University resets process to determine long-term sustainability for W&M Athletics

William & Mary President Katherine A. Rowe announced today the university will reset its process to determine long-term sustainability for W&M Athletics. As part of that reset, Rowe said, W&M men’s athletics teams slated for reclassification will continue as Division I sports through at least 2021-22, in order to take a phased approach that allows for a gender equity review paired with exploration of alternative solutions leading to a long-term financial plan.

The decision follows a recommendation from Interim Director of Athletics Jeremy P. Martin following his review of the decision announced Sept. 3, 2020, to discontinue seven of William & Mary’s 23 Division I varsity sports – Men’s and Women’s Gymnastics, Men’s and Women’s Swimming, Men’s Indoor and Outdoor Track & Field, and Women’s Volleyball.

Equity, financial sustainability and excellence

Martin’s report concludes that long-term solutions must be found within three frames – equity, financial sustainability and excellence. Recommendations include completing the department-wide gender equity review before deciding the scope of the varsity sports program W&M can realistically support; establishing defined fundraising goals for each team; engaging the entire W&M community in the conversation about excellence; and establishing a sustainable program that will achieve gender equity during the 2022-23 academic year.

“Since early last month, we have been engaged in a conversation about how to structure William & Mary’s Division I athletics offerings in a way that is equitable, financially sustainable and excellent,” Rowe said. “I appreciate that this has been an especially painful time for the students involved in the sports cut on September 3rd to endure.

“Many in our community – student-athletes, coaches, alumni, faculty and other supporters – have responded with passion, offering alternative solutions to the challenges facing the department,” said Rowe, adding she is grateful for Martin’s swift and thorough work over the past month to assess the path forward for W&M Athletics. “His recommendations address the reality that the athletics community needs time to confront together forthrightly: a status quo that is unsustainable with respect both to finances and mission.”

Review results in a phased approach

When Martin assumed the role of Interim Director of Athletics on Oct. 6, 2020, Rowe directed him to review the Sept. 3 plan, and asked that a report be completed by early November to minimize the uncertainty for those most directly affected.

Martin reached out to coaches and student-athletes, met with representatives of the affected teams, coordinated with the Tribe Club Board and the W&M Foundation Athletics Committee, met with the Faculty Assembly and led a series of moderated community sessions. 

While that process was underway, the university received notice of intent to sue on the grounds that the announced plan, including the cuts and the associated roster adjustments in other sports, did not in fact meet the Title IX standards. An institution may demonstrate compliance through any one of a three-prong test: substantial proportionality, a history of and continued program expansion for the underrepresented sex, or full and effective accommodation of the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex. After a detailed review, Martin concluded that given the suit, the law and the university’s desire to move quickly to achieve gender equity, the three women’s sports should be restored. 

Accordingly, on Oct. 19 the university agreed to a settlement of the suit and announced that Women’s Gymnastics, Women’s Swimming and Women’s Volleyball will continue as Division I varsity sports. Those restorations moved the university closer to its goal of achieving gender equity, but more work was required. The university committed to being in full compliance during 2022-2023 and to completing a thorough gender equity review and plan before September 2021.

Martin subsequently completed his review of all the dimensions of the Sept. 3 plan, including the suspension of the four men’s teams – Men’s Gymnastics, Men’s Swimming, and Men’s Indoor and Outdoor Track & Field. He concluded that despite the very real and pressing financial challenges, the university should take more time to consider the best path for W&M Athletics going forward, in order to rebuild confidence, explore potential financial support and develop broader understanding of the challenges faced. 

“My review made it crystal clear that the Sept. 3 rollout and the subsequent identification of flaws in the plan’s proposed implementation of the gender equity component led to legitimate questions within the W&M community,” Martin said. “We should bring the same thoughtful, phased planning and execution the university used in dealing with COVID-19 to the challenges facing W&M Athletics. The next year and a half will give us the opportunity to do just that.”  

Future decisions pending gender equity, financial review

Based on Martin’s assessment and recommendations, Rowe requested completion of the gender equity review and aggressive exploration of financial alternatives before moving forward with decisions about the scope of programs that can be supported. The university remains committed to achieving gender equity during 2022-23, and future reclassifications may well be required unless W&M establishes a new financial path. To address significant financial shortfalls this year and in coming years, the department will also create a new cost-reduction plan, as other departments at William & Mary have been asked to do.

“Going forward, William & Mary Athletics cannot fulfill its commitments to provide an equitable and excellent environment for learning and competing in Division I, under its prior financial model,” Rowe said. “Director Martin has outlined a clear and hopeful path to achieving those essential goals with an operational footing that could be sustainable beyond 2020, if the milestones the department will establish are reached.”

Martin said he recognizes that William & Mary could well have to face the same very difficult decisions to become compliant during 2022-23, but noted that with an additional year and a half to prepare, the university will be in a much better position to deal with the challenges as a united community. He added that the financial challenges, even for this year, remain very real, and he is committed to a strong partnership with University Advancement, the Tribe Club and the W&M Foundation to meet the challenge head on. A $1.5 million challenge grant announced last month by an anonymous donor for women’s athletic scholarships, made in support of Rowe and the university’s commitment to gender equity, is an important step forward, he said.

Martin added that based on his conversations with supporters of each team, he is counting on them to find funds to cover operating costs and beyond that, to ensure the teams can be sustained and thrive going forward, via endowments. W&M Athletics has posted annual fundraising goals for each program through 2022 while shared solutions are sought, and contacts for each sport. Additional targets for scholarships and capital endowment will be shared in early spring.

“There is a great deal to be done, and the time for us to step up and work together on shared solutions is here,” Martin said. “I am getting to know our incredible student-athletes, coaches and staff, and I have seen the passion our alumni have for our programs. I am confident we will be able to move forward together and emerge even stronger.”

For more information on sport-specific fundraising goals, contacts for each program and giving opportunities, please visit the W&M Athletics website. - Ed