UAA Athletics remain badly broken, and why addressing it is important …

Fiscal CliffLast year (2012), on the afternoon of July 27, I had a meeting at my request with UAA Chancellor Tom Case, primarily to discuss the recent hiring of then-UAA Women’s Basketball Coach Nate Altenhofen.

The University had announced the hiring of Altenhofen in late May, as the successor to highly successful Coach Tim Moser.

During the intervening two months I had come to develop deep concerns about Altenhofen based on his prior record and discussions with others Outside involved in women’s basketball.  As politely stated as I can, Altenhofen had developed a reputation of becoming involved with his players and staff in inappropriate ways, not something you want especially in a women’s basketball coach.  He had left his prior position as an assistant at Indiana University amidst rumors after only a year there, and had been out of college basketball entirely (i.e., no one would take a chance on him) in the year preceding his hiring by UAA.

Frankly, I also expressed serious concern at the meeting about those at UAA involved in his hiring.   I had initially developed concerns about Altenhofen by merely tracing his track record on the internet.  That in itself raised red flags.  I had followed that with discussions with those in the profession I knew and respected; the red flags were quickly confirmed.

As I explained to Chancellor Case, those were the same steps I would have expected those at UAA involved in Altenhofen’s hiring to have pursued and was disturbed either that they had not bothered to engage in a thorough background check for such a position, or that they had proceeded with the hiring despite the clear warning signs.

The process that UAA had followed in the hire raised additional concerns.  Altenhofen had been hired without the involvement of the community, which short circuited a public process that might have surfaced these issues sooner, before UAA made the offer.

That was not the first time that summer I had questioned UAA’s athletic administration.  The previous month — after Altenhofen was hired but before my concerns worsened about him — I had been highly critical of UAA’s proposed subsidy of airline tickets to the Great Alaska Shootout.

While some took them otherwise, those comments were not made glibly; they came from a serious and fundamental concern I had previously expressed in my professional capacity on numerous other occasions, including in University meetings, and have expressed repeatedly on these pages, that Alaska is facing a precarious future financial situation and should be saving — instead of spending — wherever it can.

You will recall that program proposed to use state funds to subsidize discounted travel and ticket packages to UAA’s annual basketball event.  My concern — and as it turned out others as well — was that the program was a very low priority use of dwindling state funds.  I would anticipate that validity of the concerns I raised is now painfully apparent even to the most ardent supporter as UAA goes through its “prioritization” (i.e., downsizing) process.

At the time, however, my statements created serious strains with the UAA Athletic Department, including allegations from some in the Department that I was anti-education and anti-sports.   Frankly, that insensitivity by those within the Department to the concerns of the outside world helped fuel my concerns about the Department’s overall direction as I learned more about Altenhofen.

I never heard back from Chancellor Case following the July discussion, but on August 9, less than two weeks later, Altenhofen resigned suddenly amid allegations of “professional misconduct.”  Unfortunately, it had nothing to do with my conversation with the Chancellor, because that would have meant that UAA acted before others were put at risk.  Instead, again to put it politely, it appears the “chickens” that one could see so clearly if you just spent time looking at Altenhofen’s record had “come home to roost” within the span of three short months following his hiring.

Subsequent to my July 27 meeting, but before Altenhofen’s August 9 resignation, I also had one additional interaction with Chancellor Case along the same lines.  Following the meeting on the 27th I had been contacted by a parent of one of the players on the team about the player’s status.

The fact the parent contacted me was not altogether surprising.  I am a long time college basketball fan, in those days the UAA women had a remarkable team and coach and to take advantage of that, during the previous year I had arranged my schedule to see as many of the team’s games as I could.  I had met several of the parents during that process, encouraged others to become boosters and subsequently, at the spring banquet, had been awarded the program’s annual “service award” given to an individual for their support of the program over the previous year.  The parents also knew I was a major donor to the University.

The parent expressed concern that her daughter had become uncomfortable with the coach and wanted to transfer — no shock there given that others were finding on the internet the same things I had about Altenhofen.

