Student-athletes find solace as director resigns

by Evan Sporer / Beacon Staff • May 19, 2012

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Student-athletes at this year's athletics banquet.
Student-athletes at this year's athletics banquet.

Current and former students who had publicly protested the employment of Athletic Director Kristin Parnell over the past three months got their wish May 17 when the administrator announced her resignation.

The resignation, effective May 25, was sent to the Emerson community via email by
President M. Lee Pelton. In the message, Pelton said Parnell cited professional opportunities as her reason for leaving.

In an interview with the Beacon, Pelton said he did not know if the public, negative attention surrounding Parnell led to her decision.

“You’d have to ask her,” Pelton said in a phone interview.

Parnell could not be reached for comment.

Regardless of the circumstance of the resignation, however, many students said they were pleased to see Parnell’s departure.

“I have talked to [other student-athletes], and there’s sort of a shock factor, but I hope it brings light to that if people aren’t happy they should come together to instill change,” said senior Olivia DiNucci, a political communication major.

DiNucci was one of the first student-athletes to publicly voice her problems with Parnell. On Feb. 18 DiNucci said she would not return to the women’s basketball team for her senior season. A three-year starter, DiNucci finished the second all-time leading scorer in Emerson women’s basketball history.

DiNucci said Parnell’s lack of communication and respect for student-athletes were factors in her decision not to return for her final season.

“I don’t think I was surprised [by her resignation] because there was a lot of attention brought directly to athletics, and a lot of fingers pointed in one direction,” DiNucci said.

Just days after DiNucci’s announcement, former men’s basketball player Kabir Moss (’10) started an online petition asking Pelton to review Parnell’s employment. Moss said this was not a witch-hunt to fire Parnell, but rather a move to fix the department as a whole.

The petition, titled Emerson College President: Reconsider the Position of Athletic Director,  garnered 243 signatures in a matter of weeks. Supporters left comments on the petition’s webpage telling stories revealing a history of malfeasance by Parnell.

On May 18, hours after Parnell’s resignation was announced, Moss posted a note on the petition’s page, writing, “...This will hopefully be a great step forward for the athletes of Emerson College.”

Concerns brought up by the petition included the staff turnover rate inside the department under Parnell’s time as director.

Last year, six of the 14 varsity sports at Emerson saw new coaches come into power. Two other coaches were hired in 2010. Since Parnell took over as athletic director in 2007, only four coaches representing five varsity teams have remained at the college. While Parnell said her resignation was to pursue professional opportunities, some felt it was for other reasons.

“I know the email [regarding Parnell’s resignation] didn’t mention the petition, but it clearly had something to do with it,” DiNucci said.

In an interview with the Beacon after the petition went public, regarding the petition, a stiff Parnell, reading off a sheet of prepared responses, said the petition saddened her. She said she was willing to listen to the complaints of student-athletes and work toward a solution.

For some student-athletes, despite having just graduated, Parnell’s resignation came as relief.

Ken Nikravesh, who just graduated, and played for the men’s soccer and tennis teams for four years, said change was expected.

“All the petitioning we did and everything that had gone on in the past few months, something was bound to change, whether it was her resignation or something else,” Nikravesh said. “I assume everyone has a similar feeling as me, that we needed a change of some sort.”

But the conflict did not stop there. In April, the Beacon reported a rift between alumni and Parnell. Screenwriter Alex Tse, said he stopped donating to the college two years ago because of Parnell’s mistreatment of current student-athletes. Tse, who graduated in 1998, said the college had a major problem in Parnell it needed to address.

“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 said in an earlier interview, referring to Parnell. “[Emerson’s administration] either oblivious to the problem, or they’re conflicted in it.”

Other alumni expressed a similar sentiment to Tse’s. Jilisa Rawding and Laura Miley—both student-athletes who graduated in 2010—said their athletic experiences, which were negatively affected by Parnell, would influence any possible future financial considerations toward the college.

Emerson athletics is now indefinitely in a transition period, and set to see changes. Pelton announced in late April he would form a working group comprised of students, faculty, and alumni, charged to create a mission and an identity for the athletic department.

Pelton said in an interview he will form a separate search committee to find a new athletic director. He said the process will begin in the late summer or early fall, when students and faculty are back on campus, and will allow students to be involved in the decision making.

“We’re going to do our best to get someone in as soon as possible,” Pelton said. “It’s better to start a search when the community is here and has a chance to be part of the process. We’ll begin it, and it will end when we identify a final candidate.”

However long that process takes, it will not be the only change the athletic department will undertake. Pelton said in a previous interview that he expected a solution from the working group by February. In the fall, the college will join the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference.

“The next year will provide Emerson with the exciting opportunity to strengthen our athletics program and enhance the student-athletic experience,” Pelton said in an email to the Beacon.

In the interim, Associate Director of Athletics Stanford Nance will serve the role of athletic director.

Nikravesh said Parnell’s resignation is a step in the right direction toward eliminating problems that existed within the department, but said there is still work to be done.

“I think first of all, the athletic department needs to now be seen as a place student-athletes can go to freely with no reservations and talk to whoever they want to,” Nikravesh said. “Trust issues need to be resolved. We need to rebuild a community.”