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

“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…

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