Alexander: Is the ‘working group’ a reprieve for UCR athletics?

From all appearances, the people have spoken. UC Riverside’s athletic department hasn’t reached a safe space yet, but its chances of survival have improved somewhat.

Two months ago it was on the chopping block, after a recommendation from the campus Budget Advisory Committee suggested that if cuts needed to be made to deal with a projected budget deficit of at least $32 million and probably higher because of COVID-19, the entire intercollegiate sports program, with a budget that of 2018-19 was a little over $24 million, was at the top of the list of the expendable.

No. 1 with a bullet is way too easy a pun, but you get the idea.

A week ago, after the possibility of extinction became a national story via ESPN – lots of colleges have cut individual sports, but who else would contemplate trashing an entire department? – Chancellor Kim Wilcox appeared to back away. He has appointed a 10-person on-campus working group to examine the “options, opportunities, and challenges” over the next three months and come back to him February 1 with a report.

And this was the giveaway, in the chancellor’s email to the campus and community: “Over the last two months, I have listened to students, alumni, parents, staff, faculty, donors, and community members. After careful review, I believe this topic deserves additional focus.”

Maybe we’ll look at this in years to come as the blunder that saved a program.

“It was probably the most lazy approach to this crisis I have seen,” athletic director Tamica Smith Jones said in a phone conversation Tuesday.

“I was caught off guard, surprised. I’m in conversations now with the leadership team where we’re all trying to figure out, is there a plan? Can we think this through a little bit, how this piece is impacting that piece? It’s a tribute to the chancellor, being able to wrap his head around all of this. I think he’s heard us.”

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We suggested at the time that a fervent community response was necessary to keep the program alive? Did they respond? You judge.

A Change.org “Keep UCR Athletics” petition has had more than 15,400 signees in two months, and although it’s an unscientific sampling – among other things, it’s hard to know how many of those signees have any sort of real ties to Riverside or UCR – it is a message. Closer to home, the #KeepUCRAthletics campaign on social media drew more than 300,000 social media impressions, according to chief of staff and associate athletic director Wes Mallette, who added that “hundreds” of letters were directed to both Wilcox and to the Budget Advisory Committee.

“The chancellor threw that out there for comment,” said Chris Jensen, Riverside attorney and past chair of the UC Riverside Athletic Association booster group. “The attitude was, we just might have to do this because we’re not getting any pushback from the community. And our initial response was, ‘Hell, the community doesn’t even know. Where’d this come from?’

“And so instantly the network of emails just went berserk. Anybody and everybody we knew, we were telling and starting to work it through.”

Rather than skip the preliminaries and go right to the pledge drive, Wilcox formed the working group. It consists of Jones, softball athlete Raena Robinson, faculty athletic representative and music professor Walter Clark, San Bernardino city manager Robert Field (another former UCR Athletic Association chair), deans Frances Sladek (life sciences) and Chris Lynch (engineering), English professor Katherine Kinney (also chair of the Academic Senate planning and budget committee), event services coordinator Julie Salgado, past chair of the board of trustees Susan Atherton, ASUCR president Luis Huerta and Nichi Yes of the Graduate Student Association.

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They’ve already met once, and chairman Brian Haynes, the vice chancellor for student affairs, said that the group will hold a series of town halls via Zoom, one of which will be specifically for athletes, “to ensure that as many voices (as possible) have the opportunity to weigh in regarding this decision.”

It will, he said, look at not only finances but also “how athletics fits into the overall university community.” And it will discuss different concepts of how this department should look, maybe an entirely new model for a department that was underfunded from the time it got into Division I and has been playing catch-up ever since.

“If we can get some of the hurdles out of the way on our campus and be more agile in some of the things that would allow us to do better business from an athletic standpoint, I think the campus will see our value a little bit differently,” Jones said. “But there are a lot of different things that challenge us in that area.”

When I asked Haynes if people from athletics, say, coaches, were lobbying or making suggestions, he said no one had approached him, “but I would assume that there’s a fair amount of lobbying (from) both sides on this topic.”

Both sides. In other words, the naysayers will be heard, too. They generally are at UCR.

Jones talked of being part of Wilcox’ leadership council on campus, hearing things from other people in other departments and getting a pretty good sense of their hurdles and challenges. I asked her if she thinks they all understand what the athletic department’s challenges are.

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“No,” she said.

I didn’t think so.

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter