A Revolt in Williamsburg

By Dick Hall-Sizemore  (Class of 1970)

While some participants on this blog have been busy trying to foment an alumni revolt at the The University, there has been a real alumni revolt at The College. The alumni won.

On the surface, the turmoil was over sports. But, at its core, it was over what should be the values and priorities of the College of William and Mary.

The story started with the appointment of Samantha Huge as athletic director in the spring of 2018. That fall, the beloved football coach, Jimmye Laycock, announced his retirement. That could have been a coincidence, however, and not related to Huge. After all, Laycock had been the coach for 39 years.

In the spring of 2019, Huge fired Tony Shaver, the long-time (16 seasons) men’s basketball coach. Admittedly, Shaver’s career won/lost record was not sterling (226-268). But he was well-liked, his players graduated, and there had not been even the hint of a recruitment scandal. In recent years, his teams had been competitive and had gone to the final game in the conference tournament four times, more than any other school.

All these arguments in Shaver’s favor were offset by one factor, as far as Huge was concerned: W&M had never made it to the NCAA basketball tournament (March Madness). In her announcement, she made no bones about her motivation: “We have high expectations for our men’s basketball  program, including participating in the NCAA tournament, and we will not shy away from setting the bar high.”

After getting over the shock and anger, Shaver probably smiled all the way to the bank. He still had five years remaining on his contract when he was fired and, reportedly, got a $1.7 million payout. On the other hand, Huge and her new coach cannot use the pandemic as an excuse for the Tribe not going to March Madness in 2020. The team lost in the first round of the conference tournament before it was cancelled.

The next, and final, chapter in this story unfolded in early September when Huge announced W&M would eliminate seven varsity programs: men’s and women’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s swimming, men’s indoor and outdoor track and field, and women’s volleyball. The main reason given for the move was financial.  W&M supports 23 varsity athletic programs; more than almost any other school its size and more than many with larger student populations.

The move and its motivation was foreshadowed in a long-range plan released by Huge in late 2019. As reported by the Richmond-Dispatch, “The 24-page document notes the national trend of schools shedding sports and funneling subsequent savings to other teams and touts the importance of basketball, men’s and women’s, and football in elevating “the William & Mary brand” and fostering school spirit.  ‘Success in those three [programs] attracts fans, generates revenue for all sports, increases national recognition and expands the admissions pool,’ the plan says.” In summary, the other sports were being sacrificed in order to support football and basketball.

The outcry was immediate and loud. David Teel, sports columnist of the Times Dispatch, has documented the response of the alumni, especially the well-connected alumni of the targeted sports. Using publicly-available financial information, they have attacked the credibility of the information provided by the school. Especially galling was the discovery that the wording of Huge’s announcement and justifications closely tracked the wording and justifications issued earlier this year by Stanford University when it announced the elimination of some sports programs. (The Stanford AD is a mentor of Huge.)

Huge’s critics have framed their arguments as a fight for the soul of W&M. As a former track All-American and later assistant coach put it, “William & Mary being a liberal arts university is about a diversity of experience and now we’re kind of consolidating our athletic programs around fewer and fewer sports. It runs counter to what William & Mary is.” Another alumnus and parent of a current student predicted, “I think it’s going to degrade the college over time. This is an academic-first institution. Always has been, always will be, and that’s why you’re seeing this public outcry, because this perception that we’re selling out to just prop up revenue sports is going to come at the expense of academics eventually. And alumni won’t stand for it. Nor will faculty.”

To illustrate the importance of these “minor” sports to the athletic and academic atmosphere of the school, the Virginian Pilot reported, “The sports cut have won 22 Colonial Athletic Association team championships and produced 36 All-Americans, two national champions, an Olympian, three Rhodes Scholars and 29 Phi Beta Kappas. Athletes in those seven sports combined for a 3.35 grade-point average this past school year.”

Obviously, Huge did not act unilaterally. Certainly, she had cleared with the college’s president and, probably, the Board of Visitors. Both the president and the rector have issued public apologies to alumni and students for the way this situation has been handled. The rector said to his fellow Board of Visitors members, “As Board members, we each own what was a poor rollout of very difficult news”

On Tuesday, Katherine Rowe, president of the college, announced that Huge was gone. In her statement, Rowe said, “Now it is clear to me that a new approach is necessary.”

