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Op-Ed: Northwestern turns a blind eye instead of a corner with Polisky promotion

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NU’s new athletic director was involved in two scandals within the last decade.

Amid a year of divisiveness, opposition and outrage on Northwestern’s campus, it appeared the university was poised for a cultural shift. With President Morton Schapiro stepping down from his post in June 2022, and longtime athletic director Jim Phillips taking a new job as commissioner of the ACC, NU had an opportunity to change for the better.

But on Sunday, the university showed that actions speak louder than words.

Despite repeated emails sent from university leadership detailing its commitment to improving the community, Northwestern made the decision to promote former Deputy Director of Athletics for External Affairs Mike Polisky to athletic director, turning a blind eye to his controversial past.

After 13 years in Evanston, Phillips’ departure to the ACC prompted a four-month-long search for his replacement. The department remained relatively silent throughout the process about who his potential successor would be until Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune reported on Sunday that it was narrowed down to four. Hours later, she confirmed Polisky was indeed their final choice.

The department’s new head is no stranger to campus. He first joined Northwestern in 2010 after serving stints as president of the Chicago Wolves hockey team and president and general manager of the Chicago Rush arena football team. As the deputy athletic director for external affairs, he worked in branding and strategy alongside Phillips, including the notable campaign to rebrand NU as Chicago’s Big Ten Team.

For as qualified as his resume may be, his involvement in multiple scandals with the athletic department cannot be ignored.

Polisky is one of four people cited in the sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Northwestern cheerleader Hayden Richardson in December. Richardson alleged that cheerleaders were sexually exploited and claimed that the school did not properly handle the complaints. The lawsuit claims that when Richardson approached Polisky to discuss her concerns with anonymous letters and testimonials from the team, he accused her of fabricating the evidence. The school filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on Friday, denying any violation of any law, including Title IX.

In November 2016, former Northwestern basketball player Johnnie Vassar sued Northwestern and the NCAA, alleging “a campaign of harassment, pressure, and deception” by head coach Chris Collins and other members of the athletic department to try to get Vassar to transfer or relinquish his scholarship so the coaching staff could pursue other players. According to Kevin Trahan’s 2017 story in VICE, Polisky helped orchestrate the runoff by forcing Vassar to be a janitor so that he could keep his scholarship.

Ignoring these allegations when hiring the next person to run a school’s athletic department is disconcerting, but especially given the climate on Northwestern’s campus and the events of the past year, it is strikingly tone-deaf.

Over the last nine months, Northwestern’s leadership has faced significant backlash from the student body over various campus injustices. Students have protested countless times, particularly with grievances toward Schapiro, and faculty have spoken out about their own frustrations.

In February, more than 80 female faculty members signed a letter published in The Daily Northwestern in support of the cheerleaders who filed the lawsuit against the university, demanding change in the treatment of women at Northwestern.

Associate Professor of History and African American Studies Kate Masur was one of the faculty members who wrote the letter and was responsible for presenting it to Schapiro and Provost Kathleen Hagerty. She said the idea was sparked on Facebook as female professors expressed their shared experiences and disappointment in the school administration. The letter urged the university to prioritize transparency and accountability in the resolution of the litigation.

“Professors do not run this university,” Masur told Inside NU. “We often feel that we don’t share the values of the administration, and we experience a gap between what we think is important — in terms of the kind of workplace we want to work in — and what the administration seems to think is important.”

Apparently, their frustration didn’t matter. NU was handed an opportunity to hear their concerns and take action with a hire that inspired. Instead, it ignored them and again turned a blind eye to what was happening right under its nose.

Polisky wasn’t the only option for the job. The other three finalists were women. Two were women of color. Former NU basketball player and sports executive Anucha Browne, Duke deputy athletic director Nina King and interim Northwestern athletic director Janna Blais all earned the nod as finalists.

King has spent the last 13 years at Duke facilitating daily operations at one of the most prominent college sports departments in the country. Browne is one of the best players in Northwestern women’s basketball history and worked for the New York Knicks, the University of Buffalo athletic department and the NCAA. She also notably won a sexual harassment and retaliation case against Isiah Thomas and the Knicks. Blais began her career at Northwestern in 2010 where she manages five major departments as the deputy director of athletics for administration and policy. She served as interim athletic director between Phillips’ departure and Polisky’s promotion.

“Even if it were to turn out that he is cleared of any legal wrongdoing, the optics are terrible,” Masur said. “There were evidently a number of very qualified candidates. Why, given the situation, given the political climate that we’re in, would you choose to elevate someone who’s been part of a troubled past versus bringing in someone new who represents a breath of fresh air in a variety of different ways?”

Northwestern could have helped contribute to a culture of change. Of the 63 Power Five FBS athletic directors, 59 are men and only four are women. Fifty are white, while only eight are Black, three are Hispanic or Latino, one is Asian and none are biracial. Forty-eight of the 63 are white men. In its 126-year history, Northwestern has now had 22 athletic directors — all of whom have been white men. At a school where 11 of its 19 varsity sports teams are women’s teams (which make up some of its strongest nationally ranked programs), and in the realm of DI college sports where 40% of the athletes are people of color, the leadership chose the status quo.

“We are living in a time where people are more demanding that there should be some improvements, and I think that’s a good thing,” said Ava Thompson Greenwell, a Medill professor and one of the faculty members who signed the letter. “Hopefully, that means that’s going to move the university forward faster — doesn’t mean they aren’t going to take some steps backward.”

Julie DiCaro of Deadspin reported on Monday that at least one person associated with the school suggested that Polisky was the choice of major donor Pat Ryan. Another said Phillips was informally involved in the search for his own replacement, and Polisky happened to be his right-hand man for the last decade. Despite the diverse search committee that included alumni, faculty, coaches, student-athletes and trustees, it appears that the choice was primarily made at the hands of a few key players. The transparency that was demanded was not delivered.

“When I think about transparency, I think about letting the university community know how did you come to these decisions? What are the things that you considered,” Greenwell told Inside NU. “I think it is important for us to question — that’s what we’re teaching our students to do, to be critical thinkers, to question certain things and to try to get answers. They may not agree with the answers, but I think they should have answers.”

One main responsibility of an athletic director is to better the experiences of its student-athletes. While Polisky has contributed to “the golden era” of Northwestern sports and helped turn NU into the athletic program it is today, this position demands more of a candidate than he has shown, and he’s fallen short in ways that make you question how he got a significant promotion.

As for Northwestern’s decision making, the administration and leadership can continue to claim they’re dedicated to improving. They can keep sending emails promising change. They can keep encouraging awareness days or supplying BLM warm-up shirts. But until they put their money where their mouth is, their words are empty.