One day after the publication of this story and multiple pickups from other media outlets, Dartmouth president Philip Hanlon sent a letter to “Friends of Dartmouth Golf, Rowing and Swimming & Diving.” It read, in part:
“Today we are announcing a comprehensive set of reviews of Athletics and are reinstating the five varsity teams we eliminated in July: women’s and men’s swimming and diving; women’s and men’s golf; and men’s lightweight rowing. … I realize many of you were disappointed by the July announcement. It is my hope that as we move forward with this process, we will all work together to make our Athletics program even stronger.”
Global Golf Post is proud of any role it may have played, however small, in this outcome.
This is a true story. That is an important point because there will be times when you say, “Nah, this couldn’t happen.”
But it did.
On July 9, 2020, select student-athletes at Dartmouth College, the prestigious Ivy League school in New Hampshire recently ranked by The Wall Street Journal as the 12th-best school in America, were summoned to a Zoom session. They were given 45 minutes notice.
On that call, Dartmouth College president Phil Hanlon announced that five sports – men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s swimming and diving, and men’s lightweight rowing – would be discontinued, permanently and immediately. In addition, it was announced that Hanover Country Club, the school-owned golf course, would close.
In a campus-wide e-mail announcing the decision, Hanlon wrote that “athletic recruitment at Dartmouth has begun to impact (the college’s) ability to achieve the right balance between applicants who are accomplished in athletics and applicants who excel in other pursuits.”
There were also financial considerations. Due to COVID-19, the school was looking at a $150 million budget deficit for the fiscal year that will end June 30.
Shock rippled through the athletes. “Why, why, why?” one athlete told me she asked in the days and weeks that followed. Another athlete described feelings of dread and overwhelming sadness. “We were blindsided,” he said. Another called the decision “unfathomable.”
Parents were mystified as well. Said one parent: “The decision just didn’t make sense. The coaches’ salaries were endowed, the alumni paid for a huge percentage of the program costs, so why do this? My respect for the school has plummeted. I don’t trust the people involved. I don’t know what to believe anymore.”
More than 100 athletes were impacted. As many as 15 athletic department jobs were eliminated. At the time, Hanlon (Dartmouth Class of 1977) said these measures would save about $2 million.
As the weeks wore on and reality sank in, golf team members felt that that school was not being transparent, that the decision just didn’t add up. They were silent for months, working closely but quietly with an alumni group called Friends of Dartmouth Golf (FODG) to see if they could get the decision reversed in a non-confrontational way.
This story is based on a dozen interviews with current and former golf team members, coaches, parents and former athletes from other sports who have supported the athletic program. A Dartmouth communications spokesperson declined an offer from GGP for Hanlon to comment on the situation. A representative for athletic director Harry Sheehy informed me by e-mail that, “at this time, we have to politely decline your request to speak about the discontinuation of the golf programs this past summer.”
The 269-acre campus of Dartmouth College sits perched on a terrace above the Connecticut River, somewhere between rural and remote. Founded in 1769, the college’s original mission was Christianizing Native Americans while also teaching them liberal arts. It is one of only nine colleges chartered before the Revolutionary War.
Two years ago only 8.8 percent of the 21,394 applications for fall 2020 were accepted, making Dartmouth among the most elite private colleges in the world. Of those, 96 percent ranked in the top decile of their high school class. The school also has a near $6 billion endowment which places it among the top 25 richest colleges in America. In the past decade, the fund has delivered an annualized return of 10.4 percent.
Dartmouth men’s golf dates to 1904, while the women didn’t begin playing until the early 1980s. The men have produced All-Americans and Ivy League players of the year. In 2019, the women’s team finished second in the Ivy League and coach Alex Kirk was named Ivy League Coach of the Year.
More than 100 former players, men and women, belong to the Friends of Dartmouth Golf. Their support wasn’t just financial. They helped players find internships and, after graduation, jobs. It is a tight-knit group of players based on common, shared experiences.
For years, the glue that bonded the boosters and former athletes was Bill Johnson, who became men’s head golf coach in 1967 as well as the head golf professional at Hanover Country Club. He stayed in that role for 34 years, retiring in 2001.
Known to all as “Cha,” Johnson led teams to three Ivy League championships and saw 17 players advance to the NCAA Championships. He coached four All-Americans. And he was inducted into the Golf Coaches Association of America’s Hall of Fame in 1990.