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28 responses to “A Revolt in Williamsburg

  1. Awesome column that really is about what the true role of sports should be in higher ed.

    Give W&M alumni and leadership credit. they do know what values really are.

    Sports is for the enrichment of the students, not the institution.

    Congrats!

  2. I was discussing this yesterday with another of our fellow grads (I’m ’76 and he was ’79). We both hope this doesn’t end Rowe’s tenure, too, but the story is not over. I’ve never been a donor to the sports programs, but those people are truly in an uproar. In honor of a president who did depart to alumni cheers, here’s the old logo:

  3. Given the financial pressures on institutions, I personally believe it is outside the scope of a university’s mission to spend money on NCAA sports. If anything, promote intramural sports that provide opportunities for exercise and enjoyment to large numbers of the student body. I wouldn’t mind seeing the entire NCAA dismantled, and spin off men’s basketball and football into what they really are, minor leagues for the NBA and NFL.

    • Good Lord. Atlas and I totally agree. NCAA sports and similar is a perversion, a corruption of higher ed. We’re the only country that does this and our better institutions like MIT and CalTech do not do – to their credit.

      Sports is how Higher Ed gets you rubes to pay outrageous sums to attend even as you complain about it… they know what you are willing to pay for!

  4. Good post. Am so tired of the ridiculous shock over cursing on the wonderful Lawn by a bunch of aging Ayatollahs.

    • You totally miss the deeper dimensions of what the UVa alumni revolt is about. But that doesn’t surprise me.

    • I’m with Peter on this one. So long as a student doesn’t damage UVA property, such as by using paint, who cares what a student puts on his/her door? The argument about the UN site was one of the most ridiculous ones I ever heard.

      On the other hand, more power to alumni who vote with their checkbooks and estate plans.

  5. Remember the fortunately short lived presidency of Gene Nichol and his hugely unpopular removal of the cross from Wren Chapel, an act which was subsequently undone?

    The latest outrage is the renaming commission busily undoing much of the school’s history with its hellbent time schedule. Two buildings have already been marked for renaming just as the program has been revealed sans alumni input.

    One of my fondest recollections however was being employed as 6am lifeguard in the basement pool of the old Blow Gymnasium as the girl’s swim team (soon the be discontinued) practiced. Great way to meet certain members of my ’49 class.

    Ahh … memories. Times have changed.

    • ” an act which was subsequently undone?”

      Not likely. Nondenominational chapels are what they have in public schools, unless they want to build a chapel for each and every religion.

      And, BTW, I hope not.

      • The cross was indeed returned, but no longer stored on the altar….That said, I was last in there a long, long time ago.

        • I believe the old policy was the cross was present at the altar but would be removed (or retained) based on the event request (e.g. a wedding). The new policy is the cross is kept in a case in the chapel but not at the altar and “contextualized” . It can be placed above the altar or removed from the room entirely based on the event request. That difference evidently came at the cost of a $10M or so donation.

  6. “More importantly, however, he was well-liked, his players graduated, and there had not been even the hint of a recruitment scandal.”

    Well at 226-268, that would be a scandal.

    When I first began making annual donations, I was told (probably incorrectly) that the athletic programs were given the lion’s share, and began directing my annual contributions to the School of A&S directly. I was then told (again probably incorrectly) that directed contributions just means A&S receives fewer dollars from the general fund.

    Oh well. At least after this read, I can feel better about my impotency in controlling my pennies.

    BTW, W&M Seniors have alumni funded reseach projects. On any other day I could go straight to the list of projects seeking funding, but I’ll be damned if I can find it now. These are $5000 max funding individual research projects. Maybe covid?

  7. “Sic semper tyrannis.”

  8. Dick, thanks for the re-cap of the W&M sports scandal, which I had not really followed. It seems like everyone commenting on the blog agrees with the spirit of the alumni revolt, and I would concur. Big-time sports is not what W&M is about. That’s not why parents send their children there (I sent one daughter there), or why students apply to attend.

