No Sacred Cows

When there are sound reasons, college presidents can eliminate football, writes Maravene Loeschke, who explains how and why she did so.

February 9, 2007

My decision to eliminate the football program at Mansfield was the most difficult decision of my 38-year career in higher education. There was no joy in it; no feeling of accomplishment; no feeling of victory. Instead there was a deep sense of loss and sadness. As a president of six months, there could be few more challenging situations to face. In the reaction to the decision, it is clear that many people in higher education believe it’s either impossible or foolish to eliminate a football program. I share my experience not because I want to urge others to eliminate their programs, but because colleges can’t be places where anything besides academics can be permanently off the table. There are institutions and circumstances where football must be on the table -- and where it can be eliminated, even by a woman president.

For Mansfield, the issue started with our budgets. The costs of football had been escalating for several years and the university’s attempts to keep up with them were diverting resources from the academic program. It was clear that Mansfield was too small an institution to support any longer a Division II football team.

Once I started to raise questions about these issues, I was warned that football was a sacred cow and eliminating the program could never be an option. I was warned to be prepared for the wrath of football alumni, and for criticism that I did not appreciate football because my background academically and professionally was the theatre, and that as a woman I had no appreciation of football. “She is an actress. What can she know about athletics? How can we know she isn’t acting when she speaks to us?” I was warned about every possible negative outcome from such a decision including the loss of enrollment, revenue, diversity, community and alumni support. None of the warnings changed the reality facing the university: We could no longer afford football without cutting academic programs and academic support services. That I would not do. That was the absolute that made my decision firm.

Mansfield University is a member of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Division II in all of its sports, including women’s soccer, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball, softball, women’s field hockey, and men’s and women’s cross country and track and field, and football. We are competitive in almost all of these sports and are taking steps to enhance our remaining sports programs. The president’s cabinet explored several options -- including moving to Division III, to an independent conference, and putting the program on hiatus. Still, the reality we faced was that the cost of football had become too great for us to bear.

There was never a question about the value of football. A football program is an important asset to any institution, so long as the institution can afford the program. The athletes learn skills such as ensemble building, problem solving, focus, strategic thinking, work-ethic, commitment, responsibility, courage and determination -- skills that enhance a liberal arts education. The program often provides access to students who might not otherwise go to college. The games also add to the vitality of campus life. Our team has not done well in recent years -- we did not win a game this past season and won only twice in the last three years. But my decision was not based on our record. It was in large measure a budgetary decision.

There comes a time in the life of many small institutions when the question must be asked, “What can we afford to do well and what can we no longer afford to do well?” There can be no sacred cows in such a discussion. The institution must examine the cost of academic, athletic, and academic support programs, determine priorities and reallocate resources to serve the priorities. And it must be committed to act on those findings.

The funding issues. Mansfield provided approximately $383,000 a year to football; student activity fees and supplemental funding provided another $76,000. Scholarships cannot be funded from state money or student fees; they must be funded from private gifts, usually from football alumni. Mansfield was able to provide only $56,000 a year in scholarships, the lowest in our conference. Additionally, the university had the poorest facility in the conference. The field needs extensive work, the field house and stands are dilapidated and the press box is even worse. None of these costs could we afford. And, if football remained, Title IX compliance would mean additional women’s sports would need to be added.

Mansfield is a small liberal arts institution, 3,200 full-time equivalent (FTE), with strong professional and graduate programs. We are committed to student leadership development and a liberal arts education. Students select Mansfield  because the education is based on individual work with exceptional faculty and staff and high academic standards. The feel of a Mansfield education is much like a private college but at an affordable public price. As a small rural institution, our enrollment will likely always remain between 3,000 and 4,000 students. Our students are often first generation college, from a rural area and from low to middle income families. State support is mainly based on enrollment. In order to bring the institution into fiscal alignment in the FY 2008 budget, it became clear in September of 2006 that we needed to make major reallocations to support established academic priorities and to provide stronger support for the other sports.

Making and communicating the decision. The decision was made by the president’s cabinet with the support of the Council of Trustees. Although we did our best to inform everyone in an orderly manner that respected individual investment, I am convinced that there is no good or right way to communicate well such a consideration and decision. Anyone who was not among the first to hear about the issue first felt that communication was poor; anyone who heard first felt the issue was sprung on them. The time line and process for communication was complex, but there were some critical communication strategies that I believe relieved much tension and provided clarity for those most affected.

