June 19, 1997
During the past five years, Cal State Northridge has experienced controversy and intense public scrutiny on several occasions. I have defined those times as "teachable moments," times when both our intellect and emotion are intensely engaged and we are pressed to examine our actions and values at the deepest level.
The controversy currently surrounding my decision to eliminate several men's sports represents such a "teachable moment" for me personally. Through reflection during the weekend, I've reached several conclusions which I would like to share with you.
One of the University's strategic themes, recently reaffirmed in our last planning retreat, was to develop alliances with the community. It is a theme which I have championed throughout my tenure at the University because I deeply believe that the future of the University and the future of the San Fernando Valley are inextricably intertwined. We value the extensive alliances and partnerships we have with Valley organizations, from the public schools and county agencies, to major businesses and industry and not-for-profit service agencies. Faculty, staff and students are more engaged in educational partnerships and community service than ever before.
I acknowledge, however, that despite our sincere commitment, we have not yet been successful in developing a timely means of communicating and consulting the broad community of interests that is not formally organized or known to us except in response to specific events or policies. As a result, our decisions have been perceived by some as insensitive and ill-informed.
I have asked Mr. Lee Alpert, chair of the CSUN Advisory Board and a Valley leader, to convene a meeting of the Advisory Board to help the University develop a more robust and consistent community outreach process, and he has agreed to do so.
On the day the decision was announced, a University spokesman mistakenly stated that I was not available for comment. Nevertheless, I had previously agreed to a plan in which several senior University officials shared the tasks of notifying coaches, students, the campus community, and the press. In doing so, I set aside my own values and standards. I apologize to the University community, coaches and student athletes, and to the community at large that I was not personally present to convey the athletics decision and to express the regret and compassion which accompanied it.
I have reviewed most of the history of intercollegiate athletics at Cal State Northridge covering the past decade or so to try to understand what brought us to this place. While hindsight is always 20/20, history is the consequence of successive decisions, each made at one point in time, and reflecting hopes and aspirations as well as plans and projections.
For more than a decade, the aspirations of student athletes and the Athletics Department have been to provide competitive, conference-level sports opportunities. One expression of that occurred in 1995, when students approved a fee referendum to provide additional funds to enable Cal State Northridge to participate in "An Enhanced Division I Athletic Program," the American West Conference. Many will question why membership in a conference is important for athletics at the University. The benefits include:
- improving the quality of our student athletes and coaches;
- enhancing the University's ability to plan season schedules and program expenses on a longterm basis;
- providing an opportunity for the University to benefit from potential conference revenue sharing, sponsorships and televised athletic events (the University recently signed a contract to televise five football and six basketball games during the 1997-98 season);
- building tradition and ongoing rivalries which increase spectator interest and University spirit;
- bringing greater visibility to the overall University, including its academic programs and other services;
- providing an opportunity for University teams and athletes to play in post-season and championship games; and
- requiring strong academic performance by student-athletes.
I supported the student referendum at the request of student government leaders. The budget projections that were presented to students in January 1995 promised that Cal State Northridge could participate in post-season competition, continue all of its sports, make progress on the CAL/NOW agreement by adding women's soccer, and meet the modest American West Conference requirements - 6 core sports and 20 football scholarships.
That promise was recanted not by dishonesty or poor planning but by the advance of history - the American West Conference disbanded in May 1996. But the aspirations for conference affiliation did not. The subsequent invitation from the Big Sky Conference refueled the hopes of competitive conference opportunities for student athletes. This conference required 14 sports and 63 football scholarships. Despite this expansion and the University's commitment to gender equity, the budget projections reviewed by the Division of Student Affairs confirmed that increased guarantees, fund-raising, and gate receipts would be sufficient to support our conference participation.
On the basis of these budget estimates, I again supported the aspirations of our Athletics Department and student athletes to enter the Big Sky Conference. At a press conference, the Commissioner of Big Sky gave credence to the financial projections when he said, to paraphrase, "The current Northridge budget is not a problem; it is within the range of other universities within the Big Sky."
In 1997, all of us were proven wrong. Several teams were surprisingly successful and participated in post-season play, which generated additional costs; the Big Sky equalized salaries for male and female officials, driving those expenses up; travel costs were higher both for Big Sky teams and our independent baseball team; the fundraising and ticket revenue expectations fell short.
