Breaking the Surface

Diana Watters

Just as professional athletes inevitably must learn how to play hurt, University of Minnesota Women's Athletic Director Chris Voelz has adjusted to administering her department with a wounded reputation. As she heads into the 10th year of her rocky tenure, Voelz has been involved in lawsuits over her actions that have cost the UM nearly $1 million in settlements. She has endured an investigation by the federal Office of Civil Rights into a lack of opportunities for female athletes at the school, even as she has been pilloried in the local media for pushing too hard for women's programs.

Describing the past decade as an uneasy adolescence for her department, she acknowledges her own naïveté over how fast and effectively she could implement needed changes. But, drawing on her experience as a four-sport collegiate athlete, she adds, "You get used to having setbacks and then going back to practice the next day."

That tenacity has finally begun to produce some tangible dividends for Voelz and her department. Having suffered through a costly lawsuit in order to install the volleyball coach she wanted, she has seen the UM squad reach the NCAA finals two years in a row. The Gopher women's soccer team, added by Voelz in 1993, placed third in the Big Ten last year and competed in the first round of NCAA finals. And the women's ice hockey team, added by Voelz just this year, drew one of the biggest walk-up crowds ever to Mariucci Arena at its first game last November.

Beneath the wins and losses is a structural integrity that is a product of Voelz's thorough approach. The student athletes participating in women's sports at the U are in their fifth consecutive year of maintaining a 3.0-or-above departmental grade-point average. Facilities have been built or upgraded and budgets have been clearly defined so that when a sport is introduced it is given ample support and time to flourish. Clearly, Voelz is in this for the long haul.

Like most female athletes of her era, the 48-year-old Voelz learned to improvise and cajole opportunities in a culture that did not value competitive sports for women. After a childhood playing touch football and other games with her brothers and their friends, she discovered no organized sports for girls at the Chicago-area high school she attended. In response, Voelz became president of the Girls Athletic Association, and bent the GAA rules to create maverick teams with coaches and games. She went on to Illinois State University, where she competed in volleyball, basketball, softball, and golf, and eventually became one of the first women ever to be inducted into the school's Redbird Hall of Fame.

After graduating from ISU, Voelz taught physical education and coached all three girls' sports at a high school in Park Ridge, Illinois, while working toward her master's degree in education, which she eventually received in 1974 from Northern Illinois University.

Voelz says she knew that to really make a difference in the lives of women athletes she had to get into the administration of college sports. Ten years after taking a job as the head volleyball coach at the University of Oregon, she was the associate athletic director there, overseeing an $8.9 million budget, and ripe for a more prominent position at another school. When she interviewed for the UM job, Voelz says she had a job offer in hand from the University of Rhode Island to become only the second woman, after Mary Alice Hall of San Diego State, to direct both the men and women's athletic programs at a major university.

If she was to be dissuaded from taking the URI job, Voelz needed some assurance that Minnesota was supportive of Title IX, a law stipulating that schools receiving federal funding must provide equal opportunities for both genders to participate in school activities, including sports. Specifically, Voelz says, "I told them if I needed to come to work every day and fight for Title IX with my own institution, it wouldn't work." After considering two dozen candidates during a two-month national search, the university's search committee choose Voelz for the job.

After accepting the UM offer, Voelz says, "I got calls on the one hand that said, 'How dare you turn down the Rhode Island position, you could have opened the door for us all.' And other people called and said, 'Thanks for making women's sports a priority.'" Voelz says she preferred the University of Minnesota opportunity because she believed that in the Twin Cities, women's athletics had a chance to become as well-known, well-financed, and well-attended as the men's programs.

Instead, Voelz has made less progress and encountered more resistance than she anticipated. She admits that her own lack of readiness for what was ahead was also to blame. Speaking of the state of women's athletics when she took over, she says, "I thought they might have been better than they were in 1988, but the fact is they didn't have a top-10 team. I should have known, but I was so idealistic." Coping with the U's enormous bureaucracy was also part of the learning curve. "There has never been so much reading, so many meