact him. So much for the open door policy the current administration claims to embrace. Empty words and an approach to decision making that suggests that at least some in the current administration do not view themselves as responsible to either students or the Board of Trustees.