Goodbyes begin as athletes fight program cuts

St. Cloud State University made headlines this month when administration cut six programs from athletics on March 2. Hundreds of athletes and coaches were summoned to Ristche Auditorium where they were informed that their sport was either being cut or reduced in size.

Coaches learned they lost their jobs and athletes their passion at St. Cloud State when they announced men and women’s tennis, women’s Nordic ski, men’s outdoor and indoor track and field and men’s cross country. Administrators said they were being eliminated in efforts to address budget shortfalls and to be in compliance with Title IX, which requires institutions to provide equal athletic opportunities for both men and women sports.

The university said cutting and reducing sports saves $250,000 of the department’s half a million dollar deficit. The cuts will save approximately 5 percent of the athletics department’s budget for next year.

Isaiah Pitchford competing for the Huskies' Track and Field team.
Isaiah Pitchford competing for the Huskies’ Track and Field team.

Now that some time has passed, the athletes have begun announcing their plans to transfer schools. Most recently, Isaiah Pitchford, a conference-winning track and field and decorated football athlete confirmed he will not be staying.

Pitchford said, “The decision was mainly based on opportunity [doing two sports] and that I only have so long to do what I love. Part of me wanted to stay because of the relationships I built here and because I have already established myself with this program, but I had a lot of tough discussions with family, family friends and mentors, and I came to the decision that I have to take the opportunity over the money.”

After unsuccessful meetings with school administration, student athletes and supporters came together in a rally on Wednesday, March 23 to support one another and sign a petition – all with the hope of getting their programs reinstated.

Athletes line up to sign a petition for administration to reinstate their programs. Photo by Sarah Rudlang
Athletes line up to sign a petition for administration to reinstate their programs.
Photo by Sarah Rudlang

In a matter of days, the petition has gained over 300 signatures. The men’s track and field team also started a GoFundMe page to raise money in attempts to reinstate their program.

Gabe Fogarty, a three-time All-American on the wrestling team said, “I think we as students, athletes, coaches, faculty and staff should want to show President Potter we are all willing to go remote places together to produce the change we want; instead of accepting the changes a small group made at the top that are affecting every ‘student, athlete, coach, faculty, and staff in some negative way.”

He went on to say that he isn’t sure how far the athletes will go, but he wants people to focus more on creating opportunities that will help everyone and the university to get out of its deficit.

The athletes aren’t the only ones who disagreed with the school’s method of addressing the budget deficit.

Larry Sundby has stood by the tennis team for over 20 years as their head coach, and then an additional 10 years after retirement by volunteering as the assistant coach. Not only did he spent decades coaching tennis, he also spent his career teaching accounting at St. Cloud State.

He decided the recent decision called for a look at the numbers of the school’s plan.

“We started to ask ourselves why is this happening?” Sundby said. “We did some research, figuring out some of the costs. The two tennis teams have 20 players, each student at St. Cloud State generates about $10,000 in tuition and state allocation money. So 20 players generate $200,000 each year to the university. We did some digging to find out what our program actually costs. All the numbers are guesses, but we think good guesses, and the programs cost less than $100,000.”

Essentially, Sundby estimates the school set back their budget deficit by $500,000 to $600,000 after making the decision. Loss of the athletes transferring, the recruits tuition loss and negative outlook were all cited as contributing factors.

He explained the athletes and coaches have had multiple meetings with Athletic Director Heather Weems and President Potter, but they have held firm on their stance to cut programs so far.

If they do not reconsider their plans, Sundby says their next step is to file a civil rights complaint with the US Department of Education. If that happens, an investigation will take place to determine whether or not St. Cloud State is in compliance with Title IX and if it’s discriminating against students.

“It’s a road you really don’t want to go down if you’re a school, because you lose control of the decision making. So it’s something that, if we went in that direction, we’d go with a lot of reluctance. Almost like a last resort,” Sundby said.

Although he is reluctant to do it, Sundby says for the athletes, they have no other options. If they choose to pursue that route, he hopes to give the administration a little time to reconsider adding back at least the women’s programs that were cut.

For now, until the potential investigation begins or the school changes their stance, the remaining athletes must make a decision on what to do next.

Jordan Yira, a member of the track team expressed the difficulty of having to make the calls with short notice for time.

“People that do want to transfer are almost hung out to dry. They’ve got find a whole new school, a whole new program, they have to think about housing options, they have to think about the leases that they are still in here,” Yira said. “It doesn’t affect only the 80 students they said. It affects everyone’s families, teammates, everyone. It’s just a lot to throw at someone in a short amount of time like that.”

Meanwhile, both Weems and President Potter were out of town and unavailable for comment on these developments. But, the Vice President of Finance Tammy McGee said, “We’re very in support that the students and student athletes have given each other throughout this tough time has been remarkable, it’s been commendable. The university is in the midst of making some really tough budget decisions and been looking at right-sizing the university…

“President Potter, Athletic Director Weems have made decisions with Husky Athletics that remain.”

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