1. I visited individually with each member of the Council of Trustees prior to the decision in order to explain the rationale, hear their opinions and determine whether or not they could support such a decision. The chancellor, the PSAC commissioner, and a former Mansfield president, who was also the former football coach of the institution, were also consulted prior to the decision. Key campus leaders, the athletic director, the head football coach, the directors of the marching band, and the faculty advisor to the cheerleader squad were consulted. All of these, although sad to lose football, saw advantages to the decision. This communication effort took place over a five-day period of time; each person was asked to maintain confidentiality. However, after five days, word was out on campus that the elimination was under consideration.

2. The football team members were told. As president, I attempted to visit each player individually to explain the decision, field their questions and provide support.

3. We formally announced to the campus and alumni that elimination was under consideration and requested responses from faculty, staff, students and alumni.

4. We gave the coaches’ union the mandatory two weeks to respond and considered their response.

5. I responded to every e-mail and written response, with the exception of two that were especially uncivil.

6. The cabinet, staff, alumni, and development offices did the same.

7. The Student Affairs Office worked with students to provide them an opportunity to understand the decision, to ask questions and discuss.

The final decision was made two weeks later with the stipulation that a task force of football alumni would be formed to determine the conditions under which reinstatement of a football program could be considered sometime in the future.

What was gained by the decision? The institution has made a cut in expenditures that will help balance our budget in FY 2008 and beyond.  As enrollment and retention increase, funding will be reallocated to academics. Student activity fees and scholarships have been reallocated to the other 13 sports that have not been adequately funded in the past. The institution will likely be Title IX compliant.

What was lost? The value that the game can teach young athletes about life and personal development; the vitality that the game provides on Saturdays. For the institution, it may mean a possible temporary drop in enrollment, a possible drop in gender balance, a likely drop in alumni giving and disengagement by football alumni. In my mind, the most serious loss, and the most difficult to restore, may be the loss of diversity. We are vigorously looking at ways to restore the level of campus diversity provided by football and we are taking steps to minimize the other possible negative outcomes.

One of the reasons the decision was made in the fall semester was to ensure that any athlete who wished to transfer could do so in time to sit out the semester to be eligible to play in the fall. All student athletes who remain with us, and there are several, will retain their scholarships through their four years of eligibility.

What was the reaction to the decision? Understandably a number of football alumni are devastated and some are angry. Although many football alums would dispute the statement, I appreciate and respect those feelings and the accompanying anger. Having never played the sport, I can only imagine what it is like to see a program you love disappear. I believe I understand when I make an analogy to the loss of a theatre program, a decision already made at Mansfield last year. There are a number of football alums who understand the decision and feel that if we cannot afford to support the team well, we should not have a team at all. Most of the students, faculty and staff were saddened, but accepted and understood the decision. Many expressed support that the institution was prioritizing academics and making tough decisions. The local community, with few exceptions, was supportive of the decision.

The football athletes and coaches conducted themselves with professional behavior and understanding. We all can learn from them about character. The PSAC conference leadership was understanding and helpful. There were no demonstrations; the last game was played without incident; I was not accosted by students; my car was not pelted with eggs; my house was not wrapped in toilet paper; commencement was conducted with dignity.  The students could not have done more to honor the dignity of the game. But I will never forget standing in the rain, in the stadium during the last two minutes of the last Mansfield game, the score 41 to 0 and feeling the weight of responsibility and loss. I have rarely felt sadder or more alone in a crowd. I knew that a 115-year legacy was ending on my watch.

Where does that leave us at Mansfield? We are an institution whose top priority is clear: In good financial times or bad, it will always be academics first. As the spring semester begins we are left with sadness at the loss of something valuable, but hopeful that its return can occur somewhere in the future.

This December was my first commencement ceremony as a university president. One of  the football team leaders was graduating. I expected that he might not want to shake my hand when receiving his diploma. I did not want to force him to do so. I wanted to respect his feelings. I will never forget my feeling when instead of rejecting my handshake he wrapped his huge arms around me and said, “It’s all right.”


Maravene Loeschke is president of Mansfield University of Pennsylvania.


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