Why won’t Northwestern talk about their new AD?

There is usually a lot of fanfare when a new AD is announced. Not so much here.
There is usually a lot of fanfare when a new AD is announced. Not so much here.
Image: Getty Images

Early this week, Northwestern University announced the hiring of Mike Polisky as Athletic Director. To date, there has been no press conference, Polisky hasn’t spoken to the media, and Deadspin’s calls and emails to both the university and the athletic department, as well as Polisky himself, have gone largely unanswered, outside of Northwestern directing us to an open letter President Morton Schapiro released on Thursday.

Advertisement

Where’s the fanfare? Hiring a new athletic director is a huge event for a Big Ten school, and one universities normally love to shout from the rooftops with plenty of pageantry. So why, four days after announcing a new AD, is Northwestern not answering questions about him? And why hasn’t Polisky addressed the media or campus community?

Polisky’s hiring was problematic for many reasons, starting with the fact that A) he is a named defendant in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against the school and B) he worked as deputy athletic director at a time when Black cheerleaders were told they were not allowed to wear their hair in braids or other “ethnic” hair styles. Polisky is cited in former cheeleader Hayden Richardson’s lawsuit as accusing her of fabricating evidence when she turned to the athletic department for help after being groped, fondled, and exploited as a sex object by wealthy alumni and former cheerleading coach Pam Bonnevier. Bonnevier was eventually fired by the school last fall. Further, Polisky wasn’t even chosen to serve as interim athletic director upon the resignation of former AD Jim Phillips. That position went to Janna Blais.

In February, 80 women faculty members signed a letter to the university expressing concerns about sexism and racism within the ranks of the athletic department, begging the school for transparency in investigation allegations made by former cheerleaders and to lead the way “in creating and successfully implementing policies that emphasize equity and inclusion across the board, for all people associated with the university.” Suffice it to say that Poliksy’s hiring, and the lack of transparency with which the hire was made, have not satisfied that request.

In his open letter, Schapiro assures the university that Polisky was the “the best person to lead our Department of Athletics and Recreation forward, based on his body of work at Northwestern, and his understanding of the University community, its culture and its values.”

But sources with knowledge of the quest for a new AD say the search committee was blindsided by Polisky’s hire — believing they were legitimately vetting candidates nationally — only to have Polisky (reportedly preferred by former AD Jim Phillips, major athletic donor Pat Ryan, head football coach Pat Fitzgerald, and Schapiro) get the job.

“This was a bunch of white guys from a club picking another white guy from the same club, consequences be damned,” one source at Northwestern told Deadspin. As Phillips is now head of the ACC, several people close to the university have openly wondered to Deadpsin why he was involved in the search and hiring process at all. While a source close to Phillips (who did not wish to be identified) told Deadspin that Phillips had nothing to do with the search for a new Northwestern AD or Polisky’s hiring, more than one person in the Northwestern community say they believe he played a major role in pushing Polisky forward as his successor.

Advertisement

Now, six female faculty members have written a second letter to Provost Kathleen Hagerty, expressing their “dismay” at Polisky’s hiring, and saying it “signals a troubling continuity in Athletic Department leadership that, while successful in some areas, failed the University and its students in significant ways. Moreover, the selection conveys that Northwestern has little interest in becoming, as you put it in your email of February19, 2021, ‘a national leader on diversity, inclusion and equity issues.’”

“(I)t’s almost as if the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements never happened as far as Northwestern’s leadership is concerned,” Associate Professor of History Caitlin Fitz told Deadspin. “Even though Polisky is a named defendant in a nationally prominent sexual harassment lawsuit and allegedly dismissed cheerleaders’ accounts of racism, he’s being promoted without a full, independent, and transparent investigation.”

Advertisement

Schapiro insisted in his open letter that, after Richardson’s lawsuit was filed, an independent investigation was conducted into “any new concerns of discrimination, harassment or retaliation, or any concerns of discrimination, harassment or retaliation that the Cheer Team feels were not previously addressed. The initial inquiry portion of that investigation is complete and there is no information to suggest that (Polisky) engaged in any conduct that is a violation of policy.”

But whatever investigation was done and however Polisky was cleared of wrongdoing, the university community in Evanston hasn’t seen it and is not privy to the details, other than vague pronouncements of Polisky’s innocence.

Advertisement

The faculty organizers aren’t buying Schapiro’s platitudes. In their letter to Provost Hagerty, the women say they are “alarmed by this decision and, indeed, embarrassed on behalf of the university. We see the decision as antithetical to pledges you made in your emails to us in February and March in response to the letter of concern signed by more than 80 women faculty. We believe that, at the very least, before Polisky is formally hired, the university must commission and make public an independent, transparent, third-party investigation that demonstrates that Polisky performed his legally mandated duties and acted with integrity when addressing the concerns of the cheerleaders and their allies.”

A protest at Schapiro’s home is planned for Friday afternoon at 4:30 pm. However, the event organizers already ran up against the Northwestern machine in preparing for the protest. One Evanston shop, where the faculty sought to have signs printed with the names of university officials who have not responded to their requests for information, first agreed, then called back and refused to fill their order, saying that the shop does business with the university. The employee speaking to Fitz told her he “hadn’t had time” to read about the controversy surrounding Polisky.

Advertisement

Privately, Polisky is said to be furious about the pushback to his hiring and is avoiding media coverage of the controversy. On the other side of the issue, some student athletes are reportedly “unhappy” and at least one member of the search committee is “livid.” It doesn’t appear as if anyone who objects to Polisky’s promotion plans on backing down any time soon.

Northwestern did not respond to Deadspin’s request to interview Polisky or Associate AD for Athletic Communications Paul Kennedy, nor did they respond to the following questions we posed via email:

  1. Does President Schapiro not believe the allegations of sexual harassment and racism levied by Hayden Richardson and Erika Carter?
  2. Is it the position of Northwestern University that Richardson and Carter are not telling the truth about what went on during their time on the Cheer Squad?
  3. Have the details of any of the investigations or reports created therein been made available to members of the Northwestern community?
  4. Were any of those involved in investigating the incidents alumni or connected to the university in any way?
  5. Why has NU not held a press conference yet to announce Polisky’s hiring?

If you’ve ever been to Evanston on a Saturday during football season, none of this is surprising. Northwestern football makes the entire town go, and it’s driven, in large part, like any school in a Power Five conference, by donor money. In choosing Polisky, Northwestern has chosen the cash cow that is Wildcat football and the good ol’ boys network over the dignity and humanity of the students, particularly over women and Black students.

Advertisement

It’s long past time for Northwestern to come clean about how Polisky’s hiring came about, how seriously they took other candidates, and reveal what the independent investigation revealed about Polisky’s role (or apathy) to racism and sexism in the ranks of the athletic department.

After shutting the campus community, not to mention the search committee, out of the process, it’s the least Northwestern can do.

Co-host of The Ladies Room podcast. Author of "Sidelined: Sports, Culture, and Being a Woman in America." Former law-talking chick.