Northwestern community keeps pressure on after AD resigns over cheerleading scandal

By Elyssa Cherney and Shannon Ryan
Chicago Tribune

Antoinette White, a cheerleader at Northwestern University, felt dejected as she and a teammate walked out of Mike Polisky’s office after a tense meeting in early 2019.

White and her friend, Hayden Richardson, had submitted letters detailing severe problems on the team to Polisky, then deputy director of athletics. Many of the letters were unsigned because the cheerleaders feared retaliation from their coach, a key subject of the complaints. They also described how intoxicated fans physically harassed cheerleaders during football tailgates and that Black cheerleaders were banned from wearing braids or their natural hair.

Northwestern cheerleaders run with flags during the first half of a 2017 game against Bowling Green.

But instead of trying to understand the concerns, White said, Polisky seemed to doubt the information and questioned whether it was fair for students to make accusations anonymously. Another athletics employee at the meeting appeared “shocked” by the anecdotes, White said.

“As the boss, as an administrator … it is your job to come up with what you think the solution should be and then launch an investigation, which didn’t happen,” White said. “After that meeting, (Polisky) kind of just washed his hands and went back to whatever his priorities were.”

That fateful meeting in January 2019 set the stage for a controversy that rocked Northwestern this month, leading to a large campus protest and Polisky’s resignation just nine days after he was promoted to the department’s top post. Students, faculty and even some powerful university trustees opposed Polisky’s appointment because he is named as a defendant in an ongoing lawsuit brought by Richardson alleging the university mishandled her repeated complaints. Polisky didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“Northwestern’s Office of Equity thoroughly reviewed the allegations from members of the Cheer team and the University took important action and made changes in response,” university spokeswoman Jeri Ward said in an email.

Even though Polisky stepped down, the difficult questions provoked by his selection are anything but settled. Many in the university community are demanding answers as to why Polisky, a white man involved in active litigation, was chosen over the other finalists, two of whom were Black and one a white woman. Some say it feels as if an old boys’ club drives hiring decisions.

“It’s always important for us to understand when things go wrong, how do we hold people accountable and who do we hold accountable…?” said Tyris Jones, a former Northwestern running back who graduated in 2012.

Jones said he reached out to the athletic department with concerns and ideas and encourages former teammates and alumni to do the same. As a “predominantly white institution,” Northwestern has an opportunity to rebuild trust in the Black and brown communities based on whom it picks for leadership roles, Jones said.

He also noted that university President Morton Schapiro, who made the call to hire Polisky, is retiring in August 2022, opening another gateway for Northwestern to diversify its top ranks.

As the Northwestern community digs for answers, the 2019 meeting with Polisky and what happened in its wake has emerged as a focus.

White’s account largely supports how Richardson described the encounter in her lawsuit. White, who graduated from Northwestern last year and is Black, said she attended the meeting to convey concerns from Black teammates.

White said Polisky didn’t know the team contract banned cheerleaders from wearing braids or that all hairstyles needed to be approved by the coach. She had to explain that she was wearing a hair weave to comply with appearance rules that privileged a white standard of beauty, White said. Other Black cheerleaders needed to straighten their hair or wore wigs to games, multiple former cheerleaders said.

“I walked away from that meeting not thinking that anything would be changed,” said White, 23, who’s from Chicago. “I mainly wanted to make sure that I stayed anonymous. I was also afraid of my identity being known.”

In her lawsuit, Richardson alleges that Polisky and the other employee at the 2019 meeting, an associate director of marketing also named as a defendant, accused her of fabricating the letters and writing them herself. The lawsuit also alleges that Polisky blocked Richardson from discussing concerns with then- athletic director Jim Phillips.

The university maintains it followed the law in responding to cheerleaders’ complaints and promptly relayed concerns to the Office of Equity. The office reached out to Richardson eight days after the meeting, the lawsuit states.

Northwestern filed a motion to dismiss most of the claims in the lawsuit and will contest the remaining counts, including an alleged Title IX violation, in future filings, according to court records. The response also outlines changes that were made to the program after Richardson came forward.