What was surprising — and seriously disappointing — was that UAA had denied her request for a release.   Let that sink in for a moment.  UAA was putting women student-athletes in harms’ way and then refusing to release them when they sought out of the potentially dangerous situation.  The University wasn’t “Choosing Respect” for the women who had put their trust in it — instead, the University was choosing effectively to attempt to hold them hostage and proposing to penalize them if they left.  Without a release a player must sit out and lose a season of eligibility before being permitted to play for another NCAA institution.

After studying the record I wrote to Chancellor Case as a concerned University supporter, expressing my serious reservations with the way that the University was treating this student, especially in light of the discussion he and I had just had about Altenhofen.

The following day I received a note from Chancellor Case advising that the student’s “situation is still under review,” but never heard from him again on the issue.  Instead, four days later — and only four days before the story on Altenhofen’s forced resignation broke — I received a call, and then a series of subsequent emails from the University’s General Counsel suggesting that my letter to Case raised ethical concerns because others at my then-law firm sometimes represented the University on various matters.  In essence, they asserted that I was the problem because in seeking to protect a student I was taking a position adverse to the University and should withdraw the letter.

The University never answered or addressed my letter on the merits.  Instead, sadly, even after the Altenhofen story broke, the University continued to refuse to provide the student-athlete with a release so that she could pursue her college career elsewhere.  Just as they had when she was trying to get away from Altenhofen, the University refused the release, even though by then it was crystal clear that the program was in disarray and not the one with which she had signed up.

Taking the only course left to her other than to remain at UAA, she chose to enroll at and play for a junior college — and another of her teammates chose to sit out of college entirely — while waiting out the year that UAA effectively could block their move to another NCAA institution.

Subsequent to Altenhofen’s forced resignation I wrote to Chancellor Case one more time, suggesting that, in light of the now-clear failure involved in the hiring process as well as the unwarranted and adverse treatment of the affected student-athletes, I believed that the time had come consider then-Athletic Director Steve Cobb’s termination.  The need for accountability for the substantial and systemic failures involved at least in hiring Altenhofen seemed apparent.

Case, however, responded that he thought the recent events — Altenhofen’s firing — had cleared the air and that he had “full confidence” in the direction of the Athletic Department.  There would be no accountability for any of the actions.

I have never been back to a UAA athletic event since.  It was clear at that point that UAA was deep into “cover it up and hope it will go away” mode; they had no intention of holding anyone accountable for what by then were clear and serious lapses of judgment.  I didn’t want to stay around to see where that led next.

Steve Cobb’s termination has not resolved the situation

Most reading these pages will know that earlier this year Chancellor Case ended up terminating Cobb over other matters — my personal favorite was when Cobb called the UA President “mentally ill”.   One could reasonably have hoped that would put an end to these matters and, gradually, UAA athletics would return to normal.

That does not appear to be the case, however.  Within the past few weeks I have learned that UAA Athletics is now preparing a series of actions which were initiated during the Cobb era, have continued since and appear aimed at settling old grudges, including some with me.

Cobb may be gone, it seems, but the staff that supported him — and were themselves deeply involved in the Altenhofen hiring, the decision not to provide releases to those players requesting them as the Altenhofen events unfolded and the Great Alaska Shootout ticket subsidy — remain and appear to be committed to doing whatever it takes to remain in control.

In theory, the action against me stems from my support of a trip that the women’s basketball team took to Virginia at the beginning of the 2011-2012 season.  As I have written previously, during that trip I paid for a bus to transport the team to DC for a reception with the Alaska congressional delegation and for a dinner to which I had invited the team at what I consider “my house,” the University of Virginia.

The NCAA subsequently advised me that while I could have paid for those activities in one way, it was “impermissible” for me to pay them directly.  Yep, my bad.  But its not like other situations, in which boosters paid players without the institution’s knowledge and indeed, had gone “rogue” from the institution.

Here the University and their representatives clearly knew all along what I was doing; I couldn’t have scheduled either event without their knowledge.   Moreover, as I have said before I was indifferent to how the costs were covered and would have been happy to pay for the activities in any other way they suggested, or as has occurred in numerous other situations, agreed later to be reimbursed and then make an offsetting contribution.  Paying them directly simply seemed to be the most efficient.

But the University is not going down that road.  Instead, I understand that they are going to use this technical violation (or what they themselves term, a “small rule transgression”) as a basis for permanently “barring” me from further association with its athletic programs.

