IOWA CITY — A group of 500-plus University of Iowa athletes and alumni are reporting raising in a single day “hard pledges amounting to $1.65 million” toward saving the campus’ four recently-axed sports — swimming and diving, men’s tennis, and men’s gymnastics.
“That is just the beginning,” the Save Hawkeye Sports group said in an open letter Monday to UI President Bruce Harreld. “We want to make sure that these sports are restored in the short term as we work on longer term solutions for how to continue in perpetuity.
“This is what Hawkeyes do, we come together.”
Efforts to save the cut programs have been mounting since UI athletics director Gary Barta on Aug. 21 announced their discontinuation at the end of the this academic year due to a projected $75 million budget shortfall from COVID-19 fallout.
Nixing the programs, he said at the time, would save about $5 million in direct and indirect costs. Factors considered in deciding what to cut included NCAA sponsorship, impact on gender equity and Title IX compliance, potential savings, UI history and engagement levels.
But in Monday’s open letter — copied to Gov. Kim Reynolds and members of Iowa’s Board of Regents — organizers of the resuscitation effort slammed the decision-making process as “highly flawed” and noted they twice requested and were denied a meeting with regents on the topic.
“But Big Ten champions, All-Americans, and Olympic medalists take any obstacle as a challenge,” according to the letter. “And we have risen to that challenge.”
After launching a pledge campaign Monday to raise money for the sports and explore models for sustainability, the group amassed a quick $1.65 million in pledges and is working with attorneys and financial advisers about “how we could legally structure an organization that could fund these sports.”
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“We have heard your message about financial hardship as well as various figures thrown around in the news conferences about financial need for the athletic department as a reason to end these four Olympic sports,” according to the letter. “We want to engage in that conversation, but short of that we want to begin by removing the burden on the athletic department in order to reinstate the four sports.”
The group criticized the UI administration’s extreme actions, noting, “No other university with comparable heritage of intercollegiate athletics has taken such drastic measures to terminate entire programs.
“And more than 70 years of alumni will not stand idly by to let it happen.”
The group again requested a meeting, demanding an answer by Wednesday — when the Board of Regents is scheduled to convene virtually for its regular September meeting, at which regents are planning to discuss athletics budgets at all three of Iowa’s public universities.
“It is our hope that with this letter, you might be a leader who recognizes, as we do, that you, too, can step forward in this difficult time and be a part of solving the problems, rather than defending something that doesn’t work,” according to the athlete and alumni group’s message to Harreld.
In a letter posted to its website Sunday, Save Hawkeye Sports reported plans to present a proposed business model to Gov. Reynolds next week, “that will allow the team to thrive without the financial support of the athletic department.”
“Mr. Harreld and Mr. Barta have been adamant that the current economic crisis necessitates the cutting of these programs (and maybe more),” according to the letter, noting the group’s mission of crafting a proposal that could become a “model for a sustainable and successful athletic program.
“Our plan is built around decreased expenses and increased revenues with a significant portion from private donors.”
UI officials did not immediately respond to The Gazette’s request for comment Tuesday.
Regents accused of meetings violations
In response to a Sept. 2 complaint one UI alumna filed with the Iowa Public Information Board accusing regents of violating open meetings laws in their oversight of the UI athletics cuts, the board submitted 10 affidavits — one from each regent and its executive director — vowing a majority of their nine members never met either in-person or electronically “for the purposes of deliberating or taking action upon President Harreld’s decision to eliminate any varsity sports.”
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The board’s response to the Public Information Board notes the complaint failed to cite specific facts — including when, where and who might have met improperly — and failed to identify “with any reasonable certainty what decision or action was allegedly reached in violation of Iowa Code.”
It asserts the complaint is grounded in “mere speculation” and points to a “one plus three” concept the Board of Regents adopted in 1991 giving its campus presidents control of athletics. In this case, the rule gives UI President Harreld power over management and operation of athletics — including any decision to cut a varsity sport, or four.
Even still, according to the regents, Harreld took steps to keep the board informed — starting with a July 31 conference call with board President Mike Richards, regent Nancy Boettger, and the board’s Executive Director Mark Bruan during which UI staff aired the possibility of cutting sports.
Harreld and fellow UI staffers held a follow-up call Aug. 3 with Braun, Richards, Boettger and regent Sherry Bates advising them of strategies for managing financial woes — including cutting sports.
On the advice of Braun, Harreld communicated his final decision to do so to regents individually Aug. 14, according to the board’s communication with the Public Information Board and individual affidavits.
“On or about August 14, 2020, University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld phoned me individually to inform me that he had made the decision to eliminate four varsity sports,” regent David Barker vowed in his affidavit, mirroring those from fellow regents. “At no point did I gather with a majority of the members of the Board of Regents, either in-person or electronically, for the purposes of deliberating or taking action upon President Harreld’s decision to eliminate any varsity sports.”
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