Student athletes and coaches from the University of Alaska Anchorage are fighting back against a proposal to cut ice hockey, skiing and gymnastics at the state’s largest university.
UAA leaders say they have to save money and the teams must go.
But, athletes, coaches and other community members are pleading for more time. They say they can find a way to cut costs, raise revenue and save the sports.
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Allie McClure had just boarded her flight to Anchorage in mid-August when she got a message from the UAA gymnastics coach about an emergency Zoom meeting.
“So we all hopped on really quick before we took off, and she broke the news to us,” said 18-year-old-McClure.
The news: UAA leaders had just announced a proposal to eliminate gymnastics, skiing and ice hockey.
McClure said she was shocked. She’s from Idaho, and had enrolled at UAA, in large part, because of its gymnastics program. Now, she found herself on her way to Alaska for her first time, with days to go until the start of her freshman year and with this new information that her team might not exist next year.
“To have that news come as you’re making the move of a lifetime was pretty hard,” she said. “It brought so many questions and worries.”
Fast-forward two weeks, and McClure is now in Anchorage and deeply involved in a fight to save the gymnastics team. She’s not alone.
Dozens of people have called into recent meetings held by UAA leaders and University of Alaska regents and demanded they keep Anchorage’s gymnastics, hockey and ski programs.
There have been rallies, petitions and social media posts.
Many argue there are ways to fundraise and trim expenses to save the sports. Some called the decision to cut the teams short-sighted, and say UAA will lose high-achieving students who are role models for younger athletes and who often decide to stay in the state after graduation.
“We went through the list and there’s hundreds of people who stayed in Alaska, working and raising their families after they skied at UAA,” said Joey Caterinichio, an alumna of the UAA ski team.
In a statement Wednesday, UAA Chancellor Cathy Sandeen said she’s grateful for the feedback, but what it comes down to is money.
The University of Alaska system has faced repeated state funding cuts, and it’s expecting another one next year. UAA’s enrollment has also declined, meaning fewer tuition dollars, and the coronavirus pandemic has brought additional expenses.
Sandeen has said the university already cut academic programs and the budgets for facilities and administration — and it still needs to reduce expenses further. She said eliminating ice hockey, gymnastics and skiing would save UAA about $2.5 million a year.
UAA leaders have looked at ways to make the teams more sustainable long-term, but did not find any realistic solutions, Sandeen said.
But Georgia Burgess, a UAA senior on the ski team, said it feels like the university is just looking at the sports as dollar amounts on a piece of paper, and not the larger impacts.
Cutting the ski program in a city that embraces winter feels like an oxymoron, she said.
“Alaska, skiing. It just makes sense,” Burgess said.
UAA Hockey Coach Matt Curley said he feels the same way about ice hockey. It’s like cutting a football program in Texas, he said.
“We’re mad,” said UAA hockey player Tanner Schachle, a college junior. “We were just starting to turn a new leaf with the program — winning games and getting people into the seats.”
Schachle’s brother was supposed to play on the team as a freshman and, at the last minute, decided to withdraw from classes this fall when he heard about the proposal.
Schachle said he imagines many of the student athletes on the ice hockey, skiing and gymnastics teams will also go elsewhere for college if the programs disappear. There are currently about 70 students between the teams.
Schachle and Curley, the coach, said what they’re asking university leaders for now is more time.
“Give us some time to re-rack and reevaluate where we’re at and what we have to do moving forward to sustain a program that’s been here for 40 years,” Curley said.
A final decision on the proposal to cut hockey, gymnastics and skiing at UAA is likely coming soon. UA Regents are meeting on Sept. 10 and 11, and they’re expected to weigh-in on eliminating the teams.