Breaking the Surface

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

The other case involved the 1994 dismissal of women's volleyball coach Stephanie Schleuder. Schleuder claimed she was fired because she had dared to challenge the university's unequal pay system for male and female coaches. Voelz says Schleuder's contract simply wasn't renewed because her performance wasn't up to Voelz's expectations. Neither side had a very compelling argument. Schleuder's final team at the U compiled a 21-10 record and the players' on-time graduation rate was 95 percent--what more could Voelz ask for? On the other hand, Schleuder's claim that Voelz would punish her for trying to equalize pay between male and female athletics departments was, given Voelz's history, fairly absurd. As Voelz notes, she unilaterally gave out pay-equity raises to the coaches in her department within two years of taking the UM job.

Yet in 1995, the university agreed to pay $300,000 to settle all claims with Schleuder. Voelz said it was done because the case contained a court injunction that kept the university from hiring a permanent coach. Voelz absorbed even more heat after hiring her protégé, Mike Hebert, as women's volleyball coach two years ago for a salary that was more than twice as much as Schleuder earned. But Voelz's criticism of Schleuder's inability to thrive in the playoffs has been strengthened by Hebert's sterling playoff performance during the past two years.

The fallout from Schleuder's case did spur the U to develop a systemic response to wage disputes. Coaches in both men's and women's athletics now are compensated on a system based on the amount of revenue their respective sports produce at the school. Voelz rightfully notes that if such a system had been in place before she came to the university, it could have saved her a lot of grief.

In retrospect, Voelz says, the court cases have led her to think she may have erred by approaching the job as an educator more than as a leader. "I figured once everyone got to know me and bought into my ideas, everyone would chase the challenge of excellence. Maybe I shouldn't have given it year after year of chances. Maybe I would have said instead, 'Hey, listen, this train is moving, if you can't keep up then jump another.' But I knew I was making decisions about people's lives." Maybe if she had been more realistic than optimistic, Voelz says, things would have been different.

But after years of strife and controversy, which included a Star Tribune editorial calling for her removal and reports of Gov. Carlson blocking a buyout of her contract because it was too expensive, the current reality of women's athletics under Voelz is an optimistic one. The ratio of women to men athletes at the university is currently 38/62, slightly below the NCAA gender-equity guidelines but as good as can be hoped for by most institutions that have a major sport such as football with no female equivalent. The UM received a grade of B from the Women's Sports Foundation on its Gender Equity Report Card for 1997, a higher mark than three-quarters of the institutions in the survey.

The foundation also gave the school a B in the area of funding, a testament to Voelz's money-raising prowess. Seventy-five $10,000 donors have been added to the university's President's Club under Voelz's leadership. Scholarship-fund donations for women's sports have nearly doubled, while total scholarship money increased for women from $2 million in 1994 to $3.5 million in 1997. Voelz also secured the largest private bequest ever for a women's athletics department: $1.6 million to help build the Dorothy Shepard Aquatic Center. And her courting of corporate sponsors has won patronage for women's teams from the likes of Nike, Coke, and Reliastar. Overall, while institutional and governmental support has diminished for many higher-education activities, the budget of the U's women's athletics department has swollen from $2.8 million to $7 million between 1988 and 1997.

The money has bought new and improved facilities. Prior to the opening of the University Sports Pavilion in 1993, UM women's sports had no home. After getting the pavilion for women athletes, Voelz pushed for the renovation of Peik Gym and the construction of the aquatic center, and, most recently, a 3,500-seat arena for the new hockey team.

The progress has Voelz renewing her dream of a Twin Cities community that supports women's athletics on a par with men's sports. The cycle of momentum, she says, is to drive up attendance by winning, which in turn will spur additional revenue and provide more opportunities to create a successful program. "Meeting revenue goals is a whole new vocabulary for women's sports," she says with a grin. "In the '70s the language was participate, in the '80s it was play, and in the '90s, we're being asked to compete."

On the other hand, she maintains that competition need not be at the expense of men's sports. "There's not a finite amount of success out there. Six years ago, I couldn't just go in and say to sponsors, 'This is our goal, let's work on it together.' I had to defend our very existence. Now I walk in and I reflect the consumer mainstream. They have daughters, nieces, and granddaughters who are growing up to be Gophers."

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