Report: Current Sport and Rec model unsustainable

Special Advisor to the Provost Jim Weese released a far-ranging report today describing the current Sport and Recreation Services model as unsustainable and calling for renewed investment in and attention to the unit. Commissioned by the Office of the Provost, the report presents information gathered from across campus, as well as from university officials across the country, to provide a detailed picture of a unit “operating at a disadvantage in comparison to its sister institutions.”

The university’s response to the report was swift and equally detailed, outlining what it has done and will do regarding Sport and Recreation Services. Calling solutions “a shared responsibility,” university officials placed many of the next steps in the courts of other stakeholders.

WEESE

Led by Weese, former Health Sciences Dean, the full report – SRS 2.0: Ensuring a Foundation for Success – runs 52 pages and contains 41 recommendations. The university released a 24-page Executive Brief detailing the report today.

“This is a department that needs help and one that needs to help itself,” the report states. “Advancement back to a level of prominence can be accomplished with timely institutional and student support, decisiveness, strong and united leadership, facility development, greater synergy and partnerships, a new sport model that fosters both opportunity and excellence, and increased generation of alternative sources of revenue. This unit needs change – and is ready for change.

“While we have a proud history, a supportive alumni base, and an exceptional record of attracting great coaches, student athletes and committed staff members, we are losing ground to our competitors.”

Janice Deakin, Provost and Vice-President (Academic), praised Weese’s efforts in a response issued simultaneously today. She nodded to the basic findings of the report, but stopped short of a blanket endorsement of the recommendations.

“I accept the reality that no matter how necessary it may be, organizational change is rarely easy, and its impacts and benefits are often perceived and realized differently among individual members in a campus community as large and as diverse as Western’s,” Deakin wrote. “However, I strongly agree with the ultimate conclusion of Dr. Weese’s report that this is a critical time in our history and that change is indeed necessary ‘to fortify the foundation of (Sport and Recreation Services)’ so that it may prosper in the years ahead.”

Overall, the report speaks to a unit “attempting to do too much given the existing resource base.” The bulk of the document focuses on two general areas – governance/structural improvements and funding.

Sport and Recreation Services includes both Campus Recreation (intramural sports, campus fitness, aquatics, and open recreation programs) and Interuniversity Athletics. Formerly under Health Sciences, the unit now resides within the Student Experience portfolio, headed by Jana Luker, Associate Vice-President (Student Experience), who answers to the Provost.

The report details a unit in need of reconstituting. “The organizational structure is chaotic and disjointed and a prevalence of silos, a lack of synergy, and depressed morale impede progress and are impacting performance,” the Weese Report states. “Trust and respect issues, both within the unit and with some senior members of central administration, continue to impair our progress.”

The report calls for strong and cascading leadership, sustained communication and engagement, as well as nurtured relationships within the unit, with campus officials and city officials. “We need more positivity. They need hope and they need to help themselves as well,” the report states.

Deakin nodded to the findings and expressed her excitement following the recent hiring of Christine Stapleton, who started as Western’s new Director of Sport and Recreation Services last week. Both Deakin and Weese expect Stapleton to bring “a valuable new perspective that will help shape and drive the constructive changes” within the unit.

Perhaps of broadest appeal to the wider university and at-large community, the report explores an Interuniversity Athletics program that, despite a proud history, supportive alumni and a record of attracting great coaches, student-athletes and staff, seems to be “losing ground to our competitors.”

Much of that fault is placed at the feet of funding.

The report calls on the university to maintain its $1 million in central support that Sport and Recreation Services receives annually, as well as reduce/eliminate rental costs, support base budget additions for full-time coaches, as well as increase support for athletic financial awards.

In response, Deakin echoed a common refrain heard across campus in recent years – budgets are about choices. And all those choices are not hers to make.

“A dollar can be spent only once – it is not my job to tell people what to spend their dollar on,” Deakin said in an interview with Western News Tuesday. “It is my job to allocate resources and then review if those resources are being deployed in a way consistent with our aims and objectives, and if they are being successful. The plea with athletics is always that the university is not doing enough, that other universities do more.”

Deakin said Sport and Recreation Services reinvestment began in 2016-17 with a $152,000 base allocation to support the replacement of a coaching position that had been lost to Health Sciences, as well as to support men’s basketball and bursary funds. In order to complete the realignment of Sport and Recreation Services to Student Experience, an additional $140,000 in base funding will be allocated in 2017-18.

The Provost also supported the report’s call for the university to abandon its policy of charging varsity teams for occupancy fees for campus facilities. That amounts to $300,000 for student-athletes representing the university to pay to use fields, ice and courts.

“The $300,000 savings we will accrue is one thing, but more importantly, this change will be well received by our donors and potential donors (i.e., alumni and friends) who believe that they are paying for things that the university should provide,” the report states. “Given the situation across the province and country, they have a solid case.”

Campus Recreation will continue to pay $1.4 million in occupancy charges.

