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On Monday, Nov. 15, Whittier College President Linda Oubré announced in an email to the community that the College was discontinuing the football program, the men’s lacrosse program, as well as the men and women’s golf programs. The announcement came after rumors of the football program being cut had begun spreading the day prior. The end of the email announced a Student Town Hall meeting scheduled for the next day, Tuesday, Nov. 16 at 4 p.m.
The town hall was open to all students and was “designed to provide information about the recent announcement.” Students were also told there would be opportunities to ask questions. The town hall took place on Zoom and was held as a webinar. Due to the webinar format, students were not able to see the full list of attendees, participate in the chat, or freely ask questions without restrictions. The meeting opened with Vice President and Dean of Students Deanna Merino-Contino welcoming students for being present. She introduced President Linda Oubré and officially started the meeting. “There isn’t much I can say. I’ll just be honest, we screwed up. It was not our plan to have the communication happen as it did this week and I sincerely apologize to everyone. I wish I could smooth [things] over and say everything is going to be better.” She continued, “I know this is going to be a totally disruptive decision to people’s lives and we had hoped to do it differently, but it is what it is.” Before concluding her portion of the meeting, President Oubré assured students that the entire team was dedicated to every single student at Whittier College and that she plans to hold open office hours for students virtually and in person before the end of the semester.
The next to speak was Trisha Senyo, the Head Women’s Softball Coach and Senior Women’s Administrator. She provided updates on where they were currently at with player eligibility for student-athletes, and resources for further help. Students who play an NCAA sport must meet certain criteria to play their sports, and many affected students had questions regarding their remaining eligibility to play their sports. All student-athletes were immediately granted access to the NCAA transfer portal, should students decide to transfer schools based on this decision. “This is an NCAA requirement for all student-athletes [affected by program discontinuation],” Senyo said. Students affected should have already received an email with a link to input the information that is needed for the transfer portal. Students are not required to enter the transfer portal, but the school is required to offer this option to students.
Senyo continued that along with the transfer portal, a blanket waiver was also sent to the affected students, which gives schools permission to contact prospective transfer students and serves as a point of contact between the schools and the student. The blanket waiver does not begin until after the 2023 Spring semester, due to the fact that both the golf teams and the men’s lacrosse team will still complete their Spring season. Senyo explained that all affected students are “immediately eligible to transfer to another institution due to the discontinuation of a program.” She said that she will have eligibility requirement sheets explaining the requirements for transferring to another institution available in her office in the Graham Athletic Center (GAC) should any student like to look at them.
Affected students are expected to be receiving an email in the next few weeks detailing where they stand in terms of transferring to another institution– should they choose to do so. “Our goal is to of course answer any questions and ensures the fact that each of our student-athletes have all the information ahead of time,” Senyo said.
Senyo assured affected students that “institutional aid would not be affected by the discontinuation of the athletics programs.” Senyo also strongly urged students to not leave the College without making arrangements to transfer to another school first. “We want to assure that our student-athletes have the best interest at hand,” she stated. “Don’t make any rash decisions to withdraw from the institution.” Another reason she said students should not withdraw was that “we want to make sure there aren’t any outstanding balances [prior to withdrawal].”
Registrar Julie Khella currently has a sign-up sheet for the affected students to meet with her outside her office in Mendenhall to look over their academic transcripts. Students are encouraged to meet with Khella to go over their academic standing and transferability before choosing to transfer.
Senyo finished up her portion of the meeting with support hours for affected students, should they want to meet with a counselor to discuss the recent news. More hours will be available after Fall break, but affected students are encouraged to access the Virtual Care Group, Talk Campus App, or contact the Peer Help Educators if they are in need of immediate assistance. Senyo also included herself as a resource for support.
Vice President Merino-Contino also said that the office of the Dean of Students is “here to help you and support you, and help you to continue to feel a part of the Whittier College community.” She also told students, “I know the news has been difficult to hear, but we care about you and continue to care about you.”
Next to speak was the Director of Athletics Rock Carter who started off by stating that “Whittier is committed to supporting the athletes whether your sport was affected or current athletes.” He says that Whittier College does not have plans to discontinue any additional athletics programs. “We’re going to reinvest a lot of our resources and efforts into programs that will impact not just [the impacted teams] but other areas of the institution,” said Carter. He told the group that he was “excited” about the upcoming programs that they have planned with the Dean of Students, which will include “recreation and wellness programs” available to the entire Whittier College community. They also plan to begin club teams on campus. “There’s never a good time to drop an athletic team…we just have to make the best of what we have now,” Carter concluded.
