Guest Commentary: Danger – Bridge Out Ahead!

by Paul Medved

You may have heard about two recent UC Davis student referenda intended to explore the idea of revisiting the Student Activities and Services Initiative (SASI) and Campus Expansion Initiative (CEI) student fee initiatives. The SASI and CEI were jointly approved decades ago by UC Davis students and the Regents to support and protect in perpetuity a number of programs important to students. By far the largest of those was Intercollegiate Athletics (ICA). SASI fees were intended to support ICA operations while CEI fees were intended to support athletic scholarships (Grants in Aid) in conjunction with the subsequent reclassification to NCAA Division I.  Since then, and in the name of the SASI and CEI (as well as that of the related FACE initiative re athletics facilities), hundreds of millions of student fee dollars have flowed into ICA over the years. Last year alone student fee support of ICA totaled $25 million — nearly five times what the university itself kicked in. As a result of this secure source of funding together with the educational (“teacher/coach”) model the program was founded upon, Aggie Athletics became a great and rightfully prideful example of how to do intercollegiate sports right — even and especially at the NCAA Division I level where the business model of college sports, along with its many bad actors, reigns supreme.

Anyone besides me happen to remember 2005-6 when Aggie teams pulled off stunning upsets against mighty Stanford in football, men’s basketball, men’s soccer, wrestling and baseball (twice)?  All of that was accomplished with coaches and student athletes doing exactly what they had been doing according to the traditional Aggie approach to intercollegiate athletics (i.e. “The Davis Way”), but with the added excitement of the program’s transition to Division I, which was well underway by then.  And none of it involved anyone doing anything that would depart from it, let alone anything underhanded or nefarious.  In fact, doing anything to undermine the integrity of the university or its beloved Athletics program would have been outright inconceivable for those associated with or even just familiar with how the decision to move to D1 was made.

But, sure enough, only a few years later the inconceivable was indeed conceived.  Or rather imported.  F0llowing the retirement of Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef in July of 2009 and ignoring stories circulating nationwide of her possible involvement in an admissions scandal at the University of Illinois, UC President Mark Yudof proudly named Linda Katehi as the next chancellor of UC Davis.

Before anyone ever got pepper sprayed (or any number of other concerns that would eventually force her to resign in disgrace), and in direct violation of the CEI, four ICA sports that students were paying millions to protect were suddenly eliminated. ICA coach contracts, which had always required Aggie coaches to be academically qualified and lecture (primarily PE classes) part time, were modified from a 50/50 split to 35/65 to emphasize their role in athletics over academics and, conveniently, reduce the university’s share of the cost of the SASI partnership. Incentive bonuses based on athletic performance began appearing in ICA coach contracts. In the dead of night, admissions procedures governing Admit By Exceptions (ABEs) were subverted by one of the six individuals to serve as the Director of Athletics in the past dozen years, and the number of athletics ABEs spiked.

Consistent with her role as Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR) to keep an eye on the ICA program on behalf of the Academic Senate, the FAR brought a number of concerns to the chancellor’s attention.  True to form and years ahead of her time, the chancellor abruptly dismissed the FAR and replaced her with another individual apparently more to the chancellor’s liking. This, along with the resignation of a long-serving Director of Athletics and the commissioning of a so called “Strategic Audit” of ICA by the new chancellor to explore the starry path to the Big Dance and the Rose Bowl, led the UC Davis Academic Senate to appoint a Special Committee on Athletics.  Sadly, the Special Committee’s terrific report which was published in 2012 has been largely forgotten in the subsequent turmoil and turnover at the chancellor level.

Then there was the little matter of the university quietly diverting several million dollars of the students’ SASI fees to pay for coach lecture time (in addition to their coaching time), which prompted Campus Counsel’s office to later opine: “…use of these fees to pay for academic programs including lecturer salaries would be highly discouraged and that a student referendum designating funds for an academic program would not be approved by OGC or the Regents.” Apparently it was more convenient for campus administrators to ask for forgiveness than permission. A few years later ICA would awake one morning to discover it had drifted out of compliance with Title IX — both a matter of law and the CEI — and had to add two new women’s sports (neither of which was women’s rowing, which had been eliminated in 2010).

But lest Linda Katehi receive too much credit here, the final blow came in 2020 when the May administration, whom many had hoped would restore ICA to its principled past, suddenly and unilaterally eliminated the PE program — the academic component of the teacher/coach model — in its entirety. That truly shocking decision, over the objections of nearly everyone who has ever cared about any of this, not only obliterated the last of ICA’s foundational teacher/coach model and the very thing that tied Aggie Athletics to the university’s academic mission, meant that for the first time in nearly a century UC Davis students no longer had the opportunity to enroll in credit-bearing PE classes taught by academically qualified ICA coaches. Chancellor May laid a capstone on it all when he said the quiet part out loud — suggesting what’s really important is the role Aggie sports play in promoting the university’s brand. That’s a far cry from where this all began and was supposed to go.

To be clear, Aggie student-athletes themselves are not in any way, shape or form responsible for any of the aforementioned misdeeds. And, as an enthusiastic fan and supporter of Aggie Athletics for many years and the parent of a former Aggie student-athlete, it gives me no pleasure to be writing any of this. But, to borrow a line from Bernie Sanders: “Enough is enough!” Even former Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef was disturbed enough to break his silence and write about it shortly before his death in his 2015 memoir “Indelibly Davis”.

So, back to those two recent student referenda, over the strong objections of the May administration, a campus-wide vote was in fact held on a strictly advisory basis and the results were clear.  By an overwhelming margin (70% to 30%) students said they wanted to revisit having to pay so much to support ICA for so little in return.  The results were even more clear if one considers that the number of those voting “no” bears a striking resemblance to the number of current student-athletes.  Yet, because only 11% of the student body voted (falling short of the 20% needed to become “official”), campus administration declared victory.  Seriously, right?

Smart as the May administration’s leaders may be (too smart by half?), if they have any common sense at all they will see the bridge out in road ahead and reverse their ill-advised and woefully short-sighted decision to eliminate the PE program and the teacher/coach model of the Davis Way.  If they want to avoid disaster and attempt to reclaim any of their own lost integrity, they must act now to fully restore credit-bearing PE classes taught by academically qualified ICA teacher/coaches and offered to regular students at no extra cost.  And, I would recommend they offer as sincere an apology as they can muster to their students, student-athletes, current and former lecturer/coaches, and UC Davis alumni as well.

Paul Medved is a graduate of UCD ’78

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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