In one sense that is hilarious.  As I said, I have not been to a UAA athletic event since the administration refused to heed the warnings on Altenhofen and then, after, refused to do the right thing by its student-athletes.  That is not the type of institution with which I want to associate.  As a result, “barring” me appears to be more a game of “you can’t quit, I fired you first.”

But much more importantly, this and related actions that UAA is contemplating make clear that there remain deep, troublesome problems within UAA athletics that the termination of Cobb has not addressed.

UAA’s proposed actions are not in any way justified by the facts; instead, they appear aimed simply at redirecting attention away from the University’s own failings,  attempting to discredit those who have raised those issues in the past and at intimidating those who, in the future, may consider speaking out on the University’s athletic programs.

How do I know that?  Easy; there are three telltale signs.

First, the timeline.  The trip to Virginia occurred in November 2011, at the beginning of the 2011-12 season.

(I understand some members of the UAA staff, including those whose job it is to ensure compliance with NCAA rules,  now claim that they did not know of the activities, but that is just silly.  Not only did the team publicly blog about it on the athletic department’s own website (“Nov. 4:  … Following the tour we had dinner in the East Oval Office of the Rotunda …; The Last DC Blog:  … Dinner in the Rotunda was extra special. … None of this would have been possible without [Brad Keithley]”), but UAA wrote about it in “Green & Gold,” UAA’s online news magazine (“You can view photos of the team (and Keithley!) with Sen. Murkowski on her Flickr feed”).  To claim that they didn’t know about it — and if the events raised concerns, follow up at the time to ensure compliance — is effectively to admit that they weren’t doing the job for which they were being paid.)

Following the trip, I continued actively to support the team through the remainder of the year and as I wrote above, at the end of the year received at the team banquet the annual “service award” given to recognize the accomplishments of one of the team’s supporters.  I also served on the Seawolf Athletic Association Advisory Board, the advisory board to the Athletic Department, until I withdrew in late June following the hiring of Altenhofen and the Shootout ticket controversy.

As significantly, I continued to give — and UAA continued to take throughout the year — payments on the significant pledge I had made the previous year to support UAA athletics.  In all during that year I contributed $15,000 directly to athletics; throughout, UAA continued to cash the checks, never raising an issue.  Indeed, as late as May 2012 Steve Cobb publicly was thanking me for my support of UAA Athletics.  If the offenses were so great as to require banishment, under NCAA rules UAA should not have accepted any of the money.

Instead, as I have come to learn since, it was nearly nine months after the Virginia trip and all of the publicity related to it, but only a few short weeks after I raised concerns about the Shootout ticket subsidy (June 8, 2012) and then, expressed my concerns about the Altenhofen situation (July 27, 2012), that UAA began an “investigation” into the November 2011 trip.  What had been a level of support they accepted and knew — or even those who now claim to be ostriches, should have known about — in the fall, and didn’t mention throughout the year when something easily could have been done about it, suddenly became a problem when, following the Altenhofen hiring, I started expressing concerns in the summer.

Second, the nature of the sanctions.  While I understand that some at UAA are attempting to muddle the fact, the sanctions they are proposing in this situation are being adopted internally by the University and are not being imposed by the NCAA.

This is an important difference.  When an institution believes that infractions of NCAA rules have been committed, the process is to report those infractions to the NCAA and then, adopt remedies for those infractions.  The NCAA may accept those or impose others if it believes the situation warrants additional steps.

There is an NCAA appeals process for the persons involved if the NCAA seeks to impose additional penalties.  There is no NCAA appeals process, however, if the institution seeks to impose excessive penalties.  The NCAA takes that position that those are internal matters to the institution and accepts whatever the institution proposes, even if they would be deemed excessive if the NCAA attempted to adopt them.

The latter course is what is happening here.  What UAA is proposing in this situation are university-created sanctions, not NCAA requirements.  Given NCAA precedent in other cases, these events would never support the type of sanctions that UAA is proposing to adopt.  Indeed, they would not have resulted in any NCAA sanctions at all if UAA had simply corrected the situation when it arose and had asked me to make the same contribution covering the cost of the events in the correct way.

