New initiative to reshape, improve competitiveness in Brown varsity and club athletics

The Excellence in Brown Athletics Initiative will revise the University’s roster of varsity sports teams, invest in club sports and enhance recruitment, squad sizes, coaching, training and facilities.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — With the goals of improving the competitiveness of varsity athletics teams, enhancing the strength of club sports and upholding its commitment to providing equal opportunities in athletics for women and men, Brown University has launched a bold plan to reshape its athletics program.

The Excellence in Brown Athletics Initiative will revise the University’s roster of varsity sports teams; enhance club sports teams and add several new ones; focus on recruitment of outstanding student-athletes and on maintaining roster sizes that build competitiveness; advance coaching, training and conditioning resources; and continue improvements to athletic facilities.

University President Christina H. Paxson outlined the new initiative in a May 28 letter to the Brown community. She said that Brown’s vision is to advance the ideal of the scholar-athlete — “the bright and passionate student who embraces excellence both in academics and also in their sport.”

“We envision varsity athletes who, as Brown students, are among the most academically talented in the world, who also compete on teams that are among the most competitive among our peers,” Paxson said. “And we have a vision for club sports that offer competitive athletic opportunities to a wide array of students, while also supporting health and well-being. The Excellence in Brown Athletics Initiative is a bold plan to reshape athletics for our student-athletes and to achieve that vision.”

The initiative reflects a philosophy of self-assessment and improvement at Brown, similar to the regular reviews of academic departments and other aspects of University operations to build and sustain excellence, Paxson said. The initiative’s launch follows a deliberate process that dates back to an external review of Brown Athletics conducted in the 2018-19 academic year, which found that the high number of varsity sports at Brown was a barrier to competitiveness.

Brown is currently home to the third-largest number of varsity teams in the nation. Almost 900 students competed across Brown’s 38 varsity teams last year, including non-recruited athletes invited to “walk on” to complete rosters. In the decade ending in 2018, Brown earned 2.8% of Ivy League titles, the lowest among member schools. The initiative will implement a net reduction in varsity teams from 38 to 29.

[Editor’s Note: On June 9, the University chose to reinstate the varsity status of men's indoor track and field, men's outdoor track and field, and men's cross country; and on Sept. 17, to end a legal dispute, the varsity status of women's equestrian and women's fencing was reinstated. The updated number of varsity teams transitioning to club status became six. The initiative will implement a total net reduction in varsity teams from 38 to 34.]

Through the new initiative, the University will maintain its current operational budget for varsity athletics, with operating funds made available by the reduction in varsity teams being allocated strategically within the Department of Athletics. Brown will continue to recruit the same number of varsity athletes so that rosters can be right-sized, and the smaller number of varsity teams will support stronger recruiting in the admissions process, allowing for deeper talent on each team.

Reduction in varsity teams

Effective immediately for the 2020-21 academic year, the University will transition 11 varsity teams to club status. Brown will cease training, competition and operations at the varsity level for men's and women’s fencing; men's and women’s golf; women’s skiing; men's and women’s squash; women’s equestrian; and men’s indoor track and field, men's outdoor track and field, and men's cross country (which are three varsity sports under federal Title IX rules governing access to opportunities in sports).

Club coed sailing and club women’s sailing will each transition to varsity status — a reflection of the advantages of Brown’s location and facilities for sailing as well as a long history of competitive success. The initiative aligns with the University’s diversity and inclusion efforts, expanding opportunities for non-recruited athletes to participate in competitive club sports and enhancing diversity on teams, which already attract a diverse array of student-athletes.

We envision varsity athletes who, as Brown students, are among the most academically talented in the world, who also compete on teams that are among the most competitive among our peers.

Christina H. Paxson President, Brown University
Christina Paxson at a football game

Director of Brown Athletics Jack Hayes said that for both varsity and club sports, Brown recognizes the power of competitive athletics to bring together students, staff, faculty, parents and alumni to build pride, affinity and a strong sense of community.

“I’m excited for the many ways the Excellence in Brown Athletics Initiative will serve our student-athletes for years to come,” Hayes said. “We have the opportunity to truly reimagine athletics for our athletes and for our community of supporters. The initiative is part of the drive for excellence in everything we do at Brown.”

By increasing competitiveness, Brown’s athletics program also will align with Ivy League principles that value competitive balance across its eight member schools, Hayes said.

The decision-making process

Following the external review more than a year ago, Paxson appointed a Committee on Excellence in Athletics in January 2020 and charged its members to make recommendations to enhance the quality of the student experience in athletics. Committee members were Brown alumni selected for their strong support for athletics and capacity to make difficult recommendations in a fair and objective manner.

The revised roster of teams was determined through a thorough, data-driven review that assessed such factors as the existing strengths of each team; current roster sizes; and the quality of facilities available for practice and competition. For example, the committee considered that Rhode Island does not have mountains to support a strong program in skiing, yet the state has one of the best sailing bays in the country and a new sailing facility.

