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Presidents want more oversight over varsity sports body

Proposal to change the governance of Canadian Interuniversity Sport stems from a series of contentious issues in recent years.


University presidents have asked for a clear oversight role in the governance of interuniversity athletics in Canada. A proposal by a working group of university presidents will go to Canadian Interuniversity Sport for a vote at their June annual meeting. The proposal calls for an advisory board of presidents to provide strategic advice and policy direction to CIS, the governance body for varsity sports in Canada.

Saint Mary’s University President Colin Dodds chaired the working group of four presidents and four athletic directors set up a year ago to recommend a governance mechanism that would include presidents’ oversight of the sports body. “I think it will strengthen CIS,” said Dr. Dodds in an interview in February. “We’re not talking about getting involved in day-to-day operations – that’s the athletic directors’ job. We want to offer a broader perspective beyond sports that is more focused and pan-Canadian.”

Some athletics directors – although probably not all – welcomed the move. “We’ve been thinking for some time that it would be good to bring the presidents into the CIS management structure,” said Clint Hamilton, director of athletics at the University of Victoria and president of CIS since 2009. “It would definitely be a plus to have a high-level advisory board that could provide advice and policy direction on strategic and substantive issues.”

Some of those issues, he added, have proven troublesome for such a diverse and democratic organization, with 52 member schools (each with two voting members – one male, one female – who are named by university presidents), four regional associations and a diversity of opinion that sometimes led to emotional debates. Among the most divisive issues are the maximum value of scholarships that can be awarded to athletes; how CIS should expand to include new university members; and whether CIS members may also belong to competing sports leagues, like the National Collegiate Athletic Association in the United States.

The presidents are themselves not in agreement on these thorny issues, but they believe they should be involved in these decisions. In the U.S., the NCAA has increasingly strengthened the oversight role of presidents over varsity sports. Up until now, CIS representatives have voted on such issues, although the decisions often affect overall university operations, not just athletics.

For example, the maximum scholarship that Canadian schools can offer their athletes is full tuition and fees – much less than NCAA Division I athletes are entitled to. “We know it’s a factor for our students to go south,” said Mr. Hamilton, adding that it’s a divisive issue in CIS. Some university presidents have concerns that if CIS decides to allow more lucrative sports scholarships in Canada, this could divert money away from academic scholarships.

Expansion is another contentious issue that goes beyond the purview of athletics. According to both Dr. Dodds and Mr. Hamilton, the rapid rise in the number of new universities in Western Canada – particularly in British Columbia – has led to an increase in requests for admission into CIS sports. Adding new members to a CIS conference affects the time and distance that student athletes have to travel, and thus the cost to the university and the time athletes have available for study. Adding more teams also can upset traditional team rivalries that draw big crowds.

But refusing teams carries a price, too. Last year, for example, the University of Northern British Columbia was refused membership in the 13-team basketball conference of the Canada West Universities Athletic Association (a CIS affiliate) – a decision that came on the heels of UNBC winning the Canadian Colleges Athletics Association’s national title. “I was shocked and surprised when we were turned down,” said UNBC President George Iwama, a basketball fan, who attended the championship game in Calgary – the only university president to do so. “We have a great team, a great fan base [with] 2,000 people at our games. The whole community was disappointed.”

Adding to the frustration, he noted, was the fact that the vote (which requires 75 percent to pass) was done by secret ballot. “There was no way of knowing where we fell short or how we can strengthen our application,” said Dr. Iwama. “There was speculation we needed an athletic director, so we’ve hired one, or that we needed more teams, so we’ve added soccer.” Hopes are again high, he added, for a more favorable outcome this spring for UNBC’s second application to the CWUAA. “We’re good sportsmen and we’ve got our smiles back on,” said Dr. Iwama. “I don’t know why we would be turned down. We have high-calibre teams, and having the best student athletes compete is what the CIS is supposed to be about. Let’s play ball.”

When decisions are taken that aren’t to the liking of individual universities, they can also lead to threats to join the NCAA – something Dr. Dodds calls “a pan-Canadian issue that would and should engage the presidents, and there’s been a growing appetite for that.”

Indeed, observers say that the issue that moved the presidents to act stemmed from a decision taken by CIS at its annual meeting in June 2009, right around the time that Simon Fraser University, then a CIS member, became the first non-U.S. institution to join the NCAA (Division II). CIS passed a motion stating its members cannot participate in NCAA sports that are also offered by the CIS. Some university presidents felt that in making this decision, the CIS had overstepped its authority.

In January 2010, the board of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada set up an ad hoc steering committee to facilitate finding a solution to the CIS dilemma. The committee sent a questionnaire to all 95 AUCC members (not just the 52 that are CIS members), asking for opinions and comment. “What came back was a clear mandate that we needed to discuss a meaningful oversight role,” said Dr. Dodds.

For the university presidents, agreeing to an oversight mechanism is only a first step. “The tough decisions are still to come,” said Christine Tausig Ford, vice-president of AUCC, who has been involved with the CIS issue since 2009. “However, the presidents believe they are the ones who should be deciding on matters that bind them financially, can affect their reputation and have far-reaching implications.”

Last summer, the presidents’ ad hoc committee met with five CIS representatives, including Mr. Hamilton, and came up with a proposal for a new advisory board. The board is to be comprised of nine voting members who are executive heads of CIS member universities and one representative from CIS on an ex oficio basis. Its mandate is twofold: to provide advice and policy direction to the CIS board of directors on strategic and substantive issues affecting CIS and the regional associations; and to communicate and report to CIS member presidents and to the CIS board on an ongoing basis. The board would be set up on a trial basis for two years.

The proposal is to be discussed by interested AUCC members at their membership meeting in mid-April in Victoria. It will then go before the CIS at its annual meeting in June and, if accepted there, the advisory council will be born. “Given the discussions we’ve had, I’m led to believe it will be accepted by all,” said Dr. Dodds. The advisory council “won’t be a magic fix. But I think it will help the CIS by having us share in the commitment to the value of interuniversity sport in Canada and the roughly 10,000 student athletes who participate.”

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