Breaking the Surface

After nearly 10 rocky years on the job, UM Women's Athletic Director Chris Voelz finally has plenty to smile about.

But the biggest surprise for Voelz was in the U's institutional resistance toward what it had hired her to accomplish. "I was brought in as a change agent and so I looked for things to change. I didn't know there would be that much controversy. I was certainly not being radical," she says. Three years after Voelz took office, the university fielded just 152 female athletes, compared with 348 men, far below the 40/60 percent split required under Title IX. In addition, the men's athletics budget was three times that of Voelz's department. Despite the sobering statistics, Voelz says those early years were productive in establishing a strategic plan for women's athletics that justified and itemized budget increases being proposed to administrators and legislators. "It was important to take the global commitment of the university to Title IX down to a level of finite delineation," she claims.

If Voelz didn't get everything she wanted for women's athletics from the university administration, it certainly wasn't because of lack of effort on her part, says Nils Hasselmo, the UM president from 1989 to 1997. According to Hasselmo, Voelz "was a very strong spokesperson for women's athletics and made many effective presentations" to regents and administrators, who responded as best they could under "tight financial circumstances."

Yet it was after one of those presentations, Voelz's annual report to the regents in April 1992, when then-Regent Alan Page, now a Minnesota Supreme Court justice, asked why things were progressing so slowly and proposed a resolution calling for an increase in women's participation in sports at the university within six months. Page says there had been concerns raised to him about a lack of opportunities for women to participate on teams at the university, and that he hadn't seen the kind of clear action toward adding more places for women he'd been looking for.

Voelz says Page's action was critical to moving the university forward on gender-equity issues, because it gave her the institutional impetus to accomplish major projects, such as the addition of a women's soccer team in 1993. Another significant push occurred in September 1994, when the UM received notification that the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights was investigating a complaint against the institution regarding Title IX violations. Seven different instances of discrimination against women's athletics at the university were named in the complaint.

The complaint alleged that: The university did not provide enough opportunities for women to play on varsity teams; did not allocate sufficient resources to the women's recruiting budget, coaching staff, publicity, and promotion; did not provide training tables or equal weight-training facilities for women athletes; and did not provide similar travel arrangements for women and men athletes.

In response, the university agreed to add 13 additional spaces on its existing women's athletic teams by 1997, and to create 30 new spaces by introducing a women's ice hockey team. In addition, the agreement requires the university to open its books to the OCR and prove it is providing equal access to resources for women athletes in the areas of recruiting, training, facilities, and travel.

The situation could have been worse had it not been for the meticulous strategic budgetary planning instituted by Voelz and reinforced by Page's resolution. According to OCR officer Rodger Murphy, the UM presented a blueprint for putting the institution into compliance with Title IX even before his office could officially call the school noncompliant. Without such a speedy response, the Education Department could have sued the U in a civil action or withheld its federal funding. Once the OCR receives the final report (due in October) from the university on the matter, Murphy says his office will either close the file on the school or compel the UM to make additional changes. He adds that noncompliance with Title IX is relatively common; his office has received complaints about more than 40 schools over the past two years, and more than three-quarters of them have required remedial action.

Given Page's resolution and the OCR investigation, a case could be made that Voelz has not been aggressive enough in forcing the university to live up to its promised commitment to Title IX. This is at odds with her reputation both on campus and in the news media for being, if anything, an overly aggressive and demanding administrator. Certainly to some extent Voelz is being penalized by hidebound gender stereotypes, and also inevitably suffers the consequences of trying to turn politically correct lip service into concrete action at the U. But her participation in two notorious personnel disputes, both of which ended up in court, has also contributed to her image problems.

In 1992, the women's gymnastics coaches, Katalin Deli and Gabor Deli, Katalin's husband, were fired from the university. The terminations stemmed from an incident where Gabor, without telling Katalin, had taped the couple having sex. The footage inadvertently showed up on a training video that was shown to the gymnastics team. Katalin Deli sued and eventually won $675,000 for emotional distress from the university--not for discrimination or wrongful termination, but because of a promise she says Voelz had made to her and then broke. Deli convinced the court that Voelz had promised not to view the videotape and had obtained the tape under the auspices of that promise. Voelz says she never made that promise and that viewing the tape was necessary to the university's investigation into the matter. "I did what was right for the student athletes," she contends.

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