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Alumni stop donations, want change for athletes

by Evan Sporer / Beacon Staff • April 5, 2012

Some alumni have vowed to stop donating to Emerson until the college investigates concerns about Athletic Director Kristen Parnell raised by a recent petition signed by hundreds of current and former athletes.

Weeks after a petition by a former men’s basketball player Kabir Moss urged President M. Lee Pelton to “reconsider the [Parnell’s] position” — an investigation, Moss said, that would no doubt lead to her firing — alumni of the athletics department said they will withhold thousands in annual donations until administrators heed to the protesters.

Alex Tse, who graduated from Emerson in 1998 and played for the men’s basketball team, said he had been donating to the college for eight years, averaging about $4,000 over the last four years. 

“My personal interest is in athletics and that the kids are being taken care of,” said Tse in a phone interview. “Clearly, in my opinion, there’s something very wrong with the athletics department; you have someone there that does not care about the kids.”

Tse, who was the co-writer for the 2009 film Watchmen, said he stopped donating to and guest-lecturing at the college two years ago. He said he severed ties after hearing about what he believes is the mistreatment of student athletes during the five years Parnell has served as the athletic director. 

“My only voice, my only vote, is to stop contributing financially to the college,” said Tse.

Tse was nominated as a class of 2013 commencement speaker, and said, if chosen, he would decline due to the current state of the athletics department.

Like Tse, alumna Jilisa Rawding said there has been a long-standing problem with the athletics department that has been ignored. 

Last year, Hank Smith, who served as the basketball coach for 16 years, was fired midseason amid controversy, drawing the ire of many student-athletes. More recently, women’s basketball star Olivia DiNucci said she would not return for her final season in part because of frustration with the athletics administration.

“It’s sad that it’s coming across as a Hank Smith issue, because there’s a lot of other stuff going on,” Rawding said in a phone interview. “I know from playing multiple sports that there’s different members of the department that were really unhappy with what was going on.” 

Rawding played for the women’s volleyball team for three seasons and the softball team for four. She graduated last year.

Pelton said he is handling the situation, and sympathizes with the student-athletes’ frustration. 

“There is a variety of issues that need to be addressed, and they will be addressed,” Pelton said.

Many alumni cited Parnell and William Gilligan, vice president of information technology and supervisor to the athletics department, as being a major part of the problem.

“If you are a competent administration, you can differentiate between a petty grievance and a serious problem,” Tse said. “Either way, it does not reflect well on the administration, and I’d have to say Dr. Bill Gilligan in particular, because I think athletics falls under his jurisdiction.”

Parnell declined to comment.

Gilligan said he is committed to the athletics department and fixing any problems that may exist. 

“I’m concerned with all aspects of athletics. I want our student-athletes to have the best experience they can,” Gilligan said.

Gilligan said he was appointed to oversee the athletics department in August 2010. 

Both Rawding and Laura Miley, who graduated in 2010, said they will hesitate to donate to the college until the situation in the athletics department is improved.

“I will be guarded with my money,” Miley said. “I wouldn’t necessarily just write a check. If I had 100 percent trust in my athletic department, I wouldn’t feel as guarded, and I guess that’s sort of a sad thing.” 

Another alumnus who was also a student athlete said he was approached by the college to donate when he graduated, but made a decision not to give back, citing disgust for the environment created by Parnell since she became athletic director in 2007. 

He said he would have given thousands annually.

“In light of the way things were going [in athletics], when I was contacted by Emerson, I said I had every intention of giving before, and I have no intention of giving now,” said the alumnus, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he hopes to work at a college athletics department. 

He and Tse said a cultural shift in athletic leadership may have been the solution in the past, but now they believe the problem is too deeply-rooted, and the only answer may to be remove Parnell. 

“The great environment we created was changed about a year after Parnell took over,” said the alumnus. “If Parnell was no longer the athletic director, that would be the biggest step in changing the athletic department for the better.” 

Pelton said he planned to meet with the current athletic administration after meeting with the majority of the team captains two weeks ago. He said he hopes to have a solution and plan of action by the end of this semester. Gilligan said he did not know of any such meeting with the department.

“What they want is support,” Pelton said of the athletes, “and what they deserve is support.”