29 May 2021
By Göran R Buckhorn
A temporary restraining order from a U.S. District Judge has stopped the University of Connecticut (UConn) from cutting the school’s women’s rowing program, something that HTBS wrote about on 26 April.
U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill ruled on Wednesday that members of the women’s rowing team at the University of Connecticut (UConn), who were eliminated by the school in June last year due to budget cuts, “will suffer irreparable harm in the absence of injunctive relief,” and that there is a “substantial likelihood” that the court will reverse UConn’s decision and allow the program to continue.
According to the ruling, UConn is not providing “genuine athletic participation opportunities” to female athletes in proportion to the undergraduate student population. An expert witness, Dr. Donna Lopiano, provided a testimony saying that UConn has not complied with Title IX since 2008.
“From the alumni perspective, I’m very happy to hear that the judge believes there could be potential merit,” said Ashley Kalinauskas, a former UConn rower who graduated in 2012 and who was part of a UConn women’s alumni group that filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights. “I’m really excited for the current team members to be able to at least hear the case that they have presented.”
It was in June 2020, UConn announced that it would be eliminating men’s tennis, men’s swimming and diving and men’s cross country, and women’s rowing. The athletic department had to trim down its budget by $10 million, a cut of 25 percent of its $42 million subsidy from the university over the next three years.
District Judge Underhill remarked that UConn women’s rowing coach Jennifer Sanford gave “credible testimony” that she was required to keep a minimum of 60 rowers on the team, even though her ideal team size was 40-42 members, in a perceived effort to get the school’s gender participation numbers in line with Title IX.
“Plaintiffs have shown that it is substantially likely that UConn is not presently in compliance with Title IX’s effective-accommodation mandate, and cutting the women’s rowing team would only exacerbate that noncompliance by magnifying UConn’s disparity in athletic participation opportunities,” Underhill wrote.
“I am proud of the women on the team, specifically the twelve plaintiffs, who have fought for their right to remain a Division One program,” coach Sanford wrote in an email to the press. “As a loyal rowing coach of the University of Connecticut and Husky fan since I arrived in 1997, I am hopeful this is a positive step toward UConn Rowing continuing with varsity status moving forward, and for a very long time ahead.”
UConn released a statement disagreeing with the ruling.
The university disagrees with the standard applied by the court in this proceeding as it is inconsistent with longstanding guidance provided by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. UConn is enormously proud of the success of our athletics program. The University’s support for its women’s teams, as well as all of its student athletes, is longstanding and resolute.
Nonetheless, last summer the University’s Board of Trustees made the very difficult decision to eliminate four Division I Athletic Teams, including Women’s Rowing. That decision was made following a comprehensive review of UConn’s athletic program, including its Title IX obligations. UConn used its best efforts to eliminate the fewest number of teams as possible, but there was no path forward that would permit the University to preserve the long-term viability of its athletics program in the absence of cuts.
While the University understands, appreciates, and fully shares the significant disappointment of the student athletes, alumni and fans of all four eliminated teams, we believe that our actions in regard to Women’s Rowing and the other teams were consistent with the University’s obligations under Title IX.
The temporary restraining order is now preventing UConn from eliminating the women’s rowing program until a hearing, which is scheduled for 2 August.
On 14 May, HTBS wrote about how Stanford University had been sued by athletes for cutting 11 varsity sports, including rowing. Stanford reversed its decision a few days later.