In making its recommendations, the committee was guided by the principles of enhancing the quality of the student experience in athletics; increasing competitiveness in varsity athletics; providing for gender equity; ensuring diversity and inclusion; sustaining reasonable support for the pursuit of excellence; and building a stronger University community with a focus on affinity, pride and collegiate loyalty.

The Corporation of Brown University approved a set of recommendations from the committee at its May 2020 meeting — and the initiative will take effect immediately.

Sustaining resources in athletics

Paxson noted that while some universities have reduced athletics programs in the wake of COVID-19, Brown’s initiative is not a measure to reduce budget or an effort to contend with the financial impact of the pandemic. Rather, it’s an opportunity to invest further in advancing excellence in Brown’s full lineup of sports programs.

By maintaining the current operating budget for athletics and the same number of varsity recruits, Brown’s full suite of athletics programs will recognize the robust athletic interests and abilities of all student-athletes and provide a wide group of students a comprehensive set of opportunities for competitive play at both the varsity and club levels.

“With this initiative, we have the opportunity to truly reshape Brown athletics,” Paxson said. “I am a sports fan, and those who attend Brown games likely have seen me cheering our teams on the sidelines, at courtside or in the stands. I know it will be difficult for many in our community to see some of their favorite teams transition to club status. But I also expect there will be true excitement for the heightened opportunities for competitive play that all the elements of this initiative will bring to our student-athletes.”

We have the opportunity to truly reimagine athletics for our athletes and for our community of supporters. The initiative is part of the drive for excellence in everything we do at Brown.

Jack Hayes Director of Brown Athletics
Jack Hayes signing steel beam at topping off ceremony

Paxson said that the value of competitive sport is at the core of this initiative.

“This initiative is not just about taking one step, but rather a core set of actions which, together, will set Brown on a positive path toward building a varsity athletics program for women and men that could be among the most competitive among Brown’s peers in the next 10 years,” she said.

Support for students and coaches

Hayes said that supporting student-athletes on the teams that will transition to club status will be the University’s top priority.

“We know there is disappointment whenever a college sports program reduces its roster of varsity teams,” Hayes said. “We will work closely with students to help them consider their options, and academic support services will be available to all returning student-athletes and incoming recruited students.”

Brown will provide assistance in counseling students about their options for remaining at the University or, if they choose, transferring to another school. This initiative came out of a deep and thoughtful process, Hayes noted, and Brown is dedicated to being equally thoughtful in the transition.

The timing of the initiative’s launch will allow current and incoming athletes the most flexibility to consider their options. And the fact that COVID-19 has raised uncertainty nationwide about collegiate competition in 2020-21 means that effecting the change in varsity status now for the identified teams may provide Brown’s student athletes with extra time to make decisions. Incoming and current student-athletes were informed of the decision on May 28 via virtual meetings and have been invited to live sessions with Athletics staff, leaders of the College at Brown, NCAA compliance officers and other support staff.

Coaches will be able to support their teams through the summer, and the University is committed to supporting its coaches during the transition, Hayes said.

Promoting gender equity, diversity and community

Gender equity was among the most essential criteria for decision-making for the revised lineup of teams. The initiative supports Brown’s strong commitment to providing equal opportunities to women and men in varsity athletics and its compliance with federal Title IX, which governs access to opportunities in athletics.

“This initiative sustains compliance with the University’s gender equity obligation under Title IX,” Hayes said. “It will increase the percentage of varsity athletic participation opportunities for women athletes to be even more closely aligned with the percentage of women in the undergraduate student body.”

Based on federal regulations and guidance, universities can demonstrate compliance of varsity athletics programs with Title IX in different ways. Brown does so by ensuring that the proportion of varsity athletics opportunities offered to women corresponds with the percentage of Brown undergraduate students who are women, and likewise for men — a concept called substantial proportionality.

Universities are afforded some variance between the gender breakdown of the undergraduate population and the portion of female or male varsity participation opportunities. Brown’s approach is guided by the outcome of a 1992 federal lawsuit, Cohen v. Brown, in which the court found that women athletes were underrepresented at Brown compared to the number of women undergraduates.

With the changes to the lineup of varsity teams, the University’s composition of teams and squad sizes will comply in full with the terms established via the Cohen v. Brown settlement agreement, Hayes noted. And in practice, it will extend Brown’s commitment to gender equity in athletics even further.

The initiative also aligns with the University’s diversity and inclusion efforts by expanding opportunities in competitive club sports. A number of the sports being transitioned out of varsity status — golf, running, skiing and squash —already have club counterparts. Assuming there is student interest, equestrian and fencing would become new club sports.

“Brown Athletics teams already attract a diverse group of participants,” Hayes said. “Consistent with our campus-wide diversity and inclusion action plan, we hope to further increase the diversity of students playing both varsity and club sports. The expansion of club sports will allow a broader range of non-recruited athletes to participate in a wider array of teams. This initiative will put more resources into our club sports and build a stronger club sports program.”

By reshaping Brown Athletics and enhancing varsity and club sports, and positioning student-athletes to fully achieve excellence both in academics and in their sports, the Excellence in Brown Athletics Initiative will benefit the full University community, Hayes said.

“I’m proud to lead the athletics program for Brown athletics during this exciting time,” he said.