During the next football season after the Polisky meeting, the Office of Equity intervened to stop the requirement for cheerleaders to socialize with fans during tailgates and dispensed of the team contract that prohibited braids. Polisky attended a team meeting when the news was delivered, White said.

In June 2020, more than a year after the first meeting and additional outcries from Richardson, the office launched a formal investigation and later that year the university declined to renew the coach’s contract. The school determined the coach, Pamela Bonnevier, violated university policies on discrimination and harassment, according to NU officials. Her attorneys did not respond to a request for comment.

Schapiro also declined an interview request. Though he defended his decision in a community letter after announcing Polisky’s promotion, the university has since removed the note from its website.

In an interview on WTTW May 17, Schapiro said Polisky had very “strong support from the search committee,” contradicting Tribune reporting that revealed strong dissent among those involved in the process.

“To accuse somebody of something doesn’t mean they actually did it,” Schapiro said in the eight-minute segment. Schapiro also described the allegations in the lawsuit as “horrific” but said outside counsel conducted an investigation that “cleared” Polisky.

Prior to Polisky’s resignation, more than 140 NU donors, alumni and student-athletes also signed a letter in support of his appointment.

Polisky never sat for an interview during his brief tenure. But during a meeting with coaches and student-athletes a day before his resignation, Polisky said he should have been more “empathetic” upon learning of the cheerleaders’ complaints, according to audio obtained by WBEZ. That same day, Polisky and Schaprio canceled an interview with a Tribune sports reporter five minutes before it was scheduled.

In a statement about his resignation, Polisky said he didn’t want to be a “distraction” and realized he couldn’t effectively lead the department but didn’t specifically cite the criticism he faced.

White said Polisky didn’t reach out to her or other cheerleaders to express regret.

“Even when he resigned, he never really spoke to the real ramifications,” White said. “I don’t understand how he can say this in privacy and not say it openly, and especially not say it to me or Hayden when we were the ones who went to him about it.”

A group of female faculty members who loudly opposed Polisky’s promotion are also vowing to keep the pressure on. The group of six women, who wrote letters to administrators criticizing Polisky and organized the campus protest, said both the athletics department and the Office of Equity need to be investigated.

“This is only just the beginning,” said Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, a political-science professor. “We have always seen this as something that goes far beyond the law and the legal process. … Did (Polisky) or did he not treat these young women with dignity and humanity?”

Separately, another group known as the Organization of Women Faculty called for an oversight structure independent of the athletic department to address athletes’ concerns, emphasizing a specific focus on women and Black athletes.

The OWF also said that requirements for students interacting with alumni at pregame and postgame events should be reviewed to ensure students’ “safety and respect.”

The organization said the university’s hiring of Polisky was symbolic of deeper campuswide issues. It cited a 2018 study by the Provost’s Advisory Committee for Women Faculty showing complaints about harassment and discrimination at Northwestern were not taken seriously by university leadership.

In its statement, the OWF said Northwestern’s “response to recent events and allegations regarding the cheer team is deeply problematic, illustrating the power dynamics that perpetuate sexist and racist harassment and contribute to a toxic climate for women faculty, staff, and students and members of minoritized groups.”

After Richardson’s lawsuit was filed, Northwestern hired an outside attorney to review additional complaints from cheerleaders. The attorney, Debora Osgood, referred questions to Northwestern. It’s not clear when her report will be completed or if it will be made publicly available.

“This is an external, independent investigation and therefore the university is not dictating a timeline,” Ward said.

Asked if Northwestern would publish the investigation for community members to read, Ward said only that it would “follow its policies and procedures in terms of disclosing the results” and didn’t respond to follow up questions about specific plans.

Schapiro said Osgood’s initial inquiry found no evidence that Polisky violated university policy. But faculty and cheerleaders question her independence because she was selected solely by Northwestern and a biography on her law firm’s website says she helps educational institutions “position themselves to avoid legal claims of discrimination by students and employees.”

Ward, however, defended the selection, saying Osgood is “an expert in civil rights laws that apply to higher education institutions, and has more than 25 years of experience with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.”

White said she declined to participate in Osgood’s investigation despite receiving an invitation.

“There’s a little bit of distrust there and just exhaustion,” White said. “I am kind of done with the program so I don’t want to continue to be drawn into it.”