So beloved was Johnson that John Lundgren (Class of 1973), who became chief executive officer of Stanley Black and Decker, endowed the golf coach’s position in Johnson’s name. Lundgren was not just a check-writer but was active on numerous college boards.
After he was informed of the program’s elimination by e-mail, Lundgren severed his relationship with Dartmouth College.
The endowment was a great honor to Johnson, but it meant something else to the finances of the golf program: The men’s coaching salary was not a drain on the college’s budget.
Something else was at work here, something beyond the numbers. The Dartmouth decision was referenced in a July 2020 article in The Wall Street Journal with the headline “With Budgets Under Pressure, Colleges Cut Country Club Sports.” The article called out Dartmouth by name and injected a racial component, suggesting that cutting country club sports – viewed as largely white sports – was in vogue.
According to the WSJ: “And then there is the optics. At a time when racial justice and diversity have become a more open national conversation, the sports being eliminated are ones that tend to draw overwhelming white, often wealthy players.”
There was only one problem – Dartmouth golf was not overwhelmingly white. Seven of the 13 golfers in the two programs were non-white. Three were first generation Asian-Americans. The women’s program was the most diverse team on campus, according to data collected by Dartmouth sports rosters before the 2020-21 season. The men’s program was fourth on the list.
Importantly for a school that prides itself on academic achievement, the golf teams were exemplary in the classroom. The women’s team averaged a 3.56 grade point average in 2019-20, while the men posted a 3.35 GPA. Men’s team captain Jason Liu (who is not white) was honored with the Class of 1948 Scholar-Athlete award, which is given annually to one male and one female athlete for all sports for combined excellence in sports and academics.
Among the most feared words any college administrator can hear are: “Hello, this is Arthur Bryant with the law firm of Bailey & Glasser.”
Bryant is a specialist on cases connected with Title IX, the federal law passed in 1972 as part of the Education Amendments Act that protects people from discrimination based on sex in programs that receive federal financial assistance.
According to his profile, “Arthur was lead trial counsel in the first Title IX case tried against a university for discriminating against its women athletes and potential athletes. He has successfully represented more women athletes and potential athletes in Title IX litigation against schools and universities than any lawyer in the country.” His most recent Title IX victory came against Brown University for an estimated $7 million.
Bryant now represents the female members of the varsity golf, swimming, and diving teams at Dartmouth College.
In an online “Frequently Asked Questions” feature posted at dartmouthsports.com shortly after the decision was announced, the question was posed, “By eliminating two women’s sports, will Dartmouth be in violation of Title IX?” The answer was an emphatic “no.”
According to Bryant this statement was not true at the time it was made. In fact, at the time of that statement, he believed Dartmouth already had a Title IX compliance problem.
Bryant told me, “We would not have taken the case if we weren’t 100 percent certain that Dartmouth was in violation of Title IX.”
In a letter to Hanlon dated Dec. 18, Bryant wrote:
“According to the most recent publicly available data, Dartmouth’s undergraduate population in 2019-20 was 2,159 women and 2,242 men, or 49.06 percent women (available here). A full review of the publicly available rosters for 2019-20 (available here) shows that, before the elimination of the five varsity teams announced on July 9, 2020, Dartmouth’s athletic teams had 521 men and 424 women, or 44.87 percent women. So, there was a gap of 4.19 percent between women’s undergraduate enrollment rates and their intercollegiate athletic participation rates. Dartmouth needed to add 78 women to reach gender parity. With the elimination of the five teams, the athletic participation numbers drop to 456 men and 392 women. This is still only 46.23 percent women, leaving a gap of 2.83 percent. As a result, even after the teams are eliminated, Dartmouth will need to add approximately 47 women to reach gender equity under Title IX. This is more than the size of the women’s golf and swimming and diving teams combined.”
If the data Bryant cites is correct, the school has two choices: Reinstate the women’s programs to get into Title IX compliance or face an expensive and protracted legal battle against an attorney who is undefeated in bringing Title IX lawsuits.
The crux of the decision to eliminate the golf programs is “slots.” The college allocates 217 slots for student athletes in each admitted class, which averages about 1,100 undergraduate freshmen each year. These slots cover all 34 athletic teams. Slots are not scholarships, as the Ivy League does not permit athletic scholarships. They are admission seats. The athletic director has sole decision-making power concerning the allocation of the slots by sport within guidelines agreed to by the Ivy League.
