Will UBC's varsity purge tarnish President Stephen Toope's legacy?

The logo of UBC
The logo of UBC's Thunderbirds varsity teams.
— image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By the end of the month, UBC will have whittled its varsity department down to a select crop of renewed teams. 16 have already been cleared, and 13 more are waiting to hear their fates.

The school's sport review has angered many, enraged some, and confused most. Why purge your varsity program? Why do some get to stay, why are some about to die, and how are you making those decisions? And, really, how will donors and alumni react?

But it also tosses into the air the legacy of UBC President Stephen Toope, who could be remembered as the man who presided over the extinction of several sports and – most importantly – decades of tradition.

"I'm hopeful the President will see the light," said Derek Swain, a psychologist and former member of the UBC men's athletic committee, and was involved with the school's basketball team as early as 1967.

He is also the chair of the Save UBC Varsity Sports Committee.

"Step forward and call a halt to this process. He (Toope) has the opportunity to do so, because of the support he has expressed for the (athletic) program.

"He could do that quite honestly, and save his legacy."

Swain wrote an open letter to Dr. Toope on December 1, 2013, which was posted on Save UBC Varsity Sports's website. It included the following:

"This file has been badly mishandled with a flawed plan and a flawed process.  A more legitimate review would have begun by simply identifying varsity goals toward excellence, the requisite resources to achieve those goals, and a plan to go forward.  This could have been achieved in a positive manner and support would have been gained without divisiveness and acrimony. Via an on-line petition, there are currently over 3,000 opponents of the proposed cuts, many of whom have written with considerable passion."

Swain also recalls the Millennium Scholarship Breakfast last year, when he said Toope appeared to be a strong backer of UBC's varsity programs. But it was Toope who, in 2012, announced this same sport targeting review, which began after the school decided to not pursue membership in the NCAA.

Now, still in the CIS, Vancouver's 29 varsity teams have been forced to fight for their own relevance.

"This has gone completely south and this review has been handled in such a poor way," said Swain. "We know the alumni have stepped forward with huge amounts of money in recent weeks. The President could simply step back, realize there's tremendous support for our program.

"We can put a stop to this process and look towards the future with promise."

The final decisions of UBC's two review periods rests with Louise Cowin, the school's Vice President, Students. (The school's Athletic Director is Ashley Howard.)

The school's website says the review's criteria is based on a five-pronged performance analysis, with teams judged on "competitive success, supports for competitive success, community support and tradition, partnerships, and fit with the university mission".

For Swain, however, it's more about the aims of an individual than it is the UBC community.

"It was established by Louise Cowin with the specific intent of cutting sports," he says of the review. "It had a predetermined outcome before it began.

"I think it is a crusade of the Vice President, Louise Cowin. She has come in and adopted a mandate for change."

The review has put all varsity sports at UBC under its microscope.

While larger programs like football, rugby, men's and women's basketball, and women's volleyball cleared the first review hurdle in January, others like men's ice hockey, golf, and women's softball are still holding their breath.

"For softball, they have made financial sacrifices to initiate this program and they serve the community," says Swain. "Why cut them off? The financial requirements of the university (to softball) are very low. It just makes no sense.

"Another example is golf. This is a mixed-gender sport. It's well-funded, it competes at a high level."

Funding wasn't one of UBC's five points of analysis – although you could certainly assume that the word support actually means cash – but that hasn't stopped many onlookers from thinking money is the only thing that matters in the school's pending decision.

(After all, how can a varsity sport really be opposing its school's values or mission?)

But it's the way the review has been handled and carried out that bothers its opponents.

"They have done a lot of talking about how transparent they are," Swain said, of Cowin and UBC. "They have not articulated clearly their vision, because it keeps changing.

"Some teams have blatantly been held hostage. Extorted. You pay more money, and you get to play. There has not been a sense of fairness, there's been no sense of a real, considered philosophy behind all this.

"Every time they have a media event, media people tend to walk away from this shaking their heads and wondering, 'What have they just said?'"

To start the process, back in 2012, UBC formed a think tank which worked to develop its Sport Model concept. (It's that concept that uses those five points listed above as its basis.)

An "advisory assessment team" was then assembled, which reviews the school's varsity teams and its interested AMS clubs. That assessment team consists of three alumni, two students, one recently graduated student-athlete, one faculty member, one high performance sport rep, and two representatives from UBC's Department of Athletics and Recreation.

Swain says both the think tank and the assessment team have been built without "credible authorities who represent varsity sports". He also says there were surveys passed out, but that the answers were unidirectional – as in, "you could only express your opinion in favour of cuts" – and that the whole review hasn't been open or communicated properly to the university community.

"The notion of 'review' is fine, but the process has been flawed and it's gotten out of hand," said Swain. "Right now, there is far too much fear and far too much intimidation.

"Coaches and athletes and alumni have been afraid to speak up, afraid that might contaminate their ability to get nominated.

"They've been quite mute. It's been up to people like myself to state their opposition."

Swain also said the review has shown "no respect for the traditions of the university", especially for athletic programs and teams that have existed for over 100 years.

"Absolutely," Swain says, when asked if UBC's sport review will cause donors and financial backers to curb their support in the future. "There is a lack of trust and a lack of enthusiasm for the university in general."

But then there's the hockey team, which has seen a wave of support come in from both the WHL's Vancouver Giants and the NHL's Vancouver Canucks, as well as over 90 Thunderbirds alumni.

"Obviously, there's a strong relationship between the Vancouver Canucks and the men's hockey team, so we're right beside them fighting the fight," Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa said at the end of January.

"We went through something similar at (my alma mater) Bowling Green three or four years ago… A new athletic director came in and wanted to make some budget cuts and hockey was on the block for getting cut next. The alumni rallied together and saved it. I think it's the same sort of situation here where they are trying to save some money and cut some sports."

Hockey, clearly, is the sort of sport that would headline anyone's disappointment if it were cut. But hockey is as Canadian as a beaver's tail and its support is automatic. Googling the words 'UBC Sport Review' brings you more results about the hockey team than it does any other.

But as 13 more teams wait for February to end, questions remain.

What will happen to softball, golf, and baseball? What about nordic or alpine skiing, or women's soccer? What about the individuals who have poured their hearts into a program – the athletes, the coaches, the parents, and the donors – that may ultimately be cut?

Last year, the women's softball team went 25-21 in its best season ever, only four years into existence. The golf team won the Canadian University/College Championship in 2013, 2009, and 2008, and won the NAIA championships in 2008.

Since 2001, the baseball team has had 19 players drafted into the MLB.

"Another month of uncertainty will be difficult for many," said UBC Athletic Director Ashley Howard, when the first 16 varsity teams were renewed in January. "But we need to keep our eye on the prize: higher achievement for our varsity teams, a top-notch experience for our student athletes, and a sustainable future for the UBC Thunderbirds."

Reading that quote, you have to wonder, "How can a sport have a 'sustainable future' if it feels the sand eroding beneath its feet? How can you fight for 'higher achievement' on the field, the court, or the ice if you're already fighting your own athletic department?"

And what is "the prize" the school is keeping its eye on?

At the end of it all, Swain says, the fallout will rest on the shoulders of Stephen Toope, who is leaving his presidency effective June, 2014.

"He allowed this review process to take place," Swain said. "The result is that he's getting a bad name.

"He's going to be leaving here in a few months and his legacy is going to be tarnished.

"People will remember him as the person on whose watch the varsity program was sent into turmoil."

*Sports not selected for survival will play out through the 2014-15 season, with the confirmed teams starting again in September, 2015.

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