Donors demand answers: Men’s swimming and diving donors and alumni fight back against UB Athletics' cuts
A UB alumnus is threatening to sue UB over its April decision to cut four sports teams, particularly UB swimming, to which he has donated $15,000 since 2015.
Richard Lydecker, a successful civil litigator with offices in Miami, New York and Tampa, is outraged that UB solicited his pledge to give up to $50,000 to the men’s swim team, but then cut the team without warning.
He is heartbroken for the current swimmers and recruits and not only wants his money back, but also for the school to reverse its decision to cut the program and give alumni two years to raise funds.
“People in my position have a responsibility to stand up for these kids, who quite frankly are very vulnerable,” said Lydecker, a senior partner in the 80-person law firm Lydecker Diaz.
UB cut four teams, men’s soccer, women’s rowing, men’s swimming and diving and men’s baseball, on April 3. The university gave the 120 affected athletes and nine coaches no warning their teams would be cut. The university is saving $2 million a year in its $32 million athletic budget by cutting the teams.
If UB refuses to reverse the cuts for a two-year period, Lydecker intends to sue UB for his money. He also plans to sue UB on behalf of six swimmers and demands that UB pay all expenses the students incur as they transfer to other universities to keep swimming.
Lydecker, a 31-year alum who swam for UB, wrote a scathing demand letter to President Satish Tripathi on May 2. The Spectrum obtained a copy of the letter last Wednesday. In the letter, Lydecker not only demands his money back and release from his donor contract, but also that UB reinstate the swimming and diving program for a two-year period.
“It is my opinion that a court could determine that the University at Buffalo’s swim/dive program alumni fundraising was highly improper and actionable,” Lydecker writes in the letter. “Personally, I feel as if I have been defrauded.”
And Lydecker is not alone.
Lydecker has been working with other donors of the swimming and diving team since April, as well as other alumni, who want the university to bring back the program for a period of two years so donors can propose and put together an endowment plan to save the program. The group spearheading the effort includes Joel Shinofield, executive director of the College Swimming Coaches Association of America (CSCAA), and donors Jennifer Vaughan-LeForce, a higher education administrator, Geoff Wells, a financial partner and Matthew Schwippert, who volunteered as the swimming and diving team coach for two years.
“Most of us were already connected or within one degree of connection with each other. [We have] a small group of key alumni from various fields and various graduation times,” Wells said.
At the very least, they hope the two-year window will give athletes more time to seek out transfer opportunities and scholarships.
The group of donors did not want to outline the details of the plan to The Spectrum because they are looking to present it to administration. LeForce said that this endowment plan is based on similar plans that have been implemented at other universities and would create a non-profit organization to fundraise money for the team.
Shinofield said most universities usually give a program a two-year warning or phase-out period in the first place. Lydecker and other donors think UB athletes and the community deserve as much.
It’s not unthinkable for UB to reverse its decision. It’s not even unprecedented.
In the spring of 2015, Cleveland State University decided to cut funding to its wrestling program. Students reacted fiercely to the cuts and after students agreed to pay an additional $1 per credit hour, or $15 increase to the student fee to support the team, the university reversed its decision.
“We understand how deeply disappointed our student-athletes and coaches are regarding the reduction in our athletic programs,” said UB Spokesperson John Della Contrada. “This very difficult decision was made because of the unfortunate reality that we no longer have the resources to support 20 competitive Division I athletic teams. We are diligently working to provide our student-athletes with the support they need during this transition.”
Lydecker finds UB’s inattention and disregard for alumni concerns stunning. He and other donors are angry UB didn’t contact any alumni or donors prior to the cuts. If UB had reached out, he and other donors say they would have helped find a way to fund the team.
Donors filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on May 2 asking for a list of 2016-17 alumni donors and their contact information. The request also asks for contact information for all incoming freshmen, including the amount of money, if any, promised via scholarship or financial aid.
They also requested all notes or emails about the cuts to determine the ethics and details of the university’s abrupt decision, Wells said.
“If this decision was made within a two to three week timeline, that is extremely short,” Wells said. “So if it was a rushed decision that the university made without really consulting anybody and without really doing anything about it, that’s something that needs to be taken up with the chancellors of the university and the UB Council because the president was obviously not doing his job.”
Part of the frustration, Wells said, is that donors to the program had met a goal to help fund new starting blocks two years prior. He and the other donors wonder why they were asked for help when the program was in need of new equipment, but not when it was in danger of being cut due to a lack of funding.
Furthermore, when the donors invested in the starting blocks in 2015, they were sold on the idea that they were investing in the future of the program.
In the fall of 2015, the athletic department requested donors fund eight new starting blocks at $5,000 each. The request was circulated via email to alumni in September 2015. The email contained an attached donation form that said “Build Our Future” in all capital letters on the top.
Donors are also angry that administration allowed the team to hold a recruiting trip the weekend preceding the cuts, which were announced the following Monday.
After donors complained, Athletic Director Allen Greene agreed to an April 18 meeting about the cuts. Some donors participated through a conference call. At the meeting, Greene said the university has contemplated the cuts for up to five years, according to Wells, LeForce and Schwippert.
“To be perfectly honest, it felt like [Greene] was sort of being sent in as a person to take the bullet to hear the disappointment from the alumni and he really couldn’t answer many questions because the decision seemed to rest squarely with the president,” Shinofield said.
Yet the group came out of the meeting hopeful that someone else would follow up with them and move forward with plans to save the program – but no one did.
After this meeting, the group began to make calls in order to schedule a meeting with President Tripathi. LeForce was told that she and the other concerned donors should type up all of their grievances so it was in writing and send them to the SUNY General Counsel.
Instead, this is when Lydecker decided to type something more substantial – a demand letter.
“We just wanted the university to work with us and they refused, they steadfastly refused,” Lydecker said. “And I had a hard time with that.”
Michael Akelson is the senior sports editor and can be reached at email@example.com