OPERS Deficit Prompts Layoffs

Projected deficit of $600,000 forces elimination of athletic director and head of maintenance, prompting concern among NCAA players

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Illustration by Kelly Leung
Illustration by Kelly Leung

In the wake of a projected $600,000 deficit for the Office of Physical Education Recreation and Sports (OPERS), the athletic director and the head of maintenance were laid off and their positions eliminated. Both comprise over $150,000 in salary. Their responsibilities will be dispersed among other administrators and student staff.

If OPERS has adequate funding in the future, executive director Andrea Willer said both position will be reinstated. When similar deficit situations previously arose, OPERS faculty agreed to take a pay cut to avoid terminating particular positions. However, Willer said though it was discussed, this time it wasn’t a “viable option.”

“Of course, I can’t guarantee anything, but right now I am not planning any additional layoffs,” Willer said. “I’m looking at other ways to reduce cost. One example is we have several vacancies that I am not filling.”

The competitive sports supervisor and the assistant athletic director for event management position will not be filled. OPERS faculty will absorb these positions, along with the maintenance and athletic director position.

Other faculty members will not receive a salary increase for the added work. Willer’s salary has increased each year since 2012. Aside from maintaining NCAA regulations, Willer said she won’t be taking on any more responsibilities from the athletic director position.

“When I took this position, it did not include athletics,” Willer said. “When I was asked to take on athletics, my position was reclassified from a director to executive director, and I did take a pay increase for taking on additional responsibilities.”

Despite the announcement to faculty and staff last Friday about the terminations, there were not any emails sent to the student body to address the reason for the layoffs. Willer said that a campuswide email would have been “not standard or appropriate to talk about.”

These cuts come at a time when UC Santa Cruz athletics have been working to increase their presence on campus and in the community. Student athletes will focus on passing a spring student referendum to assist with budgetary issues and continue to spread awareness in the university and local community. Representative athletes from all 15 NCAA sport teams serve on the Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC).

“As far as athletics, [because of the measures and opinion poll] there is finally a campuswide conversation that has not happened in the past,” Willer said. “[…] To me that’s a sign that campus leadership is taking a more proactive approach to figure this out.”

This year under athletic director Cliff Dochterman’s leadership, SAAC worked to not only increase student engagement in sports but also present themselves as role models to the community through projects like volunteering with elementary schoolers.

“If the school starts to see students care more about athletics, they’re going to rethink their position on athletics in general,” said men’s tennis player Chadwick Stone. “If we could get more people out to our games, there would be a lot more energy, and it might actually change the way our school treats athletics.”

In last spring’s election, the UCSC student body voted 63 percent in favor of paying $90 quarterly to preserve NCAA sports. Though the campus might support NCAA athletics, much of the athletics community worries about losing the athletic director position, which is a figurehead for athletics on campus.

“People get afraid when they don’t know what’s happening and they tend to think the worst. So by not knowing and being uncomfortable, they think the worst. And the worst is, am I next,” said head swim coach Kim Musch.“It has a huge impact on morale. Once you get to that point, it’s hard to get it back.”

Within the last 19 years, eight UCSC athletic directors have come and gone, Musch said. Dochterman was with the university for two years and spent a combined 17 years at similar positions at UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside.

“I enjoyed my time here at UCSC and I want nothing but success for our student athletes,” Dochterman said.

As athletic director, Dochterman oversaw UCSC’s over 60 teams and the department’s budget, while training all the coaches to operate under NCAA regulations. He also oversaw all publicity, advertising and outreach, organized fundraising and sports referendum efforts, organized special events and promoted the wellbeing of UCSC’s over 300 NCAA athletes and any additional club intramural athletes.

“The timing is questionable. Even if he was super well-liked or absolutely hated, we are at a tipping point for athletics,” Musch said. “It’s an odd juxtaposition when there seems to be growing support on campus, which is very odd that you’re getting rid of the athletics director because there is no money.”

For many coaches and athletes, the athletic director position was essential not just to the budgetary and administrative success of UCSC athletics, but also in promoting the future of sports and increasing funding and presence. Under Dochterman, OPERS annual fall festival received its first ever sponsor for $15,000.

“He just really stood for our students as the progressive next step of what UCSC athletics could be,” said women’s head soccer coach Emily Scheese. “Removing him, from the player’s side, really removes the fact that the university has a positive outlook for athletics so that’s where they’re struggling right now. It’s really more of a psychological impact that hurts.”

Beyond the athletic director duties, maintenance across OPERS will inevitably suffer due to Michael Smith’s termination. Smith was responsible for upkeep and maintenance from the pool and field to the OPERS gym, including all gym machinery. The majority of the maintenance work will now be put on work-study student workers, who have trained with Smith to upkeep facilities across campus. However they will not be working with heavy machinery. Bigger maintenance needs will be handled by the Physical Plant, UCSC’s campuswide facilities maintenance crew. These student-workers cost OPERS about $5 hourly, and the rest of their wages come from the work-study department.

“[The maintenance position] is pretty cornerstone because we have such an old facility. The original building was founded pretty much at the beginning of the school,” Smith said. “My position has been there since they started. My entire position got dissolved, an over 40 year [old] position that’s been there.”

Even with  losing both Smith and Dochterman, NCAA athletics has no intention of leaving the university. With just one year of provisional funding left from the university, students and coaches alike intend to find a permanent funding solution, with or without an athletic director.

“We as student athletes have all talked and decided that we’re going to put it on ourselves to help our coaches, to help our staff to get stuff done,” said fourth-year women’s soccer player Ricky Porter. “We’re willing to fight for something, even if Cliff’s not here and we miss him. We are gonna do whatever it takes to keep athletics here at Santa Cruz.”