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CSUN's Wilson Answers Outcry Over Sports Cuts

June 13, 1997|DAVID WHARTON and NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NORTHRIDGE — Politicians and the public Thursday condemned the elimination of four men's athletic teams at Cal State Northridge, while university President Blenda J. Wilson defended herself from criticism she remained off campus and out of touch when the controversial decision was announced.

CSUN cut the baseball, volleyball, swimming and soccer teams Wednesday in an attempt to bring its deficit-ridden athletic department into compliance with gender-equity laws commonly known as Title IX.

Letters and e-mail messages from athletes' parents and the community poured into university offices, Wilson acknowledged.

"The largest number are people who are angry," she said.

Wilson said she expected the hostile reaction but was surprised to be criticized by the press for leaving two subordinates to announce the cuts while she spent all day Wednesday at an Irvine Foundation board meeting in Newport Beach.

"My days, like most executives, are committed well in advance," Wilson said in a telephone interview from another board meeting in West Los Angeles. "There are many things that happen on our campus that I am not there for."

Wilson blamed university employees for failing to forward interview requests to her secretary, who she said could have reached her at the Newport Beach meeting. Thursday she made a point of talking to reporters and released a two-page statement.

"I believe we have made the right choices, as difficult as they have been," the statement read. "I would ask all members of the campus community . . . to understand that the emotion that will be displayed in the media is one measure of the degree to which sports influence our general culture."

Meanwhile, state Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) reacted with blistering criticism and a promise to look for other state funds that could be shifted to the CSUN athletic department.

"Somehow you have to swallow the idea you'd like to kill them for the mistakes they're making," said Wright, whose district includes the campus. But as a member of the Legislature's Joint Budget Committee, she said, she will try to remedy the financial problems the school said were partly responsible for the cutbacks.

"I may look at monies we proposed for construction" elsewhere in the California State University system, Wright said, warning it is so late in the budget process that much of the available state money has already been allocated.

The CSUN athletic department has run up an $800,000 deficit. Yet beginning in the fall of 1998, under terms of a 1993 agreement to settle a lawsuit brought by the California chapter of the National Organization for Women, the number of male and female athletes at CSUN and all other Cal State campuses are required to be about equal.

CSUN women represented only 39% of varsity athletes this school year.

Up until two weeks ago, the university's administrators believed they had enough money to add three women's teams, and confidence that athletes would join the teams. When the budget proved too tight for that, administrators decided to balance the ratio by cutting men's programs.

Of the five sports being considered for elimination, only the golf team--with just eight members and 1 1/2 scholarships--was spared.

Among the teams cut, baseball and volleyball had brought national attention to the Northridge campus.

Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) blamed university administrators for not moving toward gender balance in the decades since the law was passed in 1972.

"Title IX is not to cost the men but to help the women," Kuehl said. "All of a sudden, the Cal State system is saying, 'Oops, we have to do this.' "

Wilson responded Thursday to criticism that she was not on campus, or available, when the decision was announced Wednesday. Ronald Kopita, a university vice president, and Athletic Director Paul Bubb were left to face reporters alone with the news.

She had the commitment in Irvine and the announcement could not be postponed until her return to campus, she said, because the university wanted to inform athletes in the eliminated sports as soon as a decision was made.

"I personally prefer, when I make a decision, to be there to take the criticism myself," she said. "I did think that the personnel on campus would suffice for the details . . . the people who are closest to the program are most knowledgeable."

In discussing the decision a day later, Wilson acknowledged she sees an important role for athletics in college life.

"For the student body as a whole, particularly in a commuter environment, [sporting events] help to create a collegiate environment," she said. "It is also one of the things that helps identify the university in the community."

But sports must take a back seat to academics when it comes to budget decisions, she said.

"We have a student body of 27,500," she said. "Athletics meet the aspirations of 300 to 400 of those students. It is not an issue for the vast majority."

Most of the athletic department's budget woes stem from a 1996 decision to join the Big Sky Conference, which required CSUN to spend more money on its football program and more for travel in other sports.

Wilson said athletic department administrators and the University Budget Advisory Board, discussing the issue before the decision, never offered her the option of cutting the costly football budget. That would result in being ousted from the Big Sky Conference, which would be a blow to CSUN's athletic prestige, she said.

Wilson also expressed skepticism that any last-second funding, from either the private or public sectors, would save the eliminated teams.

"I don't think we're likely to see someone credibly offer $1 million, which is the bill we would need to cover," she said. "There is no history of generous booster or donor activities at this school."

* MOURNING LOSS: Women swimmers say losing men's team is detrimental. C1

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