Chet Burton: Western Nevada College sad to say goodbye to student athletics

WNC President Chet Burton

WNC President Chet Burton

On May 23, Western Nevada College celebrated commencement with a record graduating class. More than 550 students received nearly 600 degrees and certificates. Sadly, it also marked the end of the college’s successful intercollegiate athletics programs.

In the past several months, much has been written — including a good deal of incorrect information — about the decision to discontinue the intercollegiate athletics programs after the 2016 season.

In the past eight years, WNC’s state-supported operating budget has been reduced by more than 40 percent. While some Nevada institutions’ budgets stabilized or increased after 2013, the budgets of Western Nevada College and Great Basin College have decreased each year since the implementation of a new state funding formula. WNC had to discontinue many programs and significantly reduce staffing collegewide.

Against this backdrop, the decision was made in January 2015 to end intercollegiate athletics after the 2016 season. The reality was that continuing to cut academic faculty and programs would undermine the core mission of the college.

When this decision was initially made, a local group of boosters, the Athletic Foundation of Western Nevada (AFWN), was formed to support the athletics programs at WNC. I was glad to meet with this group about the challenges we were facing and outline three main obstacles the college was facing relating to athletics:

The two programs (men’s baseball and women’s softball) required nearly $400,000 per year in ongoing funding for operations, travel and coaches’ salaries. The teams competed in the Scenic West Athletic Conference, requiring extensive travel. Games were played in Idaho, Utah, Colorado and Arizona. To reduce travel expenses, WNC attempted to join the Golden Valley Conference in California. Unfortunately, that was not a viable option.

The college was undergoing a Federal Title IX investigation as WNC did not have equal facilities for men’s and women’s sports. There is an on-campus baseball field, but the women’s softball team had to practice and play games on a municipal field nearly seven miles from campus. To rectify this, a women’s softball field on the Carson campus would have been necessary, requiring an estimated $500,000 to $750,000 to build.

The men’s baseball field, which was so generously donated by the Whittemore family, was built with artificial turf to save water and reduce maintenance. After 10 years of play, the infield was worn out and it would have cost an estimated $100,000 to $150,000 to repair/replace the worn turf.

AFWN pledged to address the core challenges and come up with a proposal. After a series of meetings, we agreed on a tentative plan in March 2015 that, if implemented, would have allowed the programs to continue. However, in May 2015, I received a letter from AFWN with a new proposal in which they agreed to work on the two facilities issues, but the group stated that ongoing operating funds would be the responsibility of the college.

While this was a very generous proposal, the college simply did not have a sustainable and adequate source of operating funds and outside funding would have been absolutely critical to maintain the programs. Since we were facing a deadline to notify the NJCAA and our conference of our intent to discontinue sports, the final decision was made in May 2015.

Critics of the decision said that full-time enrollment revenue generated by the student athletes was adequate to fund the programs. This is simply not true. While the student athletes accounted for tuition and fees paid to WNC, the majority of tuition paid by student-athletics was covered by athletic scholarships provided by Nevada System of Higher Education funds. In addition, those tuition dollars were necessary to pay for the teaching and facilities needed for a college education the same as any other student of the college and not to support athletics programs.

Discontinuing intercollegiate athletics at WNC was a gut-wrenching decision. The faculty and staff of the college, including me, are sad to say goodbye to two greatly admired and extremely successful groups of student athletes, led by dedicated coaches whose leadership will be missed on campus.

I agree with the AFWN that discontinuing intercollegiate athletics will leave a void on the campus and in the community. We will continue to work to provide opportunities for WNC students to participate in activities outside the classroom to provide a full “college” experience and connect our students to the community.

The recent record graduating class is evidence we are fulfilling our primary role: to give our community access to higher education and assist students in reaching their educational and career goals. The certificates and degrees were earned through hard work, perseverance and dedication in the classroom.

All of us at the college are proud of the accomplishments of this graduating class and look forward to a bright future for WNC.

Chet Burton is president of Western Nevada College.

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