STORRS, Conn. (AP) — UConn women’s rowing coach Jen Sanford said she isn’t looking for a villain to blame for the school’s cost-cutting decision to eliminate her program.
She just wants to find a way to save the athletic opportunities her program provides for about 60 women each year. That is why she is exploring the possibility of a Title IX lawsuit.
“It pains me to have any negative attention brought to the university,” she said in an email. “However as the leader of the rowing program, people are counting on me to take action to have the decision reversed, so my focus now is on gathering more information to see what options we may have.”
The school started the women’s rowing program in 1997 as a way to help offset the male scholarships needed to elevate its football team into the Bowl Subdivision.
Athletic director David Benedict said UConn considered the Title IX implications before it announced last month that it will eliminate women’s rowing, men’s swimming and diving, men’s cross-country and men’s tennis following the 2020-21 school year.
The move is designed to help cut by $10 million the school’s $43 million athletic department deficit as it deals with falling revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic. The university’s overall deficit is expected to be somewhere between $47 million and $129 million this year because of coronavirus-related revenue losses.
Valerie McMurtrie Bonnette is a former equal opportunity specialist with the federal Office for Civil Rights who now consults with schools on Title IX issues. She said just because UConn is eliminating a large women’s team doesn’t mean it is violating the federal civil rights law, which was enacted in the 1970s to ensure equal opportunities for women in education, including in athletics.
“When schools are cutting women’s teams along with men’s teams, the goal is participation proportionate to enrollment,” she said. “A lot of schools are cutting teams right now. It’s a very difficult time for all schools.”
More than 6,000 UConn rowing alumni have signed a petition asking the school to keep the program and have started a fundraising campaign.
Elaine Lee is a sports science professor at UConn who rowed there as an undergraduate and later served as an assistant coach. She said the team routinely has one of the top GPAs in the athletic department, is among the most racially diverse and has produced numerous doctors, lawyers and other leaders in their fields.
“I know hard decisions have to be made,” she said. “But we have a community that is well connected to potential donors if there’s an opportunity for that. So we’re waiting to see what we can do, if anything.”
To save the program, the team would need to raise enough money to endow it, at an estimated cost of $1.4 million a year, and to find a way to add back male scholarships to keep gender proportionality.
“Private fundraising is not a sustainable solution,” the school said in a statement.
UConn has said it will honor the scholarships of current team members and Sanford said she is expecting that most members of the team will stay at the university.
“There is so much uncertainty with what college is going to look like everywhere due to the pandemic, that transferring now would be even more stressful than it would be without the pandemic,” she said. “The UConn rowing team is their second family and if they all end up being quarantined on a college campus, I think they would rather go through that experience where there is a level of comfort with their friends, and no matter what challenges arise related to COVID, they are in it together with their teammates.”
Jordan Crinieri, the team’s coxwain, decided to return as a grad student for her final year of eligibility.
She and her teammates are using the decision to eliminate the program as motivation. When school is allowed to reopen, they will rise every day at 4 a.m. and drive to a nearby lake, where they typically practice three hours before going to class.
“We really want to show everybody what we can do, specifically the athletic department and those that made the decision to cut us,” she said. “We want to attack every race and practice. I think we all have the hope that the program will be reinstated with the support we can show we have.”