Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Extinction Of The Pronghorns

The news yesterday was like the sound of a hunter's gun on the prairies, and the results were just as deadly. If you missed the news, the University of Lethbridge announced that the men's and women's hockey programs would cease to exist as the school faces budget shortfalls after the province of Alberta announced there would be no new funding given to Alberta institutions and each school would be required to get its individual affairs in order by reducing unnecessary spending. If this is a shock to you, there are a number of fairly-obvious factors that have led to this point in time, and none of them are the fault of the players. So settle in, folks, because today I want to talk about the extinction of the Lethbridge Pronghorns.

A Pound Of Flesh

In 2019 after four years of New Democratic Party leadership, Alberta voters swung hard to the right for a variety of reasons and elected the United Conservative Party to be their new leaders for the province. The leader of the UCP, Jason Kenney, assumed the role of Premier for the Province of Alberta, ushering in conservative planning for the next four years.

Kenney and his team delivered the budget on October 24, 2019, and it became strikingly clear that the services and goods that Albertans had grown accustomed to receiving were either changing drastically or being eliminated all together. As Tyler Dawson wrote in The National Post on the same day,
"Significant changes are coming in some areas, in particular, to post-secondary education: a 12-per-cent funding cut — found via unspecified 'departmental efficiencies' and reducing government grants to post-secondary institutions — will save an expected $1.9 billion; tuition rates, meanwhile, will be allowed to increase by seven per cent per year as the freeze is thawed."
A 12% funding cut sounds small, but when one considers that it's $1.9 billion in projected savings it becomes a huge problem for the institutions affected. Cuts to any programs - whether in the classroom, in a sporting venue, or elsewhere - will have ripple effects down the line, so there would need to be some serious thought put into these cutbacks by the respective institutions as it pertained to them.

Kenney's measures, though, wasn't the first time that operational costs of universities in Alberta were being questioned. Back in 2017, Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt pointed out that university and college executive compensation is "way out of line with the rest of the country". Janet French of the Edmonton Sun noted in the linked article that University of Lethbridge President and Vice-Chancellor Michael Mahon's "base salary was $482,431 in 2016-17, and his total compensation was $707,000" while colleagues across the nation earned lower base salaries and lower overall compensation for the same position at other Canadian universities.

Wait, I can hear you saying, how can Canada's self-proclaimed richest province - the one that MacLean's Jason Markusoff identified in February as having "largest economy, highest incomes, lowest tax rates, and — though sometimes Conservative leaders were too bashful to talk about it — the richest and most generous public sector, with competitive pay for doctors, nurses and teachers" - see $1.9 billion slashed from its post-secondary funding amidst the machete work done by the UCP to the overall Alberta budget, and not lose things that they held so dear?

Here's your pound of flesh, Alberta.

As Mr. Markusoff notes in his MacLean's article, "Alberta would reap at least $14.4 billion in extra income if its tax rates and programs matched those of Ontario, the second-least-taxed province in Canada. It would have $22.9 billion more if it had Quebec-level taxes."

Consider what you would have, what you could do, and what would be saved with $14.4 billion of extra income. Yes, we can all agree that provincial sales taxes and other programs may put a dent in your wallet a little more when it comes to day-to-day spending, but the overall effects are that you have fully-funded universities, more money for necessary capital and infrastructure spending, and the ability to withstand economic slow-downs such as the one we're in right now.

Now imagine what you could do with $22.9 billion.

Why is that important? There's one man who doesn't believe provincial sales taxes will help the Alberta economy. He currently sits in the Premier's chair in the Alberta legislative buildings.

The Fallacious Statement

I'm not going to post the long-winded statement about the cutting of the Pronghorns men's and women's teams here, but you can read it in full via this link if you like. I'll go over the highlights here.

