University of North Carolina Wilmington officials have been fielding a flurry of calls and messages since Monday’s announcement by athletic director Jimmy Bass that the university plans to cut four existing athletic programs to achieve what Bass says is a “sustainable fiscal model.”
Officials aren’t the only ones whose phones are ringing. Brandyn Mitchell, a former UNCW track and field athlete who currently serves as a volunteer assistant coach at the university, said his phone was constantly busy Monday night as current track and field student athletes called to bemoan the university’s decision to cut men’s and women’s outdoor track and field, women’s indoor track and field and men’s cross country. Men’s indoor track and field was essentially cut earlier this year. Women's cross country will remain.
Mitchell said he is upset by the decision but was not surprised.
“The university has not shown the intent to find a way to keep these sports; they seemed intent on cutting them,” he said Tuesday. “I don’t blame the current chancellor and AD [athletic director]. They had to deal with a situation they were handed. There have been numerous chancellors and ADs in and out since I came to UNCW in 2006, and there’s been no effort to keep stability either at the top or in the athletics program.”
Bass said Tuesday that the announced action is an outgrowth of the recommendations from UNCW’s Intercollegiate Athletic Review Committee (IARC) in the spring of 2013. While the committee's report recommended elimination of several programs, then-chancellor Gary Miller decided to maintain all the programs at that point. Miller said at the time, however, that the university would continue to monitor the financial health of the individual and overall athletics programs.
“That’s what we have been doing,” Bass said.
Bass said that, after the IARC recommendation of program cuts -- men's and women's swimming and diving programs as well as softball also were considered -- there was a groundswell of private financial support for some of the threatened programs.
“Swimming, softball, baseball and soccer stepped up,” Bass said. “There was not a big outpouring from private sources for our track and field program. They raised only about $20,000.”
Bass emphasized that the choice of what programs to eliminate was based on Title IX, financial and facilities concerns. Because the UNCW student body is now 63 percent female, more than half of the university’s sports programs must be women’s programs, Bass said.
The cuts will leave the university with 14 NCAA sports, which is the minimum to retain Division I status.
Bass said UNCW plans to add sand volleyball, a spring women’s sport that he said would build on the strength of the current fall indoor volleyball program. That will total 15 NCAA programs: nine for women and six for men.
Title IX isn’t just about access, said Adrianne Swinney, senior associate athletic director. She said it’s also about an institutions ability to provide adequate quality of the programs, facilities and support for the student athletes.
“We must provide a quality experience for men and women alike," Swinney said. "We have to balance our responsibilities in these areas, and we have not been doing that. We have been making do with what we have.”
Mitchell and another UNCW track and field alumnus, Jonathan Scott, pointed out that the track and field facility on which they competed dated to 1980.
“It’s one of the oldest facilities at UNCW, and everybody uses it,” said Scott, who now lives in Charlotte.
Mitchell said that there was talk for several years about making improvements to the track and field facilities, with the idea that if supporters of the sport raised enough money, there would be upgrades.
“We were pushing for that, but maybe they cut the programs so they wouldn’t have to honor their promise,” he said.
And that’s the facilities piece of the decision, Bass said Tuesday.
“It would take more than $3 million to make it a competitive facility,” he said. “We’re not just talking about new asphalt. We’re talking about redoing the stands, the concessions, the restrooms.”
The cuts will affect 93 student athletes involved in programs whose combined budgets total roughly $600,000, of which about $200,000 is scholarship money, Swinney said.
UNCW estimates that in the 2015-16 academic year, it will save about $245,000 from the planned cuts. As financial aid commitments end, those savings could increase to about $275,000 per year, and the money applied to other programs, Bass said.
Interim chancellor Bill Sederburg is scheduled to meet on Thursday with students about the issue, Bass said.
One of the concerns raised is the timing of the university’s announcement, which comes in the middle of exam week and just before students leave for the holidays.
“I felt it was important to communicate this decision to these student athletes and coaches as soon as possible -– before the holiday break, to try to avoid an atmosphere of hearsay that would only add to their anxiety; so they could use that time to discuss the matter with their families, and so our student athletes could explore possible transfer opportunities,” Bass said in his statement Monday.
If student athletes pursue a transfer, the NCAA will allow them to begin participation in programs at their new schools immediately, Bass said. If they decide to stay, their financial aid packages will remain in place until their scheduled graduation date, assuming the students maintain the standards required for those scholarships, he added.
The four affected coaches will remain employed until the end of June and will receive help from the university’s human resources department in their job searches, Bass said.
“I’m disappointed,” Scott said Tuesday. “I am a male, and when I see the women’s softball program struggling [record] and men’s track and field successful –- and contributing to the university student body’s [racial] diversity – I am very frustrated.”
Scott said the university's decision would likely affect his future giving.
"If there is no men's track program, I won't donate to the Seahawk Club, and probably not to UNCW in the future," he said.