Instead, UAA is simply making up its own set of sanctions as it goes, out of all proportion to the underlying events and well beyond NCAA standards.   And it is doing so once again without accountability; not only has UAA not afforded any appeal rights, as I explain below they have gone out of their way to avoid providing me with even basic notice an opportunity to respond.   In essence, they are attempting to pull off what the NCAA rules do not permit for NCAA sanctions, acting arbitrarily as both prosecutor and jury.

Third, UAA’s procedure.  The third telltale sign that the UAA “investigation” has followed a preordained path from the start, unrelated to the facts, is the procedure they have used in this situation.

Normally in an investigation of this type the parties involved are interviewed to determine the facts, and then subsequent discussions are held in the course of arriving at penalties, at a minimum to explain the proposed sanctions to those involved but usually also as a matter of fairness to engage in a discussion about whether the proposed sanctions fit the events.

Consistent with its evaluation of UAA’s proposed actions, I was interviewed by the NCAA at a point earlier this year.  At the end of the discussion I received an email from the NCAA reporting on their conclusions.   I have not heard anything further from the NCAA because, as I noted above, they are not proposing to impose any additional penalties.

Revealingly, however, I have never heard from UAA at all throughout this process.  The university has never advised me that they now believe my previous actions were wrong, much less sought to interview me about them or advise me that they are considering sanctions as a result.  As a major donor I am assigned to a relationship manager whose job is to maintain good relationships between me and the University. Yet, interestingly — especially because the alleged problem occurred as a result of my financial support of the University — I have never heard from that person on this issue and, in fact, the University appears intentionally to have kept that person in the dark throughout the process.

When I finally heard rumors about the their proposed actions I sent an email, which subsequently was distributed to the President of the University, the Chair of the Board of Regents and the UAA Chancellor, questioning the University’s process and proposed actions.  Not surprisingly given the silence resulting from my prior communications related to the Altenhofen situation, but yet disappointingly, I have not received any response.

From my time as a lawyer, I know that these are the type of tactics in which institutions engage when the outcome and actions are precooked and the investigator does not want to “let the facts get in the way.”  The use of such tactics here, especially by a public institution, is highly disappointing — but greatly revealing.

To paraphrase an NCAA standard, UAA has become an institution out of control.  There appears to be no accountability remaining in the system for bad decisions or for arbitrary and biased procedures.  Put another way, when UAA screws up the first reaction appears not to be, how did that happen and how do we fix it, but instead, how do we silence or undermine those who call us out on it so that we don’t have to worry about that again.

So what … 

So, is this situation only a personal irritation to me, or does it raise a larger problem?  I believe it is the latter.  In addition to what it says about how UAA treats its student-athletes and others, I believe it demonstrates UAA’s badly flawed approach also to dealing with donors, who need to play an increasingly larger role if UAA is to maintain adequate funding for its programs going forward.

UAA — and, indeed, the University system as a whole — is at the beginning of a new era.   In the past, UAA and the University system haven’t had to rely much on donors.  As a 2011 report on the University system quoted one observer as saying, “[w]e’ve always depended upon Ted Stevens and the oil companies to take care of us.”  Or as Steve Cobb was once reported to have said about UAA Athletics, “it doesn’t matter how much money this Athletic Department loses, the state is awash in money and we are just going to get a blank check.”

But that time quickly is coming to an end.

As UAA’s own Institute of Social and Economic Research (“ISER”) has observed:

“Right now, the state is on a path it can’t sustain. Growing spending and falling revenues are creating a widening fiscal gap. In its 10-year fiscal plan, the state Office of Management and Budget (OMB) projects that spending the cash reserves might fill this gap until 2023 …. But what happens after 2023?

Reasonable assumptions about potential new revenue sources suggest we do not have enough cash in reserves to avoid a severe fiscal crunch soon after 2023, and with that fiscal crisis will come an economic crash.”

It is clear that the University increasingly will need to reach out to alumni and other contributors in the years ahead to sustain even a minimum level of programs.  No longer will reliance on “Ted Stevens and the oil companies” suffice; in order to survive, the University will need to establish a much larger funding base.

But UAA is not very well prepared to do that, and this situation makes clear why that is.

What UAA — and indeed, the University system as a whole — needs to appreciate is that donors just don’t hand over cash and remain silent.  Donors give to programs and projects that they believe are useful to the community and consistent with their individual objectives.   Just as they do with any other investment — and just as I did in the summer of 2012 — they become vocal if they believe that the programs start to vary significantly from those objectives.

In the summer of 2012 UAA athletics put women student-athletes at serious risk by hiring a coach with a known track record of massively inappropriate misbehavior, spent money like a drunken sailor on low priority objectives at a time when it was clear that the state — and by implication the University system — was headed for seriously difficult times, and additionally, mistreated its student-athletes by attempting to trap them in a very bad situation the University had created  in the first place by hiring the inappropriate coach.

As a donor close to the program I raised my concerns with the University.  Rather than address the situation honestly and with accountably, however, UAA has chosen instead to cover it up and now, proposes to shoot (well, at least shoot at) the messenger.

Not surprisingly, current and potential donors are not going to find that behavior welcoming.  For example, over the last five years alone I have given nearly $75,000 to UAA and had been prepared easily to double that over the next five.

Given this situation, however, I intend to end all support to the University system after honoring the remainder of my existing pledges.   There are other, more honorable places to invest my money.

If UAA does not learn from this situation — and continues the same behavior into the future — others will do the same.  As UAA’s behavior becomes clear, few significant donors will want to participate in a system which is clearly out of control and no longer considers itself accountable for its actions.

The legislature should have a similar concern about the potential consequences of UAA’s behavior.

The legislature should expect appeals in the near future for continued high levels of state funding for the University system.  Already, for example, there are murmurs, even after receiving over $109 million in state funding, that UAA or others on its behalf may request even more state money in order to finish out the new UAA sports arena.

Certainly, there will be requests for funds sufficient to finish construction of the two, duplicative engineering schools that the state allowed to begin this year.

Elsewhere throughout the nation institutions are expected to demonstrate that such facilities have significant private support (often in excess of 50%) before committing state funds to such projects.  Given the state’s financial situation, its time also for Alaska to adopt the same approach.

This is important for two reasons.  The first, obviously, is financial.  The state no longer can afford anything approaching the spending spree it has been on the last few years.  Enlisting private support in such efforts is not only desirable, as in other states it is becoming a matter of necessity.

As important, however, is the help such private funding provides in assisting the state in setting priorities for its own spending.

As I anticipate most readers know, US News and World Report annually issues a report ranking colleges and universities. One of the measures used in the ranking is the level of alumni giving to the university.

The reason that US News uses such a measure is to gauge the extent to which each institution’s programs are perceived by the outside world as providing something useful.   In the US News own words, it is a an “indirect measure of student satisfaction.”

In most universities, donor giving is used the same way.  It is used as a measure by other (in the case of state institutions, including state) funding sources of whether the outside world perceives the proposed program or facility as useful.  If the supposed beneficiaries aren’t willing to provide substantial support to a program or facility, is there a reason that other funding sources (including the state) should instead?

Given the state’s fiscal situation, as the University system approaches the legislature in coming years for funding of various programs or projects, Alaska should apply the same test.  The legislature should require the University system to demonstrate the extent to which outside donors support the program or facility, and if it lacks substantial support, question whether the spending is appropriate.  If others don’t value the program or facility enough to put money into it, the legislature should question also whether it is meeting real needs (as opposed to “wants”).

In order to make the system work, however, the University needs to be much more donor focused than it is currently.

In the same 2011 report that commented on the University system’s past reliance on “Ted Stevens and the oil companies,” those engaged in the study also reached the following conclusion:

The condition of institutional advancement—the management of private giving—at the University of Alaska is mediocre at best. Despite some large gifts (mostly of a corporate variety), UA does not have a history of a well-organized contemporary approach that is standard for a comparable system.

In order to ensure, going forward, that the state captures as much outside funding for its efforts as do comparable systems, the legislature should closely evaluate for itself UAA’s current approach to donors.

In my view, an evaluation of the manner in which UAA athletics goes about dealing with its donors — not those who lobby the legislature to give money, but those who actually donate their own funds — should be near the starting point.   It is in abysmal shape and with this action will become worse, at the very time the University — and state — need for it to be better.

One response to “UAA Athletics remain badly broken, and why addressing it is important …

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