IMHO: Damage to restored Dartmouth programs may prove irreparable

  • Greg Fennell. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Sports Editor
Published: 1/30/2021 9:49:10 PM
Modified: 1/30/2021 9:49:08 PM

I’m no horticulturist, but I know enough about plants to understand little good comes from chopping them down to the roots. Unless your goal, of course, is to kill them.

Dartmouth College president Phil Hanlon and athletic director Harry Sheehy should have given the athletic department a gentle pruning when Hanlon directed Sheehy to find $2 million in savings as part of a campus-wide effort to address a projected $150 million pandemic-influenced budget shortfall last year. Instead, they took a chainsaw to the department and lopped off five varsity programs (two women’s, three men’s), closed Hanover Country Club, cut loose 15 staff members and refused to budge on their decision or provide adequate answers to affected athletes for their reasoning.

Here’s the thing about life, though: It always finds a way.

Program alumni severed relations with the college and stopped sending money. Athletes quietly sought reads on their legal options. The media revealed the ham-handedness of Dartmouth’s reasoning and process, particularly when it came to Title IX compliance.

The school cried uncle on Friday, announcing an agreement to reinstate all five programs and support them through the 2024-25 academic year, at a minimum. A potential class-action lawsuit accusing Dartmouth of Title IX violations provided the tipping point.

“We have recently learned that elements of the data that Athletics used to confirm continued Title IX compliance may not have been complete,” Hanlon wrote in an email to Dartmouth alumni on Friday.

It was a stunning capitulation. And it was completely avoidable.

As Arthur Bryant, a California lawyer hired in December by the two axed women’s programs (golf, swimming and diving) to look into Title IX issues rising from the cuts, memorably told Valley News writer Pete Nakos on Friday: “They screwed up royally.”

When we talked the night of the July eliminations, Sheehy told me across-the-board cuts had been done twice prior to his arrival in 2010. He felt Dartmouth couldn’t repeat that and “run a vibrant Division I program.”

Why not? In a department of team sports, why did its leader not see value in spreading the pain across all teammates rather than leveling it on a select few?

In bringing back all five varsity programs — the others being men’s lightweight crew, men’s golf and men’s swimming and diving — Hanlon and Sheehy are seeking a do-over. They’ll find the damage they’ve caused will make it difficult to impossible.

Let’s start with the coaches. Eight of them were told last July 9 that they would no longer have jobs at Dartmouth. Some were near retirement. Some had kids in college. All would be forced into a job search in the midst of a global pandemic. They’ll have the right of first refusal to return, but who would want to go back to Alumni Gym after this?

At least seven other staff members were also pink-slipped. According to Global Golf Post, an online magazine that last week detailed the cuts from the perspective of the women’s and men’s golf teams, the victims included “a 48-year employee” who didn’t get so much as eye-to-eye contact from Sheehy when he delivered the news. What of them?

Of course, the athletes — about 110 of them — also bore a significant amount of pain. On top of grieving for the loss of their teams, they now had to ask themselves about their place at a school that wouldn’t represent them to the level they chose to represent it.

Dartmouth’s Achilles’ heel ended up being Title IX, the federal law mandating gender equity in college sports. In a letter to Hanlon, Bryant noted that the college’s undergraduate population during the 2019-20 academic year was about 49% female, but its athletic programs were less than 45% female. The gap was reduced to only 3% with the cuts.

“Even after the teams are eliminated, Dartmouth will need to add approximately 47 women to reach gender equity under Title IX,” Bryant wrote. “This is more than the size of the women’s golf and swimming & diving teams combined.”

Even when they do dumb things, the people who run Ivy League institutions are generally intelligent. The five programs are coming back, with the school beginning the search for coaches by Monday and competition this fall, if the pandemic allows.

The agreement between Bryant and Dartmouth didn’t call for all five programs to come back. The college chose that route in order to return to square one.

Still, who among the coaches or athletes sent packing in July would want to rejoin a school that held them in such meager regard? Who will believe the promises of a school president who, with one hand, is reviving two golf programs and, with the other, treats their home course as something to develop rather than something to play?

“This has been a difficult year on numerous fronts,” Hanlon wrote. “We know that many in our community have been disappointed by the decisions we have made within Athletics and across the institution. … We sincerely apologize that this process has been, and continues to be, so painful to our current and former student-athletes and all who support them.”

As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. Disappointed doesn’t begin to encompass it.

When it was gunning up the power tools, Dartmouth should have been pruning, planting and fertilizing instead.

Greg Fennell can be reached at or 603-727-3226.

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