By P.H. Mullen and Phillip Whitten
HANOVER, N.H., December 9. EVEN as the Dartmouth College administration hardens its position against saving the school's men's and women's swim team — summarily rejecting several offers that speak directly to its purported financial concerns — the beleaguered team has found a new, and unexpected, ally in the Alumni Council of Dartmouth College.
Two weeks ago, the prestigious school became the first Ivy League institution to eliminate men's and women's swimming.
In a move that could have large, negative ramifications for collegiate swimming programs nationwide, Dartmouth officials cited budget shortfalls in its athletic department as the reason for eliminating its 70-year program. The athletic department faces a $260,000 annual deficit; the swimming program reportedly cost $212,000.
(Interestingly, while investment officers at Princeton showed a slight increase in the school's endowment during the economic downturn and Harvard's performance was essentially flat, those responsible for Dartmouth's future oversaw a 5.7% decrease. The solution for their abysmal performance? Cut the swim team.)
The administration has been under extreme pressure ever since it announced its decision, deliberately timed during exam period right before Thanksgiving to mute any protest.
Students have held several protests (including a 350-person midnight march — 10 percent of the student population — on the college president's home in 15-degree weather) and multiple campus rallies. (see http://www.b-k-ind.com/dartmouth/)
Aside from being upset about the decision, students are angered that the decision was taken secretly and unilaterally — in opposition to the college's professed procedures which call for meaningful student input.
Parents and former swimmers have moved to establish a multimillion-dollar endowment. Others have begun exploring legal outlets.
Meanwhile, there has been a phenomenal outpouring of support from thousands of swimming fans who range from Olympic gold medalists to rival collegiate athletes to coaches and age-group swimmers.
The elimination of a small swimming team at a small New England school hit the national stage last week when a Dartmouth swimmer and her boyfriend humorously put the team up for bid on eBay. The starting bid was $211,000, and there were several offers before eBay pulled the listing because the swimmer could not prove she owned the team. It received 25,000 hits in the several days it was live.
The auction was first reported by Swiminfo.com. It was subsequently picked up by ESPN, CNN, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the Seattle Times, many sports-radio stations and about a dozen additional print and television outlets.
Against that tense and embarrassing backdrop, Dartmouth's 105-person Alumni Council met this weekend for its regularly scheduled three-day conference. The council represents the interests of the nearly 70,000 thousand alumni who graduated from the prestigious Ivy League university. Members include U.S. business leaders and key influencers. Many are big fundraisers and donors to the school.
Reportedly, only one of the 105 members is a former varsity swimmer. One other member is a swimming parent. The lack of direct connection to swimming made the group's resolution all the more striking.
Alumni Council President Judge Noel Fidel, whose son Louis is a team co-captain, devoted a major portion of his formal address to the problem, calling on the College to reverse its decision. The call received a five-minute standing ovation by the council.
Dean James Larimore and Athletic Director Joann Harper defended their decision, grudgingly replied to two questions, then left hurriedly when, according to several reports from those present, dozens on Council members had their hands in the air to ask questions. That kind of treatment of the College's most important support group is unprecedented in the school's history.
Later, Dean Larimore issued a statement saying his decision was final and would not be influenced by "outsiders."
The Alumni Council was undaunted. In a strongly-worded rebuke, the alumni group told Dartmouth to "immediately reinstate" the men's and women's varsity program.
It offered no alternative solutions and urged the college to begin a larger dialogue about sports at the school.
The impact of resolutions such as this remains unknown. School administration officials have provided mixed messages over the past 10 days, often saying, as Larimore has, that the decision is final but sometimes seeming to open the door to other possibilities. Last Friday, President James Wright invited Louis Fidel, the co-captain, to a private lunch to discuss the issue.
The full text of the Dartmouth Alumni Council's resolution is as follows:
"At its 185th meeting in Hanover, the Dartmouth Alumni Council adopted the following resolution:
"We regret the decision announced by the representatives of the Dartmouth administration to terminate Varsity Swimming and Diving at Dartmouth. We
regret what we perceive as a lack of dialogue in advance of the announcement of the decision with the members of the teams, who have worked so hard to
represent Dartmouth as varsity athletes, their parents and support groups.
"We also regret a similar lack of dialogue with the alumni. Varsity Swimming and Diving are not recent, experimental programs at Dartmouth; rather they are longstanding traditions. As such, many alumni have participated on these varsity teams and the alumni have an interest in the issues regarding the teams' future.
"We recognize that the Dartmouth administration has reached its conclusion after considerable thought and that the trustees and administration have responsibility for establishing priorities. The administration has carefully and clearly communicated the short term, as well as long term, obstacles to the retention of the program in swimming and diving on the varsity level at Dartmouth. We believe that this effort establishes the course for an appropriate alumni response.
"Too often alumni have responded to decisions with which they disagree by commencing legal proceedings or withholding their purses. The current clearly articulated decision to eliminate Varsity Swimming and Diving leaves the Dartmouth alumni, along with students, parents, and friends with a clear opportunity to take a different path at this juncture.
"We urge the administration to immediately reinstate Varsity Swimming and Diving and thereafter to promote and ongoing dialogue to resolve the longer-term
obstacles that the administration has identified, as well as the broader challenges that are faced by the athletic programs at Dartmouth.
"Again, while it is the responsibility of the Dartmouth trustees and administration to set priorities, we believe that it is also the responsibility of the administration and the trustees to recognize widespread interest and support on the part of the Dartmouth alumni, students, parents and friends for longstanding programs."
This issue is not yet resolved. We can still win!
Keep up the pressure! Show your support for swimming!
E-mail Dartmouth officials and tell them to keep our sport alive:
Athletic Director: Joann.Harper@Dartmouth.edu
Email List: firstname.lastname@example.org