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A shared path forward: remarks by President Katherine A. Rowe

The following is a transcript of opening remarks by William & Mary President Katherine A. Rowe to the Board of Visitors at their Sept. 25, 2020, meeting regarding a shared path forward for W&M Athletics - Ed.

Three weeks ago, the university announced its gut-wrenching decision to eliminate seven varsity sports. William & Mary is not alone among colleges and universities in making these agonizing decisions. But William & Mary is a unique and special place.

Every day since has been so painful for the student-athletes and families, and our alumni who have been impacted, and I want to begin by addressing you directly.

First, to say thank you for sharing such powerful stories. I want you to know that we hear you. The Board of Visitors and I have listened – the Board heard you at the listening session on Wednesday night, and like many others, I’ve listened closely to those comments. I’ve also heard you in countless emails and in conversations I’ve had with you since Sept. 3. My office and the Office of Athletics has returned scores of phone calls, hundreds of emails and taken meetings.

I want to say here what I’ve said to everyone personally. It’s simple but it really needs to be said: I am so sorry for the awful loss and sadness that this is causing. That’s real. I’ve been using the word bereavement, and I think that that is valid.

We hear you. We value you. And we are so grateful for all you individually and collectively contribute to making William & Mary the extraordinarily special place that it is.

So much of what we heard Wednesday night reflected a sense of broken community – of being adrift, so far from our value of belonging. In taking this step now, with a year to go, our hope had been to give coaches, athletes and families more agency and control in their choices going forward – but I hear clearly that the effect is the opposite. And I regret that so much.

I said in my email to the campus earlier this week that the chief task we face is restoring trust. One of the few things that we have more of under pandemic is time. So the next month is going to be focused very intentionally on how we can go forward in a way that is aligned with our core values. Here’s the plan, as I see it:

First, we own our mistakes, we continue to. The past three weeks, we as an institution have not met the high bar that William & Mary expects of us all, particularly in such difficult circumstances. We acknowledge the ways we’ve fallen short, and we take steps to redress them. The integrity and values that William & Mary holds dear should govern every aspect of what we do, and we will adhere to them.

Second, acknowledge that with grief and anger we are also hearing deep commitment to William & Mary. Every single person I have spoken with directly ultimately is motivated by what they think is best for William & Mary, and not only for themselves – that’s really important to listen to.

With that shared passion, we also need to hear and we need to assume for each other positive intent – positive intent as a baseline. That’s hard, particularly when we’re in conflict, but the assumption of positive intent is going to be critical to rebuilding trust. For those I talk with, I hear immense respect across disagreements that can be built. But we haven’t clearly named an underlying disagreement, which is about the identity of intercollegiate athletics at William & Mary. So I want to say a few words about that, that underlying disagreement. I share them with humility because I am just two-plus years here. But sometimes the ear of somebody who’s new can help sharpen a particular dynamic.

There is a core conflict here at William & Mary that we need to own as a community because it is a conflict very specific to William & Mary. As I have listened to students and staff and talked to friends of Tribe Athletics, fans and donors, I hear deep contradictions in what we mean by excellence and competitiveness in a Division I setting.

I ask that we be in dialogue about this directly, in a way that meets the community’s standards. This is a contradiction that precedes many of us, but today I name it as clearly as I can and call on all of us to address it.

In 2018, the university engaged in a robust strategic planning process in athletics. We are so grateful for the work of the individuals who were part of that. That process named this challenge, with ensuring that the department provide competitive experiences and resources that match the quality of W&M academics.

It’s become clear, however, that this report was the beginning of a dialogue we need to finish on this critical issue.

We need to dig more deeply into the assumptions made in that plan about competitiveness and what that means in a Division I context for the community now. We need to do that to ensure a shared understanding of what we mean by competitive excellence in intercollegiate athletics. We need to be open about the deep disagreements that we have about that and finish this conversation by listening to all of the voices in our community – students, alumni, faculty and staff – recognizing that our starting place is Division I.

Third, I ask for your partnership very specifically in this work. Beyond the disagreement about what competitive success means, we face acute and intractable structural problems in funding athletics sustainably.

I think this is widely understood. No one has really questioned that fact, especially now when the university is facing such significant shortfalls. This is a longstanding issue, and its solution will only benefit from more open dialogue and problem-solving.

Many have asked: Please, can I help think through those challenges with you? And the answer is yes for those prepared to take these challenges on in a substantive way. Here’s what I mean by that.

That path forward here requires sustained dialogue, engaged in with humility and respect for each other. At William & Mary, we gain value from thoughtful, deliberative decision-making and broad solution-building.

Starting early next week, I’ve asked Director Huge and the Department of Athletics to do four specific things to enable this:

First is to share additional information that answers the questions we have received about what financial sustainability means.

The second is to engage the Tribe Club board -- I haven’t told the board this, but I hope they’re willing -- first to validate and, if necessary, refine our assumptions in a way that grows confidence. That the community has confidence in our numbers and assumptions is absolutely essential.

Third, is to work with the Tribe Club board to size the financial path for each sport to competitive and sustainable funding so that, here again, we have a shared understanding of the challenge that we are trying to solve and can bring others into that understanding to consider solutions.

Key message: We are open to solutions that meaningfully and viably address those challenges.

Fourth, is to invite the athletics community -- students, parents, coaches and more -- into discussion of the problem itself -- how we understand Division I competitiveness -- not only to create a shared understanding but also to engage the bright minds and committed spirit of our community in a forthright way.

So the core premise I work with in cases of conflict is that we need to respect the conflict. That means respect each other, name the differences. By respecting the conflict, we can find significant growth in our thinking. Conflict of this kind is motivated by deep interests and affiliations and by understanding them. I know we can grow our thinking.

Again, I will repeat my direction to myself and our team. Our first, and most important task is to rebuild the trust of this community and to repair the distress we have caused our student athletes, families and alumni.

That is not to suggest that the road ahead of us will be easy or that the status quo can remain.  But if we roll up our sleeves together, with a recognition that our love for W&M drives this collective action and that our goal is to meaningfully improve an already special student athlete experience, I do have confidence that we will succeed.