In order to earn a slot, a prospective student-athlete has to meet or exceed what is called a “minimum academic index.” If you meet or exceed the minimum index, and the coach wants you, you are virtually guaranteed admission. Women’s and men’s golf have among the highest indexes at Dartmouth.
At some point in fall 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Hanlon told athletic director Sheehy that he wanted to reduce athletic slots by 10 percent. Hanlon had been under pressure from faculty about the percentage of athletes at Dartmouth. The faculty did not like the fact that Dartmouth had a greater percentage of athletes than any other Ivy League school despite having the smallest undergraduate student body.
Ten percent meant 22 slots. The two golf teams had two slots each. Throw in the slots awarded to the other eliminated sports and Sheehy met his 22-slot goal.
However, the football program gets 30 slots a year. Dartmouth football carries in the neighborhood of 120 players each season. By contrast, an NFL team has a 58-man roster. In the past 20 seasons, Dartmouth’s football record is 91-108.
The Dartmouth men’s lacrosse team, which has been largely non-competitive in the past decade and went winless in the Ivy League the past three seasons, has almost 50 players and owns 10 slots.
Men’s hockey carries 28 players, five more than the NHL allows for its rosters.
Elimination of the Dartmouth golf teams didn’t stop the school from squeezing every last dollar from alumni. The fiscal year ended on June 30. One golf alum was contacted six times in the month of June alone.
Nine days after the fiscal year ended, and after FODG had just completed its highest fund-raising effort in history, including financing for a new team van and upgraded indoor practice facilities, the eliminations were announced.
“They knew the programs were being shut down, but they continued to fundraise. Unbelievable,” said one former player.
Jake Gehret, class of 1981, donated to FODG for the six-figure van. It was delivered last March. But the golf teams never got to use it due to COVID-19. Gehret has not heard from anyone about the fate of the van. No one in FODG knows about its whereabouts or usage.
A significant contributor to Dartmouth through the years, Gehret cut all ties to the school.
After meeting with the athletic director and president, the athletes were convinced something was amiss. No data, no analysis and no back-up were presented, just inveiglement and obfuscation. Finally, in a Zoom meeting with athletic director Sheehy, men’s golf captain Jason Liu asked what criteria the school used to make its decisions.
“We can’t tell you,” Sheehy said.
By then the Friends of Dartmouth Golf had mobilized, with the intent of being constructive and not antagonistic. The group asked the players not to petition or protest or even bring this matter to social media.
The FODG calculated that the operating costs for both teams added up to $350,000 annually. Seventy-one percent of that came from alumni contributions, including the coaches’ salaries. The remaining $100,000 came from the school.
By mid-July FODG presented a progressive, groundbreaking proposal. Alumni would fully fund both golf programs for four years with a commitment from the coaches to recruit one person for each team to be Native American or a person of color as well as the funding of an assistant coach, also to be Native American or a person of color. In addition, the group would donate $2.25 million for diversity-based scholarships and commit to investments in the golf program to enhance competitiveness. All they asked from Dartmouth was for the golf teams to retain their four slots – two for women and two for the men.
Sheehy claimed to be appreciative, calling the proposal “very interesting,” and pledged to take it to Hanlon.
On Aug. 18, two FODG leaders, including Lundgren, met in person with Hanlon, with Sheehy joining in by Zoom. A lot of nods and good wishes were shared. But almost one month later, Hanlon told FODG that the school “would stick to its guns.”
Having failed at the administrative route, FODG made informal outreaches to the trustees. In an early-November Zoom session with two trustees, including the chairman, FODG representatives raised the ante, verbalizing a new plan that included $22 million dollars in bequests that would go to the school for unrestricted financial aid.
The final proposal called for:
- An elimination of all financial obligations to Dartmouth for the golf programs for 15 years
- The elimination of two slots, leaving one for each team
- $22 million in unrestricted bequests to support Dartmouth students, excluding golfers
- A greater focus on recruiting diversity and inclusion candidates, led by a new fully-funded assistant coach position
- Guaranteed internships for Dartmouth students at FODG-affiliated businesses
- Increased funding for recruiting and resources
- A fully funded alternative to Hanover Country Club for playing and practice
It was the most groundbreaking proposal by a group of college golf supporters in NCAA history.