Let's start with the obvious fallacy made in the opening sentence which is a false dilemma. The statement reads,
"Facing three successive years of significant reductions to its operating grant, the University of Lethbridge has discontinued its men's and women's varsity hockey programs."
This is a false dilemma because there is more than one option for mitigating the reductions to the operating grant. They could raise funds, acquire more sponsors, find additional donors, or use any number of deficit-reducing methods in combination to make up the reductions. The fact that the school starts off this statement with an obvious logical fallacy doesn't set the rest of the argument up well.
"The University implemented a number of budget strategies to deal with the first reduction (2019/20 budget) in November 2019, which included 19 positions being discontinued and then eliminated an additional 42 positions across several departments in March 2020 (in response to the 2020/21 budget balancing requirements)."
Wait a second here. The school introduces a red herring in that they were eliminating positions they felt unnecessary, not cutting entire programs or sports from the school. One does not necessarily lead to the other, so this talk is nothing more than setup for "difficult decisions".

In fact, Demetrios Nicolaides, the current Minister of Advanced Education, told Dean Bennett of The Canadian Press in January 2020 that he was "urging them to immediately freeze hiring and stop spending on travel and hosting" in order to "find savings wherever possible". He didn't say "scrap sports programs"; rather, he told schools to stop spending on frivolous things.

In response to Minister Nicolaides, the University of Lethbridge stated via email, "We are currently working toward a balanced budget that will be presented to the board this spring. To date, the University has implemented many of the measures mentioned in the letter including restrictions on replacing vacant administrative positions."

If the school was working towards a balanced budget with the hockey teams included, axing the programs at the last minute to balance the books is wildly irresponsible and wholly reprehensible. While I get that the school had already cut 61 positions from the budget, there are still some people earning healthy six-figure salaries that could certainly live comfortably on a little less. I'll get to that part in a second, though.
"The Pronghorn hockey programs have been a source of great pride for our athletes, students, alumni, donors, sponsors, the campus community and supporters throughout southern Alberta. I know this news will significantly impact everyone associated with these programs."
Thanks, Captain Obvious. I really like how you acknowledge the civic pride the teams brought the school and community, but believe that cutting programs that appeal to all these people is the best course of action. That's the text equivalent of a face-palm.
"The men's and women's varsity hockey programs have been an important part of the University's athletic history, developing hundreds of student-athletes, multiple Canada West and U SPORTS all-stars and spurring a number of community outreach initiatives. In addition to hockey camps, minor hockey team sponsorships, participation in athletes-in-school reading and anti-bullying programs, a number of former Pronghorns have emerged as coaches and leaders in southern Alberta minor hockey organizations."
Allow me to translate: "We've done some really good things, but we've decided that the cost of doing good for our students and community is a price we're not willing to pay any longer. I hope that's ok. Signed Moron-In-Chief Michael J. Mahon".
"Measuring the impact of university athletic programs goes far beyond winning percentages, and our hockey programs have played a very important role in the development of minor hockey in southern Alberta," says Mahon. "It is not lost on us what a significant loss this is to all those who have benefitted from the Pronghorn programs over the years."
Yet you cut the programs. I'll let Jim Downey handle this response.
Following the 2015 review, the University contributed annually an additional $400,000 for three years and $350,000 in 2019-20 ($1.55 million total) in seeking to stabilize the financial situation for Pronghorn Athletics and allow time to source external revenues to contribute to the operations. Unfortunately, external revenues for operations have not materialized and with the unprecedented budget reductions imposed upon the University, there is little choice but to reduce expenditures.
According to the 2019 University of Lethbridge financial statements, the institution set aside "10-12% of the University's annual operating budget to fund strategic priorities, capital projects and one time cash needs that may arise". The Operating Activities of this reserve currently sits at just over $30 million and grew from $24 million in 2018. If you're investing $350,000 - 1.2% of the operating reserve - while growing it by $6 million, it would seem that the investment isn't causing the school any harm financially whatsoever. In fact, one could say that the hockey teams would fall into "strategic priorities" when you consider all the civic pride and good the programs were doing in and around Lethbridge, but maybe I see things differently, I guess.

You could also argue that the "Student Experience" line found in this section would apply since 52 students who were brought to the school specifically for hockey would be affected by the cut of their programs, but, again, maybe I see things differently.

On top of that, if your recently-terminated Athletic Director, Mr. Ken MacInnes, wasn't generating external revenues for the athletic department as you wanted or needed for the athletic department and teams, shouldn't that have been addressed at some point in the five years he occupied the office? Secondly, Mr. Mahon, wouldn't that also fall upon you to ensure that there are opportunities for the athletic department to share in external sponsorships and advertising options?

