Central Michigan president: Cutting track and field financial decision; race was no factor

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

In his first detailed comments about an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Education and its Office for Civil Rights, Central Michigan University president Robert Davies strongly and repeatedly denied there was any hint of racial discrimination in the school's 2020 "last resort" and "very difficult" decision to eliminate the men's indoor and outdoor track-and-field programs.

A complaint filed in October alleged Central Michigan was discriminating against athletes of color by cutting track and field and, eventually, replacing it with men's golf.

But Davies said the decision, made in part in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, was based solely on finances, NCAA compliance and on-field success opportunities.

"The accusation is contrary to CMU's core values and ongoing commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion," Davies said Thursday at a Mount Pleasant news conference, three days after the school was first served with notice from the OCR. "I strongly believe OCR will find no evidence to support racial discrimination."

In mid-May 2020, as the early stages of the pandemic sent universities scrambling to stay afloat financially, Central Michigan announced it was cutting men's indoor and outdoor track and field. The move, school officials said at the time, would save the university about $600,000 a year.

On Thursday, Davies said to run a successful men's indoor and outdoor track-and-field program would cost about $1 million.

Davies said men's golf, which starts next academic year, would cost the university about half that amount. He also said the school has financial commitments from alumni to help fund golf, though he didn't have numbers available Thursday, nor has it been decided where the men's golf team will call its home course.

The university announced the addition of men's golf in August 2021, getting back into compliance with the NCAA's minimum-sport-offerings edict. The NCAA gave Central Michigan a two-year waiver after it -eliminated the track-and-field programs.

The complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education accused Central Michigan of cutting a predominantly Black sport to add a predominantly White sport. Russell Dinkins, executive director of the Tracksmith Foundation and a former runner at Princeton, filed the complaint, calling track-and-field programs, "opportunities for Black students that are very important, life-changing. There are kids who only get into college via the participation of track and field."

Davies on Thursday said eliminating track and field affected 30 student-athletes — three Black, three multi-racial, two international and 22 White (all students' scholarships were honored). Davies added the golf team has eight commitments for its inaugural recruiting class, three of whom are persons of color.

Central Michigan hired a Black coach, Kevin Jennings, to lead the men's golf program. Davies said Jennings has a history of "identifying and having diverse golf teams." Davies also said the school's golf teams, men's and women's, will seek ways to increase diversity, equity and inclusion, including working with nonprofits like Midnight Golf and First Tee of Greater Detroit.

The U.S. Department of Education, in its four-page letter dated Monday, is requesting detailed reasons for Central Michigan's decision to eliminate track and field, as well as a significant amount of statistical data relating to the ethnic makeup of the university's student athletes. The OCR also plans to conduct interviews.

Davies and Central Michigan have 15 days from Monday to formally respond.

The federal investigation comes after the ACLU of Michigan began questioning Central Michigan's decision to eliminate track and field with two letters sent to the school in 2021.

“Central Michigan University is a public institution that has an obligation to remain not only open to the diverse communities it serves, but to also provide students from those communities with a welcoming environment," Mark Fancher, racial justice project staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan, said in a statement Thursday. "The ACLU of Michigan is concerned that the university’s actions will become a deterrent to prospective students of color, regardless of whether they aspire to be track athletes."

In eliminating track and field, Central Michigan became the first Division I program in the state of Michigan to cut a sport amid the pandemic. Michigan State later eliminated men's and women's swimming and diving; the women's effort to reinstate their program, based on a Title IX complaint, remains tied up in the federal courts.

Davies said eliminating any athletic program is a drastic and last resort, but one then-athletic director Michael Alford (now athletic director at Florida State) felt was necessary for a school that has seen its enrollment drop by more than 40% in the last decade. Central Michigan's athletic department, like most its size, isn't profitable, and is heavily subsidized by the university.

New athletic director Amy Folan announced the addition of men's golf, though men's golf was the planned addition before she took the job in September 2020, The News previously reported after the eliminating of track and field. Davies on Thursday disputed that, saying "a wide range of sports" were considered.

Davies said, despite advocates for the track-and-field program, there is no plan for reinstatement.

"The competitive nature of men's track was not at the level as it could be," Davies said.

Men's track and field is not a popular sport in the Mid-American Conference, which has 12 full-time member institutions. With the elimination of the Central Michigan programs, there are only four indoor men's track teams and five outdoor men's track teams.

For men's golf, there are seven teams in the MAC, with Central Michigan soon bringing that total to eight, the school reviving the golf program it cut in 1985. Mount Pleasant has a rich golf history, including PGA Tour winners Doug Pohl and Ryan Brehm and LPGA Tour winners Kelly Robbins and Cindy-Figg Currier.

It's not unprecedented for schools to be forced by law to reinstate sports. In 2018, Eastern Michigan cut four sports teams, including women's tennis and softball. A court ordered tennis reinstated and allowed Eastern Michigan to add women's lacrosse to replace the offerings lost by the elimination of softball.

In 2020, hundreds of college sports programs were eliminated, most schools citing the uncertain finances amid the pandemic. Many programs were reinstated when finances improved, or when schools saw the writing on the wall from looming legal challenges, mostly related to Title IX.

Davies' press conference Thursday came after he sent a lengthy email to the campus community, defending the university's decision to move on from men's track and field.

"We understand the seriousness and the importance of this objective process," said Davies, who added he has no timetable for the completion of the Department of Education investigation. "We will comply fully.

"I, again, state firmly, I believe the OCR will find that these claims are unfounded."

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tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984