Swimming and diving team members accuse College of anti-Asian bias

by Emily Lu and Ethan Strauss | 9/8/20 12:17pm

by Saba Nejad / The Dartmouth

In a letter to the Board of Trustees on Aug. 25, 13 members of the swimming and diving team alleged that the College’s decision in July to cut five sports teams discriminated against Asian athletes. Signers of the letter, after conducting an informal survey of athletes at the College, claim that the program eliminations have reduced the number of Asian athletes at Dartmouth by nearly half. 

The letter states that the decision to cut men’s and women’s golf, lightweight rowing and men’s and women’s swimming and diving “perpetuates anti-Asian prejudices” by removing more than 30 Asian student-athletes from the College’s roster. The “discriminatory outcome” of these cuts, according to the letter, contradicts the College’s mission of improving diversity, given that Asian Americans made up just one percent of NCAA Division I athletes in 2019. 

The letter calls for the Board to pursue an independent review of the athletic department’s decision, with the goal of eventual reinstatement. 

“My main goal is to have formal research done on the decision that was made,” men’s swimming captain Brandon Liao ’21 said. “I want to be able to look at the analysis that the athletic department or the administration went through to make these decisions … I want to know why we were cut — why us?”

Soon after the team cuts were announced, some members of the swimming and diving team considered the possibility that the cuts may have had a disproportionate impact on Asian student-athletes. 

“We had our first suspicions about two weeks after the decision,” Liao said. 

However, the group was initially hesitant to bring up the issue of race. Letter signees said they did not immediately bring their concerns forward because they did not want to detract from the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement. They and other team members campaigned for reinstatement through social media, alumni efforts and petitions throughout July. But as the efforts began to slow, one group returned to the question of racial discrimination.

“We started our own research, including conducting a survey [of] the varsity teams,” diver Bella Lichen ’22 said. “And from this survey, we found that [athletics director Harry Sheehy], through this cut, had successfully eliminated almost 50 percent of the Asian American varsity student-athletes from the athletics program.”

This survey — which is the source of the numbers cited in the grievance letter — had 476 responses at the time of publication. In the 2018-19 school year, there were 934 total student athletes at Dartmouth. The athletics department does not make racial demographic information publicly available, so it could not confirm the survey’s findings. 

Nevertheless, the group found the data concerning; they soon reached out to the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity. In an email response, the OIDE said that the swimmers’ complaint “raises allegations that have already been reviewed and addressed by Dartmouth,” and that there is “no basis for [the OIDE] to conduct a review at this time,” so the group decided to reach out to the Board of Trustees directly.  

“We wanted to give our leaders the benefit of the doubt, and we hoped that cutting our team and three others was really the only option for maintaining the vitality of Dartmouth athletics,” Lichen said. “But it was really hard to believe that a reduction of almost 50 percent of the Asian American athletes was an accident.”

Kristi Clemens, the acting senior director of the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity, declined to comment on the letter. Requests for comment by the Board were directed to College spokesperson Diana Lawrence, who wrote in an email statement that the chair of the Board had received the letter and “is carefully considering it.”

The group cited the recent and controversial Department of Justice findings accusing Yale University of discrimination against Asian-American students. The findings, which allege that Yale “illegally discriminates against Asians and whites in undergraduate admissions,” apply to race-based affirmative action.

English professor Alexander Chee, who recently moderated a panel about anti-Asian bias in the age of COVID-19, said that Ivy League schools should avoid treating anti-Asian bias as something that happens “over there somewhere else,” and address instances within their own institutions. 

“The problem with addressing this bias institutionally is that the question becomes: Is it a blind spot? Did the College run the demographics in making the decision [to eliminate the teams]?” Chee said. “The message that it sends is that when they made this decision, it seems they did not take into account who is playing.”

Chief among the athletes’ listed concerns is how future Asian student-athletes may perceive these cuts.

“There is a stereotype that Asians do very well at school and that school might be the only thing we’re good at,” Liao said. “I would say everyone, all the Asians on my team, have worked their entire lives to prove to people that Asians can be good at school, but also good at sports. So at least for me, I’ve always wanted to fight that stereotype, and that’s how I motivate myself.” Liao also expressed concern that the cuts, by reducing the number of Asian student-athletes, may reinforce these stereotypes.

The group plans to continue pushing the school to find a different solution to deal with the challenges that resulted in the five teams being cut. They hope that an innovative and more equitable solution can be found, but have not suggested specific courses of action.

“We know that Dartmouth is capable of finding these solutions,” Lichen said. “Look at the D-Plan … I would expect that Dartmouth could find an equally creative solution that maintains the vitality of Dartmouth athletics without cutting these five teams.”

Athletics director Harry Sheehy did not respond to multiple requests for comment.