When I was informed about the athletics budget deficit this spring, I instructed Vice President for Student Affairs Ronald Kopita and Athletics Director Paul Bubb to consult the appropriate athletics advisory committees, and I convened a special meeting of the University Budget Advisory Board in which members were informed about the deficit and its implications for the 1997-98 University budget. Subsequently, I requested a revised balanced Athletics Department budget and program based on actual 1996-97 revenues and expenditures. The revised budget was the basis upon which the decision to eliminate several men's sports was made.
The history of successive proposals and adaptations within the Athletics Department represents, I believe, a faithful and consistent effort to fulfill the goal students had supported in their 1995 resolution - to have Cal State Northridge participate in an athletics conference. I understand the point of view that would describe the changes in our circumstance as poor planning. I also regret that important information was not made available sooner and have addressed this issue in private supervisory conversations with the appropriate staff. The recent decision we were called upon to make was whether we would permit a continuation of the current program and deficit; add women's sports and expense to further gender equity; or eliminate men's sports to achieve both a balanced budget and gender equity. We chose the last course of action because the University does not have sufficient funds to support both additional athletic expenses and our other academic and organizational priorities.
Others might have made different decisions with different consequences. Fans naturally oppose any decision to drop their preferred sport. The suggestion that we could have chosen to drop football does not take into account that eliminating one of the Big Sky sports would have put an end to conference play for all Big Sky teams, both men's and women's. We made the choice to preserve conference participation for the largest number of student athletes. Time will tell if this was the best choice. In the meantime, I remain open to all proposals and alternatives that provide more positive options in this very difficult time.
I do not want to overlook the fact that the revised program sends a new message to girls and women in the Valley about opportunities they will have to participate in collegiate sports. Athletic opportunities for girls in high school and women at the university level will create stronger and more exciting women's competition in the future.
In fact, as you have probably read, Steven Soboroff, president of the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Commission, and Lee Alpert, chair of the CSUN Advisory Board, have offered to co-chair a committee on behalf of the University to raise private funds to renovate the softball stadium into a "Field of Dreams Stadium." While renovating the softball stadium was not part of the University's original plans, this project provides an opportunity to enhance our playing facilities for the University women's softball team and to provide a field for youth baseball championship games and events. I have met with Mr. Soboroff, Mr. Alpert and the impressive volunteer team they have assembled to provide professional services for developing the project. We will be meeting again to appoint additional members to the committee. Their generosity is welcome evidence of the creative ways in which the University and members of the community can collaborate to serve mutual interests.
I am also pleased to report on a proposal that I received on June 16, and subsequently discussed with Vice President Kopita and Athletics Director Bubb, to extend the date for the elimination of soccer. It was presented by a joint delegation of soccer coach Marwan Ass'ad, the soccer booster organization, parents and student athlete, and the president of the San Fernando Valley Chapter of NOW. They asked that we extend the date for the elimination of the soccer program to the end of the fall 1997 season and that they be permitted to use private funds which they had secured ($10,405 in-hand) to cover their operating expenses. The delegation fully understood the financial difficulties which led us to eliminate several men's sports. Since the proposal requires no additional university funds beyond those which we have committed as our ethical or legal obligation to scholarships and salaries, I am supporting their request to play a final season.
As I stated earlier, I believe that the Athletics Department has been faithful to the intent of the student referendum by working to sustain conference and Division I participation for our athletes. Their efforts, despite changing circumstances, have attracted high quality coaches to our male and female sports; resulted in very successful and exciting seasons by many of our conference teams, including women's volleyball, men's basketball, and women's outdoor track; and allowed our student athletes to perform well academically, resulting in reported persistence and graduation rates that have surpassed the general campus student population. Furthermore, with the support of Big Sky, we have outlined plans to improve facilities through earthquake repair projects and other sources, and the Chancellor's Office has supported our preliminary plans to build and/or renovate the football stadium.
As with all efforts to improve quality, these enhancements will require time, planning, and a balanced and stable athletics budget. The revised plan is a firm beginning toward building a successful athletics program and tradition of which the campus and surrounding community can be proud.
Blenda J. Wilson