University takes step in right direction

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UPEI president Alaa Abd-El-Aziz

UPEI president’s endorsement of MacNeill report bodes well for future

The University of Prince Edward Island said mea culpa loudly and clearly on Thursday — to its varsity coaches, its athletes — and very importantly, to the Island community at large. That community includes booster club members, season ticket holders, family and friends of athletes, and supporters in general who want nothing more than to feel welcome in field house or arena.

The highly anticipated response to the review of the beleaguered athletics department was breathtaking in its scope of acceptance and heralds a much-needed new relationship between the university and the Island community. It also establishes a new awareness and support from senior administration for the athletic department.

UPEI president Alaa Abd-El-Aziz says he fully endorses the seven key recommendations from the independent fact-finding report prepared by Dave (Hermie) MacNeill.

If there was a general feeling that athletics was not a priority of the president or his key VP of finance and administration Jackie Podger, their comments Thursday would tend to dispel that notion. The president said the report and his discussions with various groups helped him appreciate “... very clearly, a successful athletics program at UPEI matters greatly to the community we serve.” It was a welcome admission.

Senior administration at UPEI say they now understand the issues the department has faced, but also more fully appreciate the important role athletics contributes to a positive university-community connection.

The university didn't waste any time after accepting the recommendations, developing an implementation timeline for each based upon policies and procedures, as well as its financial situation.

For example, the first recommendation calls for the establishment of an Athletics Advisory Board which will be chaired by the president himself, demonstrating his commitment to change and to get more involved in the Island community.

The financial situation in athletics has been at the centre of plummeting morale inside the department for some time. Ms. Podger suggested that internal decay has been growing over the past 20 years with underfunding of programs, teams and coaches salaries.

Addressing that budgetary imbalance dominates five of the six other recommendations. The Board of Governors is being challenged to take an active role in fundraising because it is clear that the cash-strapped university, despite its new support and awareness for athletics, won’t be diverting additional budget dollars to that department. Instead it will push for much more emphasis on fundraising initiatives, a role reluctantly taken on by coaches, players and parents in recent years.

The university promised to review and adjust coaches’ salaries and bring to an end an embarrassingly frugal chapter in UPEI’s history.

Another recommendation was to secure long-term stable leadership and staffing within the department, which has been convulsed with change since the arrival of athletic director Bill Schurman in early February 2013.

In media interviews Thursday, Ms. Podger emphatically denied that Mr. Schurman’s pending departure was connected to the review and commended him for his work during tough financial circumstances. “He did exactly what I asked him, and that was to balance the budget.” That balancing act was largely accomplished by staff reductions and placed Mr. Schurman in the untenable position of balancing the department budget when his priority should have been athletics. The friction within the department resulted in the departure of several key personnel from within the coaching and booster ranks.

Ms. Podger said there was a lesson learned and UPEI was going to slow it down and do it right this time. The university will post the position, shortlist and interview candidates during the hiring process. To do it right, it would be impossible to meet Ms. Podger’s timeline and have someone in place at the beginning of September.

Slow it down and do it right.

Organizations: University of Prince Edward Island, Athletics Advisory Board, Board of Governors

Geographic location: Iceland

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