“We cannot be treating varsity sport as a completely ancillary service,” Deakin said. “Students who compete to make a varsity team and represent Western across Ontario and Canada in their sport are more like our students who audition to play in a musical production, ensemble or orchestras or students who compete in case competitions or moot court events and represent Western in those ways. These activities, which typically take place within faculties, are not subject to a direct charge for the use of space.”

Deakin, however, rejected the notion the request for additional increases to the university’s financial support for Athletic Financial Awards and Athletic Excellence Fund. “It is important to note here that Western already invests significantly in student financial awards and aid,” she wrote. “We make this a priority, despite operating in a fiscal environment of increasingly constrained resources.”

In 2015-16, Western awarded more than $6.6 million in admission scholarships and other entrance awards to support undergraduate recruitment efforts. An additional $55.3 million was allocated for other undergraduate and graduate student awards, scholarship, fellowships and teaching assistantships. A further $16.8 million was allocated to support student financial aid through bursaries and the Work Study Program.

“Viewed in this light, I believe Western demonstrates a strong commitment to student financial support across the board and there is no capacity for further increases narrowly directed to student-athlete focused funds,” Deakin wrote.

Overall, Deakin took issue with the report painting central administration as the sole budgeting problem.

“By my count, this office has provided close to $600,000 for athletics,” she said. “That is a huge amount of resources for them to think about how they want to fund their programs. Funding of (Sport and Recreation Services) is a shared responsibility between the university, our students, faculty, staff, alumni and external stakeholders.”

Although the report treads lightly on alumni contribution to the solutions, Deakin saw an important role for them.

“I have made it pretty clear that the alumni now, it is their turn to step up and support,” she said. “At any universities I am familiar with, the alumni support to one degree or another, the students, or the exhibition schedule, or accoutrements. It is time for alumni to step up.”

The report strongly calls for help from students. Western currently ranks 12 of the 19 schools in the Ontario Interuniversity Athletes Association relative to sport and recreation fees. This is a direct result of a 12-year freeze in the student fee paid to Interuniversity Athletics.

The report recommends that campus officials work with student leaders to get to referendum and increase the Western Sport and Recreation Student Fee – a combination of the Interuniversity Athletics and Campus Recreation fees – from $191 to $239. It also asks that Western commit to not letting that fee dip below the Top Five fee level in Ontario University Athletics (OUA), a number projected to be $239 in 2019-20.

Deakin supported this move, so long as it was done in close consultation with student leaders.

“This is a partnership. You cannot have a Tier One program unless you are prepared to fund it at a level that the top universities are,” Deakin said. “Are you are top contender or not? If the answer is yes, there is a set of responsibilities that go with that. And that set of responsibilities is shared by the university, with alumni, coaching staff that build the case for support, and then the students need to decide how important it is for them.”

The Provost continued, “I am not supporting a referendum tomorrow. I am simply saying, in principle, that the students need to be behind this. On what scale does Western want to be 12th? You have to pay to play – we have to pay to play everywhere. We have to pay to play on research, on endowed chairs. Sports and Recreations Services are no different.”

Perhaps the report’s most controversial pitch to ease budget pressures came in suggesting not all sports should be sourced equally.

Weese cites a number of institutions that have conducted reviews of their programs and changed their sport delivery model. For example, the University of British Columbia eliminated some sports and tiered others and created “considerable campus and alumni unrest.” In the end, the sports were added back but the alumni remained disenchanted.

Some schools – University of Alberta and University of Toronto – threatened to drop football programs. “Following considerable consternation, the teams were reinstated,” Weese writes. “However, it is fair to say that these programs have neither have fully recovered the success that they once enjoyed.”

The report stops short of calling for a reduction of Western’s 46 varsity sports supported. But it does pitch a new way of thinking about them.

The report endorses a sport model that provides opportunity through more efficient varsity and competitive club programs and facilitates excellence in fewer varsity teams. This model provides opportunity for students, but limits the availability of services and administrative support.

“This ensures many student-athletes continue to have the opportunity to garner the benefits of an intercollegiate athletics programs, keeps alumni and donors happy, but allows institutions to pursue excellence in selected sports,” the report states.

This framework would focus most staff effort on 11 varsity teams, programs with a 12-month comprehensive student-athlete development focus. Those teams would include: Men’s/women’s basketball, cross-country, rowing, rugby, soccer, track, volleyball and wrestling, as well as men’s football.

Deakin said the time is right for Western to ensure its model is “delivering commensurate service levels across the full spectrum of our varsity teams and club programs.” However, she said the report’s timetable of starting that this fall was far too aggressive.

“Such a change of this scope requires further analysis and consultation with the appropriate stakeholders and a more phased approach to implementation,” she wrote.

Overall, as for next steps, Deakin considers the university’s work done regarding the Weese Report and its findings. The burden of change now falls to others.

“The centre’s work is now finished,” Deakin said. “I expect to see that these resources are leveraged in the way he (Weese) suggests in the report. But that is not mine to choose. That will be up to those other groups to see how they react.”