The University of British Columbia's athletic-program review has morphed into a wrestling match.
In one corner, some alumni and media outlets have suggested the fix is in, that varsity programs such as hockey and football will be cut to make way for less-traditional sports.
In the other corner is Louise Cowin, vice-president of students at UBC and the person in charge of the review.
In an interview, Ms. Cowin said the controversy is unfounded. She said there is no "secret agenda" at play and final decisions have not yet been made. Ms. Cowin said she wants the review – to be released next year – to put teams on a pathway to greater success, with a larger fan base. She stressed the review is not about cutting costs, but about better investment.
What is the purpose of this review?
There needed to be a review of the department of athletics and recreation. One hadn't been taken for very many years. … That took place in February of 2012, and the external review committee delivered back about 20 recommendations. One of the things that followed from there was an expert panel put together to develop a new competitive sport model for UBC. So what we're seeing now is kind of the final phase for that, which is a review of the varsity programs.
For those who don't know, what is the varsity program?
The varsity program has a very important and storied tradition at UBC. It's an opportunity for top-performing student-athletes [to compete] in the number of sports that the university decides to compete in – at UBC it's currently 29. They receive funding from the department of athletics and recreation's operating budget, which is largely student-fee based.
Why do you think the review has proven controversial?
I think that people are jumping to conclusions. I think that they don't believe that this is a transparent, objective, open process. You've read in the papers as well as I, "The fix is in." But that really is people who are operating from a place that have chosen to take their voices to the media to presume conclusions rather than to engage in the process. There have been absolutely no decisions taken right now.
Are you surprised by that reaction?
UBC is not the first out of the gate to undertake this varsity review. There are several other universities in the country. University of Toronto, Queen's, Ottawa have all undertaken similar reviews. … And no, absolutely not. I understand the concern around change, I understand the concern around potential loss and I think that these reactions are entirely understandable and somewhat predictable. I probably thought that we would hear this reaction when we made the decision, rather than this happening at the outset.
Have any varsity programs been deemed safe? Or is everything on the table?
Have we made decisions on what those sports are?
No, we have not.
Is 29 teams too many?
We have 29 teams now. The number of teams increased, as did their percentage of dollars from the operating budget. And the thought is there was no real review as to how many dollars were the right number of dollars and how many sports were the right number of sports as part of that growth.
We're at a stage right now where the varsity budget is tapped out and we don't have any way by which to make future decisions. … What we're trying to do is to focus on fewer varsity teams, and to support them at a higher level. And what I mean by that is not just dollar value for their operating budgets. But in terms of the whole science of sport, in terms of sports physiology, biomechanics, sports nutrition, sports psychology, and those kind of things that are very much part of performance sport at an elite level, but are really absent from UBC's structure currently.
Are you relying on the work done at the other universities?
We're certainly paying attention to those. But what we are trying to do is to create a UBC solution, what we think is best for the University of British Columbia.
This interview has been edited and condensed.