Dartmouth turned it down.
But FODG was not going to go away. It was time to try different avenues.
Meanwhile, they had gotten an assist from Bryant, the Title IX attorney. His letter landed and the landscape changed.
In hindsight, the eliminations didn’t pass the smell test from the outset. On July 8, men’s head golf coach Rich Parker was told by his boss that the fall golf season would be canceled due to COVID-19. Parker was told to expect a meeting the following day, which he presumed would be about tying up loose ends.
Instead, he found himself on the Zoom call with Sheehy and four other coaches where they were told that their programs were done. Sheehy asked the coaches not to inform players and closed the call by saying, “I am very busy; I don’t have time for questions.”
Sheehy came to Dartmouth from Williams College, a Division III school located in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he was an outstanding basketball player and returned as a coach. Dartmouth coaches and athletes knew Sheehy was a Williams man because of his never-ending references to the school. Coaches used to count the number of Williams mentions in every meeting. They took to calling him “D3 Sheehy” behind his back.
At one alumni reunion where the coaches were introduced, Sheehy suggested that the attendees not get used to the coaches’ names “because they won’t be here for your next five-year reunion,” he said.
Empathy was not his strong suit. He fired a 48-year employee on July 9 without looking her in the eye. He ran an athletic department that was infused with “negativity,” according to one coach. A good fundraiser, Sheehy built some eye-popping athletic facilities and enhanced others. But he could not motivate coaches. According to many coaches, he didn’t even try. As a result, athletic performance at Dartmouth during his tenure has been mediocre at best.
Many former Dartmouth athletes hold the current athletic administration in low regard. One non-golf alum said, “The athletic department is full of clowns.” Another golf alum characterized the athletic department as “disorganized, political, and dishonest.”
Sheehy did not respond to a GGP request for a comment about criticisms of his athletic department leadership.
Parker got two weeks severance for each of his 15 years of service. His health benefits were cut off Aug. 31. Facing a pending heart procedure, he asked for an extension. It was denied. “He was treated in such an undignified way,” said one former player.
It was, for Parker, a heartbreaking decision. “I loved coaching those kids,” he said. “I tried to turn them into men. It was an honor to coach them.”
Alex Kirk’s story is very similar. Kirk came to Dartmouth in 2011 to serve not just as the women’s head golf coach, but as the head golf professional at Hanover Country Club. But after winning the Ivy League Coach of the Year in 2019, Kirk didn’t get a congratulations, a warm handshake, or even an e-mail from his athletic director. Sheehy remained silent.
A Dartmouth alum walked into the golf shop at the Glades Country Club in Naples, Florida, recently. He encountered Kirk, who had landed on his feet there as a golf professional. The alum acknowledged their mutual Dartmouth roots and observed, “I hear Sheehy is retiring soon.”
It won’t be soon enough for the Dartmouth athletic community.
The motto of Dartmouth College, chosen by founder Eleazar Wheelock, is Vox Clamantis in Deserto, loosely translated as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Members of FODG and other former athletes feel as though they are crying out in vain. One former coach told me that the trustees “have locked arms and are prepared to jump off a cliff together on this issue.”
But it just takes one trustee – just one – to have his or her voice heard. Only one trustee needs to call out this move and ask “with a $3 billion capital campaign in place that is said to be struggling, are we really going to turn down $22 million dollars, which would fund more than 360 full scholarships for future Dartmouth students? Are we really going to turn our back on the life’s work of a great college coach? Are we going to sacrifice two of our most diverse athletic programs? Is this really in the best interest of Dartmouth College?”
Maybe it takes just one non-athlete student saying, “wait a second, we are being misled. Our fellow students have had their Dartmouth experience turned upside down. This is just wrong. Dartmouth is better than this.”
Maybe it takes just one faculty member to point out that other faculty non-tenured members, like the two golf coaches, can be discarded like a cracked driver at the whim of the athletic director. Do we really want to see our former men’s coach washing golf carts and doing night security at a nearby country club because our severance offer was so insulting? This isn’t Dartmouth College.
Other voices will no doubt follow.
The Dartmouth men’s golf team and the future financial benefits to non-athletes from the FODG offer depend on it.
Attorney Arthur Bryant intends to see to it that the women’s program is reinstated.
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