Column: Dartmouth dishonors commitment to swim team

Published: 8/7/2020 10:10:23 PM
Modified: 8/7/2020 10:10:12 PM

In 2002, just before the campus emptied for Thanksgiving, Dartmouth College undertook to eliminate varsity swimming and diving. The decision, team members were told, was final; it was pointless to seek its reversal.

During the six weeks that followed, however, buoyed by supportive resolutions from the Alumni Council and Student Assembly, team members, their parents and alumni organized and, in what President James Wright praised as “a wonderful example of how the Dartmouth community can work together,” achieved the following agreement with the college:

■ The college would support the program through its 2003-04 season.

■ The volunteer group of team members, parents and alumni would provide $2 million in pledges by June 30, 2003, to enable the program to continue for 10 years.

■ By June 30, 2013, the college would identify funding for the program’s ongoing operation.

■ While the college would retain decision-making authority regarding all of its offerings, restoration of swimming and diving would place it on the same footing as all other intercollegiate programs.

The fourth term — the “same footing” commitment — was an essential element, for it directly addressed the college’s initial determination to sacrifice the men’s and women’s swim teams to spare remaining varsity teams from budgetary cuts then underway.

Each of us was active in the reinstatement effort — one as a co-captain of the men’s team, one a men’s team co-captain during the previous two years, and one as a swim team parent and the Alumni Council president.

The spirit of commitment that led the students to launch our effort and drew hundreds of team alumni to join it was memorably described by P.J. Mullen, Class of ’91, who wrote: “Do you want to talk about dedication? In the winter in New Hampshire it is so cold that wet hair freezes into icicle strands walking to dinner between Carl Michael Pool and Thayer Dining Hall. These athletes are motivated to swim for two clear, simple reasons: the love of self-improvement and the joy of sport.”

Today, President Phil Hanlon acknowledges such spirit as a source of pride for Dartmouth and recognizes the resulting “bonds that transcend sport.” But his words strain those very bonds, coming as they do within the announcement that the swim teams are once more marked for elimination and its members are free to seek transfers if they so choose.

The college’s rationale in 2020 is identical to that in 2003. Making substantial budget cuts again while additionally undertaking a 10% reduction in athletic recruits, Dartmouth once more sacrifices swimming and diving — now joined by golf and lightweight crew — to spare apportioning the cuts among all the teams.

We question neither Dartmouth’s need to trim its budget in these harsh times nor its decision to reduce the number of athletic recruits.

Its decision this time, however, breaks the “same footing” commitment the college made when it reinstated the teams in 2003.

The administration, after conspicuously omitting any reference to that commitment in its earlier explanations, now falls back on its reservation of the right, acknowledged above, to retain decision-making authority regarding all of its offerings: The athletic department did put swimming and diving on the same footing, the administration asserts, when it considered all the teams to determine which would get the ax.

We understand the malleability of language to support conflicting interpretations (we are all lawyers), but we also understand the intent and spirit of the agreement that was reached in 2003. When the many 2003 volunteers honored our commitment to raise $2 million to sustain varsity swimming and diving through 2013, we did so in the expectation that the college would proceed, as committed, to achieve funding for subsequent operations and would not, when hard times came around again, make the swim teams a sacrificial lamb to avoid burdening other teams. When the college announced in January 2013 that a former Dartmouth swimmer and her husband had endowed a fund to provide “a permanent source of funding for Dartmouth’s swimming and diving program,” as the college reported at the time, the donors, it is fair to surmise, also presumed that Dartmouth would continue to honor its “same footing” commitment in letter and in spirit.

A friend who has been generous to the college asks, though, if we regard the “same footing” agreement as one to maintain the swim program in perpetuity. We do not. Academic life is undergoing extraordinary changes, and no one can foresee how intercollegiate athletic competition will evolve or how long it will even remain a part of undergraduate life. It is now, however, a valued element of Dartmouth’s undergraduate life; and we regard the college as obliged to muster the good faith, good will and imagination to use available means to honor its commitment to maintain swimming and diving as a part of it. The college has not said the current endowment is inadequate to cover current costs. If it falls short, however, Friends of Dartmouth Swimming and Diving should be given the chance to raise the money to cover the gap. As for reduced recruits, the college annually recruits approximately 200 athletes. A 10% reduction amounts to 20 fewer recruits per year. If this reduction were evenly distributed across the current 35 teams, simple arithmetic would yield each team a loss of only 1.14 recruits every other year. Moreover, with some creativity, a more flexible approach can be devised to space recruiting cuts out in a way that best meets teams’ varying needs.

In the end, it boils down to a question of honor. Much as we regret the elimination of the swimming program, we more deeply regret that an institution we have honored now wriggles away from its own word. That is not the Dartmouth we know, and there is still time to change course. The community of team members, parents and alumni that President Wright celebrated in 2003 is reconstituting itself and available to help the college find a constructive solution. We ask that it provide the chance.

Noel Fidel, Dartmouth Class of 1966, is a practicing lawyer and former state court trial and appellate judge in Phoenix, Ariz. He served as president of the Alumni Council in 2002-03. His son Nathan Fidel, Class of ’02, is a lawyer in Phoenix and was a co-captain of the men’s swim team in his junior and senior years, and his son Louis Fidel, Class of ’03, is a lawyer in Tucson and was a co-captain of the men’s team in his senior year.

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