Merino-Contino also reminded students that the College has a “health and wellness vision,” and that a survey was sent out to all students that will close on Dec. 7th to gather feedback on the current state of health and wellness at the College. They plan to continue this conversation with the student government to gather feedback from the student body. Merino-Contino then introduced Danny Lozano and Dr. Daniel Harris, who serves as a Director of Music in Flute, Ethnomusicology, and Music Technology, and the Bayard Rustin Institutional Research Fellow, respectively. Both professors empathized with students and opened themselves up as resources of support to students. Lozano, a former student-athlete himself, told students of a sports injury that eventually led him to his career in music. “The sport didn’t make me who I became,” he said.
As the Bayard Rustin Institutional Research Fellow, Dr. Harris focuses on diversity and inclusion at the College. “We know that disproportionately our student-athletes are mostly students of color or come from disadvantaged backgrounds,” he said. By cutting these programs, the College has “cut opportunities” for students attending higher education. “This really challenges the road to higher education and lifelong opportunities they’re in.” Dr. Harris offered his support to students but assured students that the reason they came to Whittier College still exists. “Being a student will not change,” he said.
“This is leadership’s decision and I take full responsibility,” said Merino-Contino. The Vice President continued to assure students that the Spring seasons of Golf and Men’s Lacrosse will still move forward and that her door is always open to students who want to come to speak with her about this “hard decision.”
Due to the webinar format of this meeting, students were only able to ask questions via the Q&A function on Zoom. This gave the administrators running the meeting full control over which questions they wanted to answer from students. Questions focused on the three-year review process, why the decision was made, and where the budget would go, among other topics. The response that students were given was that Carter would address each of the questions when he spoke again. However, many of the questions in the Q&A remained unanswered when both President Oubré and Cater addressed students, again.
“It was a difficult decision, but it was the right decision and I stand by it,” said President Oubré. She continued to tell students that the COVID-19 pandemic put a strain on the athletics department and the school and that Los Angeles county has some of the strictest COVID-19 rules. The Board of Trustees then created a task force that included President Oubré, Carter, faculty, and other Board Members to look at the future of Whittier College, with a subcommittee specifically dedicated to looking at the future of sports at the College. “The goal was to be self-sustainable for athletics,” said President Oubré. “Every way we looked at it we could not get enough investment that would be needed to be successful in sports.” President Oubré also said that this decision was discussed at every board meeting for approximately the past three years. The Board of Trustees then voted to cut the programs and President Oubré confirmed the decision was unanimous.
Football is a large portion of the homecoming celebration and President Oubré told students that homecoming is actually not a major fundraising event for Whittier College. She said due to the small alumni network of the College, homecoming costs the College more money than it makes. “It’s really difficult to swallow that deficit every year,” said President Oubré.
“It comes down to the money situation,” said Carter. He said the teams that they chose to cut are the teams that travel the most, which did not align with the self-sustainability practice that the College was moving towards. “We want to make the student-athlete experience the best experience for everyone involved, not just particular teams but with everyone involved.”
This reasoning from Carter does not coincide with the reasoning that the College initially gave students for cutting these four programs. The College gave two reasons for cutting the programs; the first being that football is on a decline in the United States. The College cited a statistic by the Aspen Institute and the National Federation of State High School Associations that found that “from 2008-09 to 2018-19, the total number of youth aged 6 to 18 playing tackle football fell by more than 620,000 participants from about 2.5 million to less than 1.9 million.” This study focuses on an age group that does not pertain to Whittier College students. “At the NFL and college level, the sport remains popular, as a gathering place in a fragmented society and a geyser of content consumed by fans, gamblers, media, and other corporations.”
The next reason that the College gave students concerned the dangers of contact sports, specifically football and lacrosse. The main concern is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma.“When it comes to the health of our student-athletes, we must take this concern seriously, said Whittier College.
Merino-Contino then concluded the meeting by again reinforcing that the Dean of Students and everyone at the College are there for their students, and for students to reach out if they needed support. Both she and Carter shared that the College has a vision for the entire campus community, and that decision helps to complete that vision.
Photo Courtesy of Whittier College