Varsity cuts: Challenging Stanford’s claim of ‘no disproportionate impact on any demographic’

Opinion by Madeline Liao and Lucas Orts
Sept. 27, 2020, 11:02 p.m.

“As we evaluated these changes, we placed a high priority on preserving the diversity of the overall student-athlete population.” 

“Our commitment to diversity and gender equity in athletics also remains firmly in place and is supported by this decision.”

“The decision to discontinue these 11 sports will not disparately impact any particular demographic.”

These were some of the statements that Stanford University leadership made in an open letter announcing the discontinuation of 11 varsity athletic programs. In response to the question “Why these 11 sports?”, Stanford cited diversity as a major factor, claiming that the decision aligns with the University’s commitment to creating a diverse and inclusive campus community.  

Over the last two months, the Stanford fencing team has conducted our own research on student-athlete demographics and has come to wonder: how does Stanford define diversity? Does its definition include international students, walk-ons, first-generation/low-income (FLI) students and people of color from a variety of cultures and ethnicities? Is there a definitive process for evaluating how University decisions impact this definition of diversity? 

We are concerned that the answer to the last two questions is “no,” as a quick glance at the rosters of the eleven cut sports makes it clear that there are certain demographics disparately impacted by this decision.  After analyzing demographics data of the PAC-12 and the Stanford student body, we estimate that Stanford’s decision cuts 40-60% of the Asian student-athlete population, despite cutting the total number of student-athletes by only 25%.* With Asians comprising only 1.7% of NCAA Division I athletes this past year, Stanford’s varsity cuts will eliminate athletic opportunities for an already underrepresented group, further diminishing Asian representation in collegiate athletics. Moreover, Stanford’s decision seems to neglect another minority demographic: first-generation/low-income (FLI) student-athletes. One of the sports that Stanford is discontinuing is varsity wrestling even though, since 2006, 44% of Stanford wrestlers have been FLI, compared to the University’s current rate of 17% and the overall NCAA’s first-generation rate of 16%

Given these numbers, Stanford’s claim that this decision preserves diversity simply does not ring true. How did Stanford so confidently claim that these varsity cuts wouldn’t “disparately impact any particular demographic?” How did Stanford leadership overlook our Asian and FLI athletes when making this decision? Although the demographics data of Stanford’s general student body is publicly available, such data for Stanford’s student-athlete community is not, making it difficult to ascertain how this oversight occurred or whether any other demographics were disproportionately affected. Despite concerns raised by the student-athlete and alumni communities in repeated meetings and emails, both Stanford Admissions and Stanford Athletic Director Bernard Muir explicitly denied our multiple requests to release student-athlete diversity data. Moreover, Muir refused to reassure us that Asian and FLI athletes were not disproportionately cut or reveal whether a systematic approach was used to evaluate this decision’s impact on diversity. Thus, we can only assume that our suspicions are correct and that our own estimates are not far off from the true percentage.

The lack of transparency and the disproportionate impact these cuts have on Asian and FLI students are a conspicuous fault with the decision-making process itself and a poor reflection on the University’s values. These issues of diversity and transparency extend beyond athletics: If Stanford is unwilling to share how these cuts are aligned with Stanford’s definition of diversity, how can we trust the administration to handle other diversity issues in a sensitive manner? 

We understand that diversity is no easy issue to tackle. Factors like race, socioeconomic background, nationality, gender and physical ability are just a few of the many facets of diversity that a university must consider when making decisions that impact the demographics of the student population, and it is impossible to account for every demographic. However, it is precisely because diversity is so complex that Stanford ought to have a methodical, transparent process for handling such decisions. 

We have already seen other universities fall short of this standard. In the past few months, both Brown and Dartmouth have also discontinued several varsity programs and have since faced backlash from students regarding issues of race and gender. The Brown track & field team was recently reinstated in order to preserve racial diversity, and in June, the Rhode Island ACLU sued Brown for disproportionately cutting women’s sports and violating Title IX. Meanwhile, a group of Dartmouth students accused the university of anti-Asian bias in its varsity cuts — cuts that affected 30 Asian-American athletes, half of Dartmouth’s Asian student-athlete population. 

It is of utmost importance that Stanford Athletics provide transparency about its own cuts in order to stay true to Stanford’s commitment to diversity. Stanford considers itself a leader in providing excellent opportunities for all demographics, so the University should not only seek to avoid the same mistakes as its peers, but to step up and lead by example for these issues. By being opaque with its decision-making in regards to diversity, not only in the initial announcement, but also in subsequent communications with our team, Stanford is shirking its responsibilities to our diverse student-body and alumni communities.

In making a stand for transparency, we’d like to be clear that we are not making a stand against affirmative action. Though the Dartmouth students have raised the recent Yale affirmative action lawsuit as evidence of anti-Asian discrimination in colleges, we strongly believe affirmative action is a necessary part of achieving racial justice, and we do not support the intent of the lawsuit. We also recognize the loss of 11 varsity sports teams is a small issue amongst the countless manifestations of systemic racism that have been brought to the forefront of our national conversation in the past months. However, the fact that so many institutions have recently failed to ensure equity should be a wake-up call for Stanford. Stanford should not be another name on the laundry list of universities, companies and governments that have broken their commitment to diversity. That simply isn’t the Stanford we know and love. 

As an institution devoted to equitable education that is part of the larger system of American higher education, Stanford is responsible for having a clear, methodical process for making decisions that impact the demographics of its student communities. The varsity cuts are a manifestation of the university falling short of handling diversity transparently. Stanford needs to decide: either reevaluate this decision with diversity as a true priority, not just a stated one, or send the message to its students, alumni and the nation as a whole that certain demographics simply do not count in the University’s definition of diversity.

* We estimated this statistic by using the demographics data of the entire PAC-12 in conjunction with self-reported demographics data of the Stanford fencing team. We took the percentage of Asian athletes in the PAC-12, adjusted this percentage to take into account that the Stanford student body consists of 1.4x more Asians than the average PAC-12 university, then used this percentage to approximate the number of Asians on the nine other cut teams. Using this estimate along with the fencing team data and allowing for  ±10% error yields our 40-60% estimate.

—Madeline Liao and Lucas Orts, on behalf of the fencing team captains

Contact Madeline Liao mmliao ‘at’ and Lucas Orts at leorts ‘at’

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