An open response to Stanford leadership from the athletic community

July 17, 2020, 7:47 a.m.

Dear President Tessier-Lavigne, Provost Drell and Director Muir:

On July 8, 2020, you announced that Stanford will permanently discontinue 11 varsity athletic programs at the conclusion of the 2020-2021 academic year. This decision is devastating to our community in profound and personal ways. The lack of transparency, adequate notice and failure to include the Stanford community in the decision-making process stands in direct opposition to Stanford University’s commitment to its values. 

The strength of the Stanford Athletics community is evident in our collective response to the decision to cut these programs. With this in mind, we have spent the last week coming together to discuss and gather our thoughts. We feel that it is our responsibility to share them with you. This letter is the culmination of insights from over 500 coaches, alumni, current and future athletes, Olympians, friends and fans.

Rather than making demands and detailing our grievances, we are taking this opportunity to start a constructive dialogue. Through this letter, we are expressing concern at a higher level regarding: (1) what this reveals about the nature and values of Stanford University as an institution, and (2) the process you went through to reach this decision. 

First, to our concerns about the nature and values of the institution. 

In her 1904 address to the Board of Trustees, Jane Stanford said, “Let us not be afraid to outgrow old thoughts and ways, and dare to think on new lines as to the future of the work under our care.” Your decision-making process here shakes this foundational pioneering spirit that is what makes — and has always made — Stanford excellent. This excellence derives from our leadership’s ability to not just question the status quo, but to push the national educational landscape forward in new ways with integrity, optimism and vision.

While this specific decision impacts athletics, it could have occurred within any community or department. Stanford promises the young star athlete, concert musician and rocket scientist alike that they don’t need to choose between nerd or jock. Stanford is a place that tears down silos and encourages you to be both. This has allowed The Farm to attract the best and brightest in multifaceted areas, and propels a culture of collaboration, whether it be on the field, in the Product Realization Lab or in the classroom.

It is because of this visionary spirit that other institutions look to Stanford to lead. This is particularly true on the West Coast and in athletics, where Stanford serves as a benchmark for success and has inspired PAC-12 and other western region schools to start varsity programs of their own. By choosing to eliminate these teams, particularly ones that have a tradition of being the best in the nation and who attract and produce Olympians, you are setting a dangerous precedent for other schools to follow. In doing so, you threaten the invaluable role that these sports contribute to the athletic department.

The teams you’ve selected provide rare opportunities whose loss will negatively affect Stanford Athletics and the University at large. For example, a number of programs proposed to be cut consist of co-ed players and create an irreplaceable space for gender inclusion and cooperation. In addition, many are cornerstones of the walk-on community — a group of student-athletes who often lack the means or access to compete in these sports prior to college. Through institutions like Stanford, these athletes can engage with elite coaches, teammates, and facilities, experiencing massive growth and development. These teams create opportunities for athletes from diverse racial, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds in traditionally homogeneous sports. It is this diversity that Stanford should champion and continue to lead by example in pursuing. 

As expressed on Stanford’s own website, Stanford is a place for “learning, discovery, innovation, expression and discourse.” This is not just limited to the classroom. Collegiate sports develop the next generation of leaders. They educate outside the classroom and should not be treated as a business within your school. In cutting these programs, Stanford shirks the responsibility of leading our peers to strive for this higher goal and of supporting future student-athletes. This decision cuts to the core of Stanford’s culture, tradition and legacy.

Now, to our concerns around your process. 

In your open letter to the Stanford community, the University and Athletic Department’s leadership claim to have “exhaust[ed] all alternatives before making profound changes in our programs.” Respectfully, we disagree with this assertion. Without engaging the Stanford network, including alumni and broader athletic community members, we dispute whether all alternatives were truly assessed and explored. 

Furthermore, the letter stated that this decision “comes down primarily to finances and competitive excellence,” yet you selected to cut programs that have won 20 national championships and brought home 27 Olympic medals, many of which have endowments.  Additionally, you have indicated that funding from external sources and donors would not be accepted for any of the programs to continue at the varsity level. When coupled with our first concern, we can only assume that this decision was made based on a shift in the values that Stanford represents, rather than just the financial considerations as listed. 

Nonetheless, we recognize that this is a moment of unprecedented financial and cultural pressure placed upon the shoulders of university leaders. Given this context, we anticipate that this decision is the first of many very hard cuts that Stanford will be making. Our intent in writing this letter is to share our heartbreak and concerns with you so that when the next Stanford community learns that their legacy has been cut, you will do better by them. 

In particular, while the lack of communication with alumni was disappointing, the way you chose to share this decision with current athletes, coaches and recruits was far more troubling. The current athletic community is still reeling from a missed academic quarter, cancelled spring season and the threat of impending season cancellations to come. Sending an email to current student-athletes, 40 minutes prior to the announcement of the permanent discontinuation of their athletic programs is not the standard of care to which you should treat your community. Further, this decision has forced coaches to rescind commitments to prospective recruits, irrevocably impacting the future of these athletes, many of whom dreamed—just like us—of studying at and competing for Stanford. 

We understand that tough decisions have to be made and that you—our University leadership—are responsible for making them, but we are disappointed that we were not provided an opportunity to collaborate with you around solutions to save the programs that mean so much to us. Despite this decision, we continue to believe in this University’s ability to lead. That is why we feel so passionately that this decision is a mistake and are compelled to let you know how it has been received.

We implore you to reach out to us and pursue a path forward that is inclusive, transparent and collaborative. We would welcome this opportunity to address our community’s concerns and also to hear from University leadership about its rationale for making this decision. 


Alexander Massialas (Class of 2016, Stanford Men’s Fencing, 2x-Olympic medalist)

Nathalie Weiss (Class of 2016, Stanford Men’s Rowing)

See the signatories of this letter here.

Contact Alexander Massialas at amassialas ‘at’ and Nathalie Weiss at nsweiss ‘at’

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