There seems to be a woeful amount of mismanagement happening here, and it's 52 players, coaches, and staff who are now paying for that woeful mismanagement.
"This is not a rash decision and it's the last option we want to pursue, but it's also necessary to ensure the viability of the University and the sustainability of Pronghorn Athletics," says Mahon. "It is unusual for a school of our size to fund as many teams as we have. My hope is with a concentrated focus on remaining Pronghorn programs, we can continue to provide our student-athletes with a robust and meaningful experience."
There is so much baloney pouring out of this statement that Mr. Mahon could open a butchery.

First, if it was the last option as stated, why was it the only option proposed and executed? Players weren't told until reportedly 30-45 minutes before the announcement nor were they asked to try and save their programs. Donors and alumni weren't contacted. Nothing about this says "last option" and goes directly back to the false dilemma fallacy at the start where this is the only option considered. If you're going to spew this much crap, the least you could do for everyone is give us a courtesy flush.

Second, with hockey included, you had nine varsity sports for an enrolment of around 9000 students. Maybe that doesn't work for you because you can't do math, but your argument of "school of our size" not being able to fund varsity sports doesn't hold an ounce of water.
  • The University of Brandon in Manitoba has about 3500 students, and it supports six varsity teams.
  • Thompson River in BC has about 9500 students, and they have eight varsity teams.
  • The newly-joined Trinity Western University in BC has about 4500 students and boasts 14 varsity teams including men's and women's hockey.
  • Nipissing University in Ontario has 5000 students and boasts 14 varsity sports including men's and women's hockey.
  • Ontario Tech has 10,000 students and boasts 15 varsity sports including men's and women's hockey.
  • Bishop's University in Quebec has 3000 students and boasts nine varsity sports including women's hockey.
  • Mount Allison in New Brunswick has 2200 students and boasts 11 varsity sports including both men's and women's hockey.
  • St. Thomas University in New Brunswick has 2000 students and boasts 13 varsity sports including both men's and women's hockey.
In fact, virtually all of the AUS schools have lower enrollments, more varsity teams, and feature a ton of men's and women's hockey teams. It might be time to stop spreading statements that any high school freshman could disprove with access to Google.

Time To Make Cents

I think it's time to show a few cards because someone here is playing with aces up his sleeve.
This would be the posted salary numbers for the five executives named in the 2019 University of Lethbridge financial statements. If we draw our attention to the "President" line - aka Michael J. Mahon's line - we can see that he brought home a base pay of $440,000 and total compensation of $740,000, an increase of $16,000 from his 2018 compensation of $724,000. Included in that line is $30,000 for a "housing and research allowance" which seems ridiculous when he's already making nearly half-a-million dollars, and the tiny "Note 5" is recorded as "Automobile provided, no dollar amount included in other non-cash benefit figures" which, again, seems ridiculous for a guy who makes $440,000 annually.

Has he done the right thing in reducing his salary when it comes to budget cuts? According to Gerry Moddejonge's article in the Edmonton Sun, Mahon took a "30 per cent pay cut this year" which would mean he's only bringing home $308,000 as opposed to his $440,000 salary if there were no increases between 2019 and 2020. The $132,000 in savings is a nice start, but he could do a lot more by coughing up that $30,000 housing allowance and asking the four other executives to match the salary cut of 30%. If they did, these five executives would go from a combined $1.711 million annually in base pay to $1.2 million - a $500,000 savings which would not only cover the university's investment of $350,000 in 2019-20, but leave $150,000 to use for whatever means necessary.

Combined with the operating reserve monies and the scholarship monies donated by Dan Laplante, the Lethbridge Pronghorns hockey programs could have built something amazing.

A Failure Of Leadership

It was February 29, 2020 when Nick Kuhl of the Lethbridge Herald spoke to University of Lethbridge President Michael Mahon. On that day, he stated,
"Part of what we will have to do as an institution is look from a transformational perspective at how we do our business with a different funding landscape. So looking at maximizing other funding sources, including looking to fundraising, looking to partnerships outside of the university — looking at how we recruit our international students. These are all things we are already looking at, but this (provincial cut) certainly gives us motivation to go further to look at external funding sources.

