Plans to cut sports at EMU will cost university dearly, says former regent

(Editor’s Note: Last month, at a public meeting of the Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents, former EMU Regent Donald Shelton took issue with plans to cut four non-revenue sports at the university in a cost-cutting move. Below are some of the remarks that Shelton, a retired circuit court judge in Washtenaw County, delivered to the EMU Board.)

Some of the committee members know me, but I suspect that most do not. I was a circuit court judge for almost 25 years. I was a regent at EMU for 3 years before that. My B.A. is from Western Michigan University, my law degree is from the University of Michigan. While I was on the bench, I got my master’s degree from EMU and my Ph.D. from the University of Nevada at Reno. I taught as an adjunct here for over 15 years while I was on the bench. For the last 4 years, I have been the director of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Michigan- Dearborn.

What’s that got to do with anything? Why am I here?

I owe everything that I have been able to do and everything that I have to collegiate sports. I was the first person in my extended family to graduate from high school. I was able to become a first generation college student just because a sports scholarship and jobs made it possible. When I later came to EMU, I fell in love with this school because it was dedicated to helping people like me bootstrap their way to become productive and compassionate citizens.

So I decided to give back. In the last 30 years, my wife and I have given back to this university and especially its sports program. We personally gave over $100,000 in an endowed scholarship for the wrestling program, and also gave or raised more than double that to support the university in its efforts to help students and student athletes reach their potential.

I am here to ask you and the Board of Regents to reconsider your decision to deprive 90 student athletes of that opportunity. I want to address the merits of the decision, the process that was used to make the decision, and the consequences of not changing that decision.

As to the decision itself, EMU has an enrollment problem, not an athletics problem. I understand that there are not enough students generating enough credit hours to provide the revenue you need to operate the school at the current level. But you can’t solve that problem by throwing out 90 of the students that are already here. Apparently, someone has made a calculation that the cost of these four sports exceeds the tuition and other revenue they generate by $2.4 million. That is simply impossible.

Despite some false and very misleading data, these are very inexpensive sports to operate. They all have a minimal coaching staff. They all have minimal athletic scholarships. This is not football or basketball where the NCAA requires that student scholarships are full scholarships or nothing. Scholarships in these four sports are partial at best and many student athletes get nothing at all. Wrestling, for example, gets 9.9 scholarships for 30 students. Wrestling also has $600,000 in endowed scholarships that offset a great deal of that aid. These students pay tuition and take full loads of credit hours. No money will be saved by eliminating 90 students in perpetuity.

Next I would like to address the process that was used to make this decision.

This is a public institution with the constitutional duty to make decisions in public. This decision was made in secret. There has never been a public meeting by the board, or any other level of the university, where this issue was discussed with an opportunity for the students, faculty, alumni, or the public to be heard.

False data was submitted to the NCAA and the Office of Civil Rights claiming that the costs of these sports was astronomically higher than it is. When that came to light, the response was that it was a “mistake” and just a “coincidence.” In court, we call a “coincidence” circumstantial evidence.

Was there another “coincidence”? In mid-December, the university said in a hastily renegotiated athletics director contract that it had no intention of eliminating sports. But then the renegotiated contract provides that if sports are eliminated, the athletics director can get out of a liquidated damages clause and save himself $135,000.

Finally, yesterday the university issued a press release saying it would never discuss this issue in public, either at today’s later board meeting or ever.

There are viable alternatives. The board could spread these reductions across the entire athletic department and all sports. We suggested that the board appoint a blue-ribbon committee to gather real facts in a public way and then make a well thought out recommendation. That suggestion was rejected, again without any public discussion.

If the board does not reconsider this elimination there are consequences. Some consequences are legal, including formal complaints to the NCAA and Department of Education, and a lawsuit for violation of the Open Meetings Act. A Title IX complaint by female athletes will be filed that will expose the gross inadequacy of women’s sports, both proportionately and facility-wise. An attorney is here today to prepare such an action for these women if this decision is not reversed. All of this will cost the university a lot more than what you are trying to save.

Perhaps more important than the legal consequences is the damage this decision will have to the image and brand of Eastern Michigan University. It will lead to bigger enrollment problems than just 90 students. The recent history of EMU’s public image is one bad blow after another: the elimination of the Huron logo; a president who said there was no house in Ypsilanti that was good enough for him and the construction of what has become an infamous president’s house;  the cover-up of a campus murder that cost millions; a  president who was publicly drunk at an alumni event; and the recent failed charter school debacle. Do not underestimate the determination of this huge community. This will be the next lasting blow to the image of EMU and it will lead to its continuing decline. Today is the last opportunity the Board of Regents has to prevent this from happening. Don’t blow it.

On behalf of these students, and all of the students who will not come here if you do this, I am pleading with you to reconsider this decision.
 

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