    Sure, a one-time appearance to the Final Four tournament might boost applications to the university, but the phenomenon is fleeting. Just ask VCU. It’s really about generating enthusiasm among the alumni and extracting even bigger gifts. It looks like the new administration severely misjudged the character of the W&M alumni.

  9. Maybe a one-off. Can anyone imagine the alumni of UVA or VaTech revolting over efforts to boost their competitive sports programs?

    I’m suprised also. Even at W&M, the sports programs leaders get millions of dollars – 5 years = 1.7 million. that’s like more than 300K a year. I wonder how much other W&M leaders get paid.

  10. Very good post, Dick. I’m not really connected at all to William & Mary, but am connected to someone who has extensive dealings with management there. By report, the place is a total mess. Top management is apparently run by snowflakes who don’t have a clue how to run a college/university, which, in fairness, does not distinguish it from many other supposedly prestigious universities, like my alma mater, which is now under investigation for discrimination in admissions.

  11. Excellent report.

  12. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    True atonement will be the reinstatement of the axed athletic programs.

    • re: ” sports that cost more to run than they bring in”

      Intramural sports are really not much different than academic departments or the library or the dining hall. Gonna charge a separate fee for each?

      Competitive college sports are a corrupt perversion on higher ed.

      No other country in the world does higher ed this way. Sports are separate.

      All this yammering about admiting kids that are not academically qualified – until of course it comes to sports..no problem.

      College sports is little more than farm teams for the Pros… What does that have to do with Higher Ed?

  13. There are four teams that have been eligible for every NCAA tournament but have not made one: Army, St. Francis (NY), William & Mary and The Citadel.

    Wofford College, with an enrollment of 1,700, played in the NCAA tournament as recently as 2019.

    Holy Cross (with an enrollment one-half that of William & Mary) consistently makes the NCAA Tournament.

    The Nebbishes (or whatever W&M’s team name is now) really are just that bad at college basketball.

    But you have to love W&M’s alumni. First, they will line up to tell people how they don’t care about athletics. It’s an “academics-first” school don’t you know. Then, a new athletic director tries to cut some sports that cost more to run than they bring in and … explosion!

    • I don’t understand the drive that sports have. Athletes make up 2% of the student body in America and are responsible for 20% of violent crimes on campus.
      Errata
      Apparently numbers have changed…
      http://criminal-justice.iresearchnet.com/crime/school-violence/college-athletes-and-violence/

    • “Then, a new athletic director tries to cut some sports that cost more to run than they bring in and … explosion!”

      I believe there are only 3 college sports teams in Virginia that turn a profit: VT football and basketball, and UVA football. (UVA basketball actually lost about $500K for year ending in 2019. W&M football and basketball lost about $2.5M combined.) All other sports teams lose money according to filings with the state, and every single school in the state has to use student fees and transfers from the university to balance the budget on sports. This ranges from about $7M a year for VMI to $42M a year for JMU. Only 15 schools in the entire country run their athletic programs without the support of student fees.

      The swimming team Nebbishes, as you call them, did a little math that indicated that the teams targeted account for nearly 1/3rd of all student athletes, but only 15% of expenses, and when endowment income and donations are factored, the swimming teams for instance only account for $150K of deficit per year that needs to be funded by student fees. They further calculate that there are about $17M in endowment funds for the targeted sports, which would revert to the athletic department for application elsewhere. This gained some traction for the argument that this was a raid on Olympic sports to benefit football and basketball programs that will never be profitable, and will likely never have the level of success hoped for given the competition for top talent. (I won’t guarantee that their math is right, but it will be good to see the finances get a fair review. I suspect programs do need to be cut.)

      I think the conflict at W&M is between those that want to push football and basketball and those that think the Olympic sports, with kids that are getting little if any scholarship money pushing themselves hard to achieve at the limit of their ability, are more at the core of what the school is about. One of the men’s swimmers (on the Nebbish swim team), for instance, ranked 4th in the U.S. for the 50M freestyle, despite not having a scholarship and not having a 50 meter pool to swim in. The men’s team has won 7 straight conference titles despite 1) not having scholarships and 2) not having a diving team (unlike other schools in the conference).

  14. As an alumni, I commend W and M for putting academics first!

  15. Pingback: Athletic Cuts – Bookmarked References – Skip Rowland

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