“This is a challenge before us,” he acknowledged, “but I am very optimistic that as an institution we will find a way forward and continue to evolve as an academic institution.”
Has any of that been done? Are there no Lethbridge businesses who would specifically fund the hockey programs in order to keep them viable? Has anyone even bothered asking?

These are the questions that need to be asked of Mr. Mahon. He's on record as saying that this is their plan to resolve some of the financial diffculties, but has any of this been executed prior to cutting the hockey programs as a cost-saving measure? With no details released on how this would be achieved or what the plan's details were in light of cutting the hockey programs, I think it's fair to say that Mr. Mahon hasn't done what he said he was going to do over the last 50 days.

Nice job, boss. Solid effort. Excuse my sarcasm.

Biggest Clowns In This Circus

You might be asking how I know this move to cut the programs was a cost-savings measure.

Here's a quick tip for everyone: don't have conversations in public that you don't want out in public.
"We're shutting it down, but it's not coming back."

I respect that hockey costs the school $1 million per year. Again, it's expensive, but what measures were taken to try and reduce costs? Was anything done outside of hoping "some UofL grad" invents the new widget? All signs point to no, so why am I even asking the question? This was pre-planned from the moment that Mahon couldn't balance the budget, and the hockey teams were the easy, low-hanging fruit to kill.

Speaking of which....

History Repeats Itself

It feels like we did this before when the University of North Dakota axed the women's hockey program after a budget shortfall by the state of North Dakota. North Dakota asked institution to cut $32 million from its budget, and they made the insane decision to cut women's hockey which still irks me to this day.

It seems like Lethbridge took a page out of the UND playbook because the students were notified less than an hour before the announcement went out, they were sent an email with the details because face-to-face meetings allow for tough questions to be asked that no one has the testicular fortitude to answer, and there were no options given to try and save the program. I don't know what it is about these administrations at the schools, but it seems none of them have compassion or empathy for the students they claim to care about and respect.

And then Lethbridge goes and says, "Hold my beer," and cuts the men's team as well. Congratulations, University of Lethbridge. You might just be the worst school for student relations on the planet.

And Then There Were Nine

It seems that Pronghorns hockey at the University of Lethbridge is dead as far as the university is concerned. I'm sure I could sit here and suggest a myriad of ways to try and fix this, but it seems like those who are making these decisions don't want it fixed either.

I get that Pronghorns hockey had struggled in recent years. The men and women both finished at the bottom of the Canada West Conference standings this year, and it had been some time since either found any success in the playoffs when they did make the postseason. This lack of success shouldn't have led anyone to the conclusion that the programs should be cut from existence at the institution, though.

Because of what appears to me to be some baffling mismanagement and incredible laziness, there will be nine teams in Canada West next season on both the men's and women's sides of the coin. I feel for the players, coaches and staff in this time because you definitely deserved a better fate, but that opportunity will not be given after management felt that your teams threatened the "the viability of the University and the sustainability of Pronghorn Athletics".

As I sit here now after writing all that I did, I think of the young men and women who pulled those Pronghorns jerseys on over their gear and realize that they might be better off not playing and representing a school like the University of Lethbridge.

Not once at any point this season or any other season did they ever give up when it came to their efforts on the ice or representing Lethbridge proudly. Not once can I ever say that the "give a damn" level dropped in all the games that featured the Pronghorns that I am proud to say I watched and called. Never once do I recall them declining an interview or being unwilling to talk about the team and the school. As far as I can tell, they never gave up on each other nor did they ever stop being proud of being Pronghorns.

Until, that is, yesterday when you gave up on them. When you told them that their efforts don't matter. When you told them that money is more important than their educations. When you told them that you're not even willing to fight for them. When you told them they don't matter.

If they don't matter to you, Michael J. Mahon, despite all the great things you admitted they did in and for the campus and community, then you never deserved to have these classy individuals make up the Lethbridge Pronghorns men's and women's hockey teams. And while you may save a few bucks after cutting the programs, you'll never get to experience all the good these players will do and all the things they're going to accomplish both on the ice and in life.

You just killed hockey at the University of Lethbridge for good. When you look in the mirror tonight that you bought with your six-figure salary at your paid-for-with-a-home-allowance house, I hope it was worth it.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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