Queen’s has its priorities wrong

It’s been a remarkably successful year for the Western Mustangs. They claimed national titles in men’s and women’s rowing and picked up OUA banners in football, men’s hockey, men’s curling, women’s curling, men’s squash, women’s squash and women’s swimming. They also advanced to the Vanier Cup in football, the University Cup final in men’s hockey and the national semifinals in men’s basketball. Clearly their sports teams are on the right track.

That kind of success is not going to happen here while the administration has the wrong idea about Queen’s athletics. Principal Tom Williams spoke at the Colour Awards Tuesday night and said Queen’s athletes’ academic success means they have as much to be proud of as those athletes from other schools that claimed more championships.

“They may have athletes, but we have student-athletes,” he said.

This is a troubling attitude. We can’t sit in our ivory towers and take comfort in our athletes’ grades while denying them the resources they need to have success on the field. Having student-athletes is not good enough any more.

Much of Western’s success comes from the emphasis the university places on success in athletics. Participation and academic triumphs are not good enough for them, and they’re willing to invest their resources in varsity sports to achieve provincial and national glory. In May 2007, they announced an infusion of $1.7 million into athletics at a time when many OUA universities were trying to reduce their costs and cut programs. Much of that money was earmarked for athletic scholarships, which have played an important role in their success. They have also built state-of-the-art facilities for their teams and invested in full-time coaches. Their administration prioritizes excellence in varsity sports and backs their words with dollars. Unfortunately, the current administration at Queen’s doesn’t follow suit.

That doesn’t have to always be the case, though. The recent approval of the increase in the undergraduate athletics fee is a huge step in the right direction and will provide Queen’s athletics with some much-needed support and stability. With that increase, Queen’s students have demonstrated that they value a high-quality athletics and recreation program that can succeed at the provincial and national level. The problem is that the support in other areas hasn’t lived up to what undergraduate students are providing.

The chief culprit is the University. Athletics, along with the other departments under the Dean of Student Affairs, is facing 18 per cent budget cuts over the next three years. While undergraduate students are stepping up to the plate and providing the resources athletics needs to be successful, the administration is reducing its support. This means improvement will take longer and be less successful.

It isn’t simply a question of not having the funds. Yes, it is a difficult economic climate, but athletics should be seen as an investment, not an expense, and an investment we can’t afford to let slip. Resources invested to allow our teams to excel rather than merely participate will bring tremendous dividends in the long run. Queen’s athletes bring more positive attention to this school than almost any other group of students, and that attention is magnified even further with success on the national stage. Funding athletics at the current level accomplishes little, but giving the athletics department the necessary resources to succeed would be a tremendous marketing move for the University. Look at how much national exposure Western gets from their successful teams. Queen’s students have shown they understand the value of a strong athletics program committed to excellence, but the administration hasn’t. That’s unfortunate, as many of the benefits from a successful athletics program will go straight to the University.

Over the past few years, Queen’s athletics department has started to move towards a model similar to Western’s, favouring excellence over participation and giving teams the facilities and resources they need to be successful. Facility improvements, scholarships and full-time coaches all take substantial investment, though, and this is where Queen’s lags behind because the University administration doesn’t prioritize athletic success. Yes, the first phase of the Queen’s Centre will help, but it’s facing significant budgetary struggles and the remaining phases are up in the air. The promised hockey arena has been relocated to west campus and is a long way from completion. Richardson Stadium is showing its age, and a new stadium for football and soccer is still nothing more than a concept. Queen’s offers some athletic scholarships, but nowhere close to what many schools can put on the table for prospective recruits. We have a talented array of coaches, but many of them are only part-time and can’t devote the time and effort to their programs that their full-time counterparts at other universities can.

We need an athletics program that can beat other schools on the court as well as in the classroom. Our current program has the right personnel and is headed in the right direction, and students have demonstrated that they are willing to provide the financial support to take it to the next level. If the University steps up to the plate and makes investing in excellence in athletics a priority, someday it might be the Gaels racking up OUA and national banners instead of the Mustangs. Until then, we might have to take comfort in our athletes’ grades.

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