Students, community members accuse Tribe Athletics of plagiarism

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COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

Recent plagiarism allegations against Athletics Director Samantha Huge prompted a community-wide notice from College of William and Mary President Katherine Rowe Sept. 23, which admitted to communication lapses and administrative missteps in the College’s Sept. 3 announcement canceling seven varsity sports.

Huge announced three weeks ago that the College would cut seven varsity sports following the 2020-21 academic year, sparking criticism from student athletes, coaches and alumni. After being published, Huge’s letter drew comparisons to a similar letter issued by Stanford University administrators in July that announced the suspension of 11 varsity sports. Some of the language in the College’s announcement was identical to that found in Stanford’s letter, including segments about student-athletes’ access to campus resources, fiscal difficulties and the university’s future athletics goals.

These similarities led Huge to issue a follow-up statement Sept. 18, where she acknowledged communication with other universities throughout the drafting process yet declined to confirm the plagiarism allegations directly.

“As we prepared to announce the very difficult decision to eliminate seven varsity programs, we consulted with professional colleagues and peers at several institutions, including Stanford University,” Huge said in the Sept. 18 statement. “We were seeking to engage a thoughtful process, then communicate those actions as respectfully as possible. Our goal was to emulate best practices, not imitate.”

Track and field athlete Jack Mackey ’21, a member of the newly established Save Tribe Track organization, said that Huge’s follow-up statement offered student athletes little more than a half-hearted apology. He also noted that the failure of Tribe Athletics to recognize potential plagiarism at any stage of the drafting process was indicative of poor planning and coordination, a troubling prospect given the cuts’ severe impacts on campus life.

“Athletic Director Huge’s follow-up letter—which was published on September 18, and addressed the allegations of plagiarism—seemed half-hearted,” Mackey said in an email. “It was three short paragraphs of semi-apology that only made it more clear that the decision to eliminate the seven teams was made rashly. Though I think it’s fine to collaborate with peers in an effort to establish “best practices,” Tribe Athletics should have known that the contexts in which Stanford University and William & Mary were eliminating sports were very different. Further, the fact that the finalized letter was able to make it through all stages of the drafting process without anyone raising the issue of possible plagiarism seems to mean that the drafting process for the letter was inherently rushed, if not nonexistent.”

“It was three short paragraphs of semi-apology that only made it more clear that the decision to eliminate the seven teams was made rashly.”

Controversy surrounding the allegations continued after Huge’s Sept. 18 statement. Sept. 22, Student Assembly unanimously passed a resolution spearheaded by varsity swimmer and Class of 2023 President Conor Sokolowsky ’23, which condemned the College’s decision and decried Huge’s apparent plagiarism. A day later, Rowe sent an email to students, faculty and staff the evening of Sept. 23, clarifying her regret in co-signing a letter that did not live up to standards established in the College’s honor code.

“In recent days, a number of colleagues have asked about written communications and transparency regarding the decision on Athletics sports reductions,” Rowe said in an email. “I write to share my reply more broadly, because the issue of concern – repeating language from another institution’s announcement – matters to me and our community. At William & Mary, we take very seriously integrity, trust, and respect. The open letter announcing these decisions did not rise to William & Mary’s standards…”

In her email, Rowe also designated former College Vice President for Strategic Initiatives Jim Golden to supervise communication within Tribe Athletics alongside Huge for the short-term future, potentially suggesting management shifts in the department moving forward.

Scott Jones, a coach for men’s track and field and a temporary employee within the Dean of Students Office, said that the College’s statements following the Sept. 3 cuts have been insufficient in conveying remorse and respect. Jones also said that Huge’s Sept. 18 acknowledgement of ‘emulation’ betrayed the College’s standards and its honor code, while also demonstrating poor leadership on behalf of Tribe Athletics.

“I am an athletic department employee temporarily reassigned to the Dean of Students Office,” Jones said in a written statement. “As a coach of Men’s and Women’s Track & Field/Cross Country I am also one of “those most directly affected.” I do not accept that a statement rife with plagiarism can be interpreted to be “as respectful as possible.” As an affected party, I can be accused of having an axe to grind. In reality, I someday wish to return to an athletic department where I, and all of my colleagues, can flourish in an environment notable for its integrity.”

As Rowe, Huge and other College administrators seek to quell concerns among student athletes and community members, Mackey said that they should take into account why athletes chose to attend the College in the first place. Additionally, he said the College must move beyond looking at the issue strictly from a fiscal perspective, instead prioritizing the individual livelihoods of its student athletes and coaches.

“Current leadership at William & Mary and Tribe Athletics seems to have visions of a larger, more revenue-earning and attention-grabbing school,” Mackey said. “But this is not what William & Mary is, nor is it why student-athletes choose to come here. Student-athletes come here for the excellence in academics and the opportunity to pursue athletic competition at the highest level. We do not come here for the stellar facilities or the constant NCAA championships. But what we love about being here is that we find a family in the Tribe that fuels our passion for academics and athletics.”