The advisory committee searching for Penn Athletic Director Steve Bilsky's successor held an open forum for students to discuss its search process and solicit feedback Wednesday afternoon at Houston Hall.
All 4,203 square feet of the Hall of Flags were reserved for this event, the perfect — and only — opportunity for students to participate in a dialogue with committee members about the direction of Penn Athletics and the qualities they'd like to see the next athletic director possess.
And yet, not including Daily Pennsylvanian Senior Sports Editor Steven Tydings and myself, one student showed up. One.
You'd think this would be an event of interest to at least a few members of the Penn student community. Athletes and Red and Blue Crew members obviously have a vested interest in this search process, but so does anyone who takes advantage of recreational spaces such as Penn Park and Pottruck Fitness Center.
If you partake in any recreation on this campus, you should care who the next athletic director is because that person will be in charge of overseeing every recreational facility, membership service and wellness program at this university. That's a big deal without even taking into account the intercollegiate varsity athletics that you spectate, participate in and read about every day.
But unless you're UMOJA representative Denzel Cummings, you weren't there.
While it's true that anyone can submit comments and suggestions on the search at the Office of the Provost's website devoted to the process, it's still beyond pathetic that Wednesday's open forum drew an attendance of just one.
In fact, it's apathetic.
For starters, alumni, staff and faculty clearly care more than students about Penn Athletics. These groups together comprised an audience of fifteen at Tuesday's open forum dedicated to those particular sectors of the Penn community, also not a robust number but at least enough to facilitate a discussion. Moreover, I know plenty of alumni who care very much about the athletic director search, some who are encouraged by its trajectory and some who believe it has been doomed from the start.
Yet hope and disgust are still vital signs of engagement. More than a dozen rows of empty seats in an empty venue reserved for students only are anything but.
At some point, the onus is on the student to start caring. It's true that Penn Athletics itself is to blame for much of the apathy throughout the student body. Indeed, Penn Athletics has to be much better under the next athletic director at working through student groups to promote athletic events, creatively raising incentives to come to these events and more accurately evaluating coaches and administrators to give many programs a greater chance of winning consistently. Penn Athletics can and must do more once Bilsky's successor takes over.
And since I was one of only three students in attendance at Wednesday's open forum, I said all of this point blank to the advisory committee, including Penn Provost Vincent Price and Penn Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli.
I applauded Bilsky's fundraising efforts, and I questioned some of his personnel and marketing decisions. I quite ironically lamented student apathy towards Penn Athletics to a committee that was getting ignored in real time by its student body and talked about ways to combat similar unconcern in the future. I pointed to Franklin Field, the Palestra and the Penn Relays as historically incredible resources in Athletics' favor.
But I've written about all of this before. I've spoken with Bilsky, Price and Penn President Amy Gutmann previously on these issues. I've taken advantage of that kind of access during my time with the DP so that you, the student, can decide for yourself where Penn Athletics stands.
But when an advisory committee gives you the same access and you don't respond, you get whatever you get.
So no one benefits here. The advisory committee misses a chance at crucial feedback. The search process loses transparency by default. And a student body that actually does care at least somewhat more than its attendance at this open forum lets on goes largely unheard.
I'm sure plenty of students have used the online suggestion form to weigh in on this search, but Penn Athletics needs students to support it with their feet, by going to games, engaging with other athletics-related events and using its facilities. There are a million ways to spend your time on this campus, and that's a blessing.
But whenever you spend your time ignoring the crossroads that Penn Athletics finds itself facing, you're paying tribute to the very culture of indifference that has led Penn Athletics to that crossroads in the first place.
In the end, the advisory committee got a lesson firsthand about the prevalence of student apathy towards Penn Athletics. They came, they saw, they got stood up. The crossroads that Penn Athletics faces is between past generations that automatically rallied behind championship varsity programs and future generations that promise even more demographically diverse student bodies with ever-diverging extracurricular interests, of which fewer and fewer will match up with Penn Athletics' modus operandi as time goes on.
This crossroads separates the past Penn Athletics, which didn't need a marketing department or record fundraising campaigns to figure prominently in students' lives for much of the late twentieth century, and the future Penn Athletics, which will rely more than ever on philanthropy and increasingly refined infrastructure within its varsity programs' boards and committees just to stay afloat. Before students give back in the future, they have to care in the present.
And many do. But apparently not enough to draw any participating audience whatsoever to help see Penn Athletics past that crossroads when it's asking for help. The stark absence of such an audience isn't wholly indicative of how little students care about Penn Athletics, but I've seen too many empty Palestras and Franklin Fields to know that it's no anomaly either.
You certainly don't have to be a current or former senior sports editor of the DP to be heard over the next several weeks as this search process runs its course. But although the advisory committee could really use a multiplicity of student voices in its ear right about now, perhaps the many empty seats throughout our courts, fields and now the Hall of Flags have said enough already.
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