Civil rights policy broken in Cal field hockey case, probe finds; ex-administrator blamed

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UC Berkeley broke University of California policy for nondiscrimination in athletics by depriving its own women’s field hockey program of a home field for two seasons, a campus whistleblower report has found.

The result of an investigation that began in 2014, the report found that the campus violated the UC system’s Title IX compliance policy when it converted the home field of the field hockey team into a practice field for the football team with no plan in place for a new field hockey space.

Obtained by The Daily Californian through a California Public Records Act request, the report also found that former campus vice chancellor for administration and finance John Wilton was the “key decision maker” for many of the pivotal choices that led to this violation, and that “he pursued a course of action he reasonably should have known would likely cause the university to be out of compliance with Title IX.”

The report, authored by Tony McKnight, director of investigations at the UC Berkeley Office of Ethics, Risk and Compliance Services, found that Wilton “engaged in a willful omission to perform his duty.”

Wilton said he received the report “out of the blue,” without a chance to review the evidence or respond to the charges. In a statement, he called the investigation “heavily biased” and he added that he was drafting a rebuttal to its findings.

“The record clearly shows that many options were considered. The only reason that field hockey was disadvantaged was because athletics did not find a suitable location,” Wilton said in an interview with the Daily Cal.

“(Cal) Athletics were totally incompetent in finding a suitable site. It was the athletic director’s job to find an alternative field — (she) and her staff didn’t.”

In response to the report, Chancellor Carol Christ issued a formal apology to the field hockey team.

“On behalf of our University, I offer my sincere apologies, along with a promise that there will be no greater priority than ensuring all of our students have equal access to the educational opportunities on this campus, including the provision of equitable treatment for all of our student-athletes in our Intercollegiate Athletics program,” Christ said in an Oct. 13 letter.

The campus does not believe there currently exist “systemic problems” or policy gaps needing reform in the wake of the report, said campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof in an email.

From 2013-15, Maxwell Family Field — at the time the home of field hockey — was rebuilt in order to construct a parking garage beneath the field. But administrators chose to surface the reconstructed field with a multipurpose surface that field hockey could not use. As a result, the field hockey team played all of its home games at off-campus fields for two seasons and practiced on fields ranging from Stanford University’s field to the converted roof of the campus’s Upper Hearst parking garage.

After a long legal battle, the campus repurposed Underhill Field into a field hockey facility for the 2016 season, although the project missed multiple deadlines. The space was not completely finished until the 2017 season. Underhill and Maxwell also serve as Recreational Sports fields.

As a result of a separate federal investigation into the treatment of the team, UC Berkeley will be under monitoring by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights until it establishes that it is in compliance with Title IX.

“It’s bittersweet,” said Shellie Onstead, head coach of Cal field hockey. “There’s vindication that it’s delineated, it’s documented, there’s acknowledgement of fault on the part of the university and there’s an apology.”

Included in the report is an email sent to Wilton on Dec. 12, 2013, that said, “Installing a multipurpose rug on Maxwell will provide a visible statement that we are prioritizing and providing the needed resources to build a Championship Football program. The importance of this message is magnified after our 1-11 season. This needs to be showcased/positioned to our donors, recruits and campus community.” The name of the sender was redacted.

“The clear prioritization of the football program’s wishes over the needs of field hockey is evident,” McKnight said in the report. “The inequity is stark.”

Faced with the Title IX implications of depriving a women’s team of a practice space, a redacted source alleged that Wilton said “Title IX is a risk to be taken” and to “let them (field hockey athletes) sue us.” In a statement, Wilton denied that he said this.

Wilton served as vice chancellor for administration and finance from 2011-16, where he oversaw the creation of a new funding model for California Memorial Stadium. The 2012 renovation of California Memorial Stadium and construction of an athletics complex put major financial pressures on the athletic department, which persist to this day. Wilton is now a senior adviser at consulting giant McKinsey & Company.

Former athletic director Sandy Barbour, now athletic director at Pennsylvania State University, said in an emailed statement that she was pleased that progress had been made in improving Cal field hockey facilities, but she declined to comment beyond a 2016 statement in which she said she was overruled by Wilton on a key field hockey decision.

Austin Weinstein covers academics and administration. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @austwein.