Calling for Excellence: An Open Letter to Brown University President Christina Paxson

By David Melly

June 6, 2020

The following letter was delivered via email to President Christina Paxson, Athletic Director Jack Hayes, and the Board of Trustees of Brown University on June 6, 2020.

Dear President Paxson,

I, along so many in the running community, was shocked and disappointed by your announcement on May 28 that Brown University was planning to eliminate its varsity men’s track and field and cross-country programs for the 2020-2021 academic year and onward. You’ll note that I do not share your description of the change as “transitioning to club status” – not only is that description disrespectful to both the varsity program, which has worked hard to earn its place as a competitive Division I team, and the Brown club running team, which already exists as its own distinct program with its own set of goals and values, but it is ignorant and dismissive of the throwers, jumpers, and multi-event athletes for whom there is no place to compete on a club level.

This move was presented as an “excellence initiative,” framed around the narrative that for Brown Athletics to be more successful in its pursuit of student athlete excellence that some programs must go. Not only is this not reflected by the statistics, but it is a deliberately disingenuous description of the changes being made. As you clarified in a June 6 email to the Brown community, this change is not about excellence at all. The elimination of men’s cross country and track and field is, in fact, an effort to comply with the terms of a 1998 Title IX settlement that tied Brown University’s athletic equity to its student population. To achieve equity, you chose to cut men’s programs rather than increasing women’s participation.

What a disappointing way to respond to your changing demographics. Not only does that move run directly counter to the spirit of the original law, but it also seems entirely illogical that an administration’s response to the changing student population is to cut opportunities available to men, rather than increasing opportunities available to women. If your concern is the balance of supply and demand, if there is no lack of demand for men’s sports why would the obvious investment in student welfare not be to increase supply for women’s sports?

Another purported goal of the Excellence Initiative was to increase diversity and inclusion in Brown athletics, and here is perhaps where you have failed your students the worst. Men’s track and field is among your most racially diverse sports, and in particular, it has the second-highest number of black athletes of any men’s sport. You also acknowledged in your email that you are forbidden by Ivy League rules from cutting the football program, a disappointing confession that the only thing keeping you from cutting the program with the highest number of black athletes is league rules, not your commitment to diversity in athletics.

At a time when our whole country is carefully examining our institutions’ commitment to antiracism or lack thereof, this initiative is tone-deaf at best and deeply harmful at worst. It’s particularly insulting to couch these changes in the language of those making sincere, painful, and hard-fought efforts to make change, when the substance of your initiative is antithetical to its stated goals. I cannot speak eloquently to the impact of this decision on black and brown athletes, so I encourage you to read and reflect on Russell Dinkins (Princeton ‘13)’s piece on the subject.

Why am I writing to you? I am not a black athlete, a woman, or in any way associated with the Brown University community. But I spent four years competing with and against Brown athletes in the Ivy League and I come from a highly successful track and field program, and I want to lend my voice and my experience to support those you are trying to silence.

In my time at Cornell, our track and field program was among the most racially, geographically, and socioeconomically diverse of any athletic team at Cornell and our close relationship with the women’s team was a boon to both programs. We were a large team, a successful team, and a well-funded team – in large part due to the huge alumni fundraising base that comes when you invest in a program that produces a large number of athletes who reflect fondly on their collegiate experience. I don’t know the stats at Brown, but TF/XC also consistently had the largest number of out LGBTQ athletes of any men’s program. Diversity begets diversity; inclusion begets inclusion.

We were – and are – far from perfect, however. The conversation around race and the university’s treatment of students of color is just as active at Cornell as it is at Brown. I cannot and will not speak to the black experience at Cornell, but I distinctly remember the experience of taking a course entitled Race and Public Policy that was taught by an entitled white woman who routinely talked over and argued with the black and brown students in her class. We also have a long way to go in our treatment of women’s athletics too – our program recently weathered a troubling scandal that led to the resignation of a women’s coach and athletes in the current team and alumni community are still grappling with the repercussions of that coach’s impact on the team. I want my alma mater to do better just as much as I want your university to.

That’s why I want to end this letter on a hopeful request: Rather than walk back your Excellence Initiative, please double down. Lead the charge in changing the face of NCAA athletics through a new Excellence Initiative, one that puts women and people of color at the front of a robust and expansive program to make Brown Athletics better and more competitive. Those sports who haven’t won an Ivy League title in a few years? They should be first in line for new money. Make changes that will attract new athletes from diverse backgrounds and make Brown known throughout the NCAA as the best place to be a female student-athlete or a black student-athlete.

Hire more coaches, particularly ones who look like the athletes they coach. Buy new equipment. Pay the volunteer graduate assistants who do essential coaching work like recruiting and logistics. Invest in a robust system of student-athlete academic and wellbeing supports. Make it easy and free for any student-athlete (or any student, for that matter), to get the physical and mental health care they need to be successful.

One thing you’ll note about these proposed changes: they’re cheap. You don’t need a new multi-million-dollar facility or a private plane. You don’t need to pay for hotel rooms for home games. By taking a tiny fraction of your $4.2 billion endowment and investing it in real excellence, you can completely transform the experience of a generation of student-athletes. And in return, those athletes won’t only win games and set records, they’ll become tomorrow’s leaders in every field, ambassadors for the Brown community, and yes, your next generation of alumni donors as well.

Excellence is not just an admirable goal; it’s badly needed right now. You can choose to be part of the solution to our deepest and hardest-to-solve problems, and you’re fortunate to be in the position to make real and lasting change. Please use this opportunity to listen, to learn, and most importantly, to act.


David Melly, Cornell University Class of 2015

2014-2015 Captain, Track and Field and Cross-Country

David Melly

David began contributing to CITIUS in 2018, and quickly cemented himself as an integral part of the team thanks to his quick wit, hot takes, undying love for the sport and willingness to get yelled at online.