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Over 100 students attended Tuesday’s information session by DAPER at the Johnson Ice Rink on the decision to cut varsity teams at MIT. A Q&A followed a presentation on the necessity of the cuts.
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Faced with a staggering budget cut, MIT’s athletics department is preparing to relinquish the Institute’s claim to the most varsity sports of any university by cutting some of those sports.

The sports to be cut have not been chosen. How they will be chosen has not yet been decided. The sports to be cut are due to be announced by the end of April, said Julie Soriero, director of athletics.

Student-athletes held a demonstration in Lobby 7 on Tuesday afternoon to raise awareness of the importance of athletics to MIT’s culture.

DAPER has been told to cut its spending by $1.45 million over three years; the cut amounts to a sharp 24% reduction in spending out of general Institute funds. DAPER’s current annual budget is $12.9 million.

DAPER is currently working with senior administration to explain the decision to alumni, said Soriero. Dean for Student Life Costantino Colombo was unavailable for comment.

The cuts will not fall entirely on varsity athletics, Soriero said; every single area of DAPER will bear the cuts.

After this year, varsity sports will not be cut further: the cuts are a one-time deal meant to make it easier for MIT to focus on the sports that will continue.

The decision will come before admitted students will have to decide whether to attend MIT or not, although it will likely come after Campus Preview Weekend.

Members of the cut teams will be notified before the decisions are made public.

Students learned about cuts too late to stop them

The Student Athletics Advisory Committee has known about these planned cuts since last week, when DAPER administrators presented their plans to the committee, said Julie C. Andren ’10, chair of the committee. SAAC told team captains after that meeting, and some team captains told their members.

The committee was not previously aware that varsity teams would be cut. It meets with administrators once a month.

SAAC members have been meeting with team captains to get their feedback, which will be presented to administrators in a report.

“We understand the feedback we get from teams won’t necessarily determine which teams get cut, but it will help after,” said Cathy Melnikow ’10, member of SAAC and chair of the Undergraduate Association Committee on Athletics.

“DAPER has been great to us,” said Andren. “No other department has detailed this much to students.”

After knowledge of the cuts spread across campus early this week, student athletes staged a demonstration in Lobby 7 on Tuesday afternoon. Skiiers, volleyball players, gymnasts, and more came to the event.

The goal, wrote Javier M. Duarte ’10, who helped organize the event, is “not about placing blame... [rather] showing that the MIT community values and loves its 41 intercollegiate varsity programs and that we will do anything we can to keep them”.

It is unclear whether teams that are cut would stay together as a club sport, or dissolve altogether. Club teams don’t get as much funding as varsity athletics, with students usually supporting the equipment, travel, and coach costs themselves.

To inform the wider community about the cuts, DAPER held two question-and-answer sessions this week.

Where’s the money?

The average varsity sport spends $25,000–$30,000 a year on operational costs, which do not include coaching salaries, Soriero said.

MIT currently fields 41 varsity sports, tied for most in the nation with Harvard University. Division III programs nationally field an average 16.3 sports.

Within the New England Women’s and Men Athletic Conference, the next most-populated sports team has 23 varsity sports.

DAPER declined to release its detailed budget publicly.

MIT is not alone. In just the past few months, Johns Hopkins, UMass-Amherst, and the University of Vermont have cut some varsity teams.

How will the cut teams be chosen?

The teams to be cut have not been chosen, and neither has the way they will be selected, said Soriero. DAPER has considered using a few criteria: how interested are students in the team? What resources are required to manage it? What are its expenses? Does it comply with the federal Title IX law? Is the coaching high-quality?

These themes are not new: they come from a Health and Vitality study that DAPER began in 2003.

DAPER has considered cutting varsity sports for nearly a decade, Soriero said. But the recession has brought a new urgency to that issue. “The philosophical questions of should we continue to support 41 programs now is combined with the economic question of is it sustainable.”

If someone were to come up with new money to try to save a sport, they would have to find a sustainable source of funding, Soriero said. “We don’t want to be stuck in a similar position in a few years.” This means that short-term alumni donations meant to stave off economic hardship might not be of much use.

Every visiting committee which has reviewed MIT’s athletics externally has questioned whether Institute resources can sustain 41 varsity sports, the most of any school in the country.

But where DAPER looks to sustain a few excellent programs, students may instead value diversity.

“The DAPER administrator has a different definition of excellence than students,” said Duarte. “They want to serve better smaller percentages of students, but really, diversity is what’s more excellent.”

For those who didn’t already come to MIT with a varsity team in mind, the Institute’s variety has offered a new experience.

Bryan C. Hernandez ’09, a member of the gymnastics team, noted that he only joined the team in his final few years at MIT. But, Hernandez said, he “couldn’t imagine going to MIT without this sport”.

Varsity cuts expose deeper budget issues

DAPER has already made deep cuts this year. Capital expenditures are frozen, some off-campus PE classes have been eliminated, part-time staff have been laid off, and overtime has been reduced. DAPER does not plan to lay off full-time personnel aside from those involved in varsity sports, Soriero said.

In the next two years, DAPER expects to cut services and operating costs, and hopes to increase revenue, to absorb the rest of their budget cut. Hiring is likely to slow, with fewer open positions being filled, as has happened throughout the Institute.

In additional to varsity athletics, other areas of DAPER have been affected by the budget reduction. Intramural sports has been affected as every other section of DAPER, said Cheryl F. Silva, director of intramural sports and coach of the women’s field hockey team.

“[IM sports] actually run like a non-profit,” Silva explained. “Students pay for all of their expenses,” such as equipment and IM sport managers.

Students express concerns in meetings

At a town hall meeting, one student said her team would be happy to do more with less — she would rather accept a drastic budget cut than lose varsity status.

But Soriero said that steep cuts might hurt the health and safety of students.

Samuel G. McVeety G, a member of the heavyweight crew team, pointed out that, for example, downgrading a sport to club level status would cause them to cut back in spending as well. In both cases, the team ends up using less safe transportation.

Students asked why DAPER was cutting teams now, rather than waiting a few years — since, after all, eliminating varsity sports will not make up the entire $483k gap.

Soriero said that DAPER could only reach $483k by cutting varsity sports. Club sports, PEs, and recreation areas have already been cut, but they also cost little compared with varsity sports, she said.

And, Soriero pointed out, why would anyone join a team they knew would be cut in the next year or two? “Recruiting for that program would be hit hard,” she said.

Prospective students visiting during Campus Preview Weekend may not know whether the sport they explore will exist in the fall.

J. Kyle Backman ’09, captain of the alpine skiing team, says he probably would not have come to MIT if it didn’t have a ski team.

Although DAPER has said the cuts are unavoidable, some students are not convinced.

“One thing we’d like to do is go to admins and say that they’re under-valuing athletics. There has to be another way,” Hernandez said.

Reuben M. Sterling ’03, a gymnastics team alumnus, found out about the potential cuts in an e-mail from the current team. Sterling said he was concerned that the cuts would hurt MIT’s external image. “When I was looking at schools and MIT, I was proud of the fact that MIT supported … varsity teams, regardless of whether they would perform at an exceptional level,” he said.