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MSU board renews hope for swim and dive reinstatement with new pool

June 16, 2023
Sophia Balow races the 500 Freestyle at CCS Nationals on April 8, 2022 at McAuley Aquatic Center.
Sophia Balow races the 500 Freestyle at CCS Nationals on April 8, 2022 at McAuley Aquatic Center. —
Photo by Audrey Richardson | The State News

Grand Rapids – With funding for a new 50-meter pool approved, Michigan State University’s board of trustees sees a “window of opportunity” for reinstating the university’s controversially-cut swim and dive program.

Following the passage of a resolution funding a new student recreation center on MSU’s campus, which includes the pool, board chair Rema Vassar said the university is “aligned to restart” discussions with advocates for reinstating the team.

Facilities have long been the primary obstacle for the team's supporters. In depositions for the now-settled Title IX lawsuit stemming from the swim and dive cut, former Athletic Director Bill Beekman called the cost of repairing MSU’s previous 50-meter pool the “straw that broke the camel’s back” in the decision to cut the team.

In December 2022, MSU’s board denied any possibility of reinstating the team, with then-finance committee chair Melanie Foster saying her team could “find no viable path” to reinstating the team.

But after Friday’s seemingly complete reversal of that assessment, advocates are optimistic about the future of Spartan swimming and diving.

"The key thing is the door is open, they will reinstate if we come up with enough money," Mike Balow, the father of a former MSU swimmer and leader of Battle for Spartan Swim and Dive, said.

If advocates for the team can get $26.5 million in pledged donations by October, MSU will bring back the team, interim-president Woodruff told reporters after the meeting Friday.

Balow’s group has already raised over $5 million in pledges. Those donors were persuaded earlier this year, with no real deal from MSU on the table. Balow thinks Woodruff’s promise will make the next $21 million much easier to raise.

“Before, we were just raising some money for something ... now we can ‘this is exactly what we need, this is where it’s going, and if we get all of it, the teams are really back,” Balow said.

$6.5 million of the university’s request would cover five years of operating expenses for the teams. The other $20 million would go to locker rooms, stands and other additions to the recreation center that would be needed for a NCAA competitive swim team, but wouldn’t be necessary if the pool was just being used by students for recreation.

The October deadline, which Balow believes is “definitely possible,” will allow the final designs of the recreation center to include the specifics of whatever pool accessories the swim and dive pledges can pay for. 

The rest of the $200 million recreation center housing the new pool will be funded with a tax of $80 per year on students, university spokesperson Dan Olsen said.

Hannah Jeffery, the graduate student liaison to the board, spoke in opposition to the tax. She said that she circulated a survey to other graduate students regarding the tax and 90% of the 122 respondents were unsupportive.

Jeffery said respondents worried that the tax will put an unnecessary financial burden on grad students already unhappy with the cost of living and education at MSU. Some worried that because the expected completion date for the facility is 2026, they may graduate before getting a chance to use the center funded by their tax, Jeffery said.

Regardless, the board passed the resolution beginning work on the center. The vote was unanimous with the exception of Trustee Dennis Denno, who abstained.

In his comments at the close of the meeting, Denno explained his abstention, saying he objected to the university turning to grad students and swim and dive advocates for funding.

How they changed their minds

The decision to cut the teams was made by Woodruff’s predecessor, former President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., who resigned in 2022 citing a loss of confidence in the board.

When Woodruff was appointed to take his place last Fall, the board asked her to reopen discussions with the team's “persistent proponents,” Vassar said Friday.

Eventually, as the board and MSU’s facilities department were looking at various designs for the recreation center, they decided that folding the necessary pool into that project and leaving the other funding to the advocacy groups was an opportunity to bring back the team without the financial concerns, Woodruff said.

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Financial shortfalls in MSU’s athletic department created by the COVID-19 pandemic were cited as the reason for initially cutting the team in 2020. But, court depositions regarding the decision would later reveal that MSU moved to cut the team before the pandemic in 2019.

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