The Columbia University Department of Athletics announced Tuesday that it would be implementing a new policy regarding the promotion of teams to varsity status.
The revamped system, which was ratified in August by the Faculty Athletics Committee (FAC), details a streamlined formal review process by which any new team applying for varsity status will be evaluated. A significant aspect of the policy is the review of an application by the FAC, a committee consisting of faculty, administrators, and alumni that advises the Athletic Department.
“The FAC exists to ensure that Columbia’s intercollegiate athletics program receives guidance from stakeholders around the University,” said Dr. M. Dianne Murphy, director of intercollegiate athletics and physical education. “This new policy for adding new varsity teams is a testament to the strong partnership between our athletics program and the Faculty Athletic Committee.”
This is the first major change enacted by the FAC since it was reconstituted by University President Lee Bollinger in January. The policy first requires the submission of a formal written proposal to the director of intercollegiate athletics and physical education. It must include logistics including potential funding sources, roster size, coaching staff, competitive schedule, and recruitment practices, as well as broader principles such as the sport’s history in both the NCAA and the Ivy League and its potential impact on the University’s diversity and globalization objectives.
The actual review process begins with the assembling of benchmark data in these areas by the director and several senior athletics administrators to determine the feasibility of the sport. After consulting with the Office of University Development and Alumni Relations as well as the Office of Budget and Finance to determine if the funding is available, a formal proposed operating budget is submitted to the FAC Policy Subcommittee with the original proposal attached.
Should the subcommittee approve the proposal, the entire FAC will vote to make a New Varsity Sport Recommendation. Upon receiving a positive recommendation, the director will then forward the proposal to the University president, who will make the final decision on the sport’s varsity status. If the president rejects the proposal, the club will have to wait 24 months before resubmitting its application.
According to Murphy, the policy had been in the works since March, when the FAC held its first inaugural meeting at President Bollinger’s home. The goal was to find an area in which both the FAC and the Athletic Department could work together.
“I thought they could be helpful with helping us look at a policy that would look at adding varsity teams at Columbia,” Murphy said. “They agreed that that would be something that they would be interested in helping us with. That was the genesis of the initial conversation.”
From there, talks became serious during the first formal meeting in May. The policy went through several revisions during the summer and was voted on by the FAC Policy Subcommittee, after which it was approved by the full Athletics Committee during the first week of August. The delay in the policy’s announcement was due to the fact that the department wanted to wait until the students returned so that it could inform the Club Sports Assembly of the change.
Murphy feels that the new policy is a significant improvement on the old one, which needed altering for some time to include more teams in the discussion. “Perhaps we should have done it earlier,” she said. “We review all of our policies as regular operating procedure, and in doing so we looked at the old policy and felt like it was not a good policy. It needed to be more inclusive, because it shouldn’t be just about club teams, it should be about any new team, adding a varsity team whether they’re a club team or not, and that’s why we looked at it in a more global perspective.”
Murphy also highlighted the distinctiveness of a policy for adding varsity teams. “Given the fact that across the country, the trend has been for intercollegiate athletic programs to be in the business of dropping programs more recently, because of funding and other matters, we felt like it was time that we really looked at the policy, and put something in place that was consistent, that was fair, that can deal with the vision, mission, and values of the University and the athletics program,” she said. “We have wonderful club sport programs, and many of them want to compete at a varsity level.”
But while Murphy welcomes the applications of sports for varsity status, teams must know that this will not be easy to obtain. In addition to funding issues, space and equipment limitations, as well as Title IX requirements, will severely restrict the potential of a proposal to make it all the way through the review process. The new policy requires that most of these issues be sorted by the applying team, which will need to do extensive research before submitting its proposal.
“If you look at the policy, any existing club team or any new team that wants to apply, they’re really going to have to do their homework,” Murphy said. “And that’s part of the process, knowing more about what’s going on out there in the real world. The policy is a really sound policy. It’s very consistent, it’s very clear, it’s very fair. But it will be difficult because it has to fit Columbia. It has to fit our values, it has to fit our mission, it has to fit our resources. I think this may be more helpful in helping people be realistic of what is required.”
Indeed, it will be difficult for a team to join the already crowded varsity ranks. The University currently has 29 varsity teams, with successful club teams such as men’s lacrosse and men’s rugby still stuck in club team status. It is unclear just how much of a challenge this new policy presents to such teams, many of which face the possibility of never achieving varsity status.
“We’ll have to deal with it on a case-by-case basis,” Murphy said. “But that’s part of the exercise, is to really understand, can we do this, will it work in New York City, will it work at Columbia. We don’t have a lot of space—we’re landlocked—so we really have to be realistic about it. It’s going to require a lot of work on everybody’s part. If a team or any group were to come forward with a proposal, we’re going to need to take a hard look and make sure we can accommodate it. It will require a lot of work.”
Still, the new policy provides hope to successful, organized teams that have been vying for varsity status for years. According to Julien Barbey, senior captain of the national champion men’s lacrosse team, the policy is a big improvement from previous years, in which all a team could do to turn varsity was hope.
“Personally, I’m really happy with the policy,” Barbey said. “It’s better than nothing. Last year, we were 22-1 and after we won the national championship, I explicitly asked [Director of Intramural and Club Sports] Brian Jines how we could become varsity, and he flat out told me that all we could do is keep promoting our club, keep building our club, and get more successful. That was kind of a kick in the teeth. We got recognition on the national scale and the guys were expecting some kind of recognition from Columbia for accomplishing so much.”
Barbey is pleased that the new policy will force a dialogue between club teams and the Athletic Department and hopes that it will be a fair process by which his team can gain varsity status.
“To initiate this formalized process, at least it’s a start, an opportunity,” Barbey said. “Given our success and high level of organization, I think that lacrosse definitely deserves a good look. I am happy with Dr. Murphy’s efforts to at least give us a chance. Hopefully the initiatives that she has instituted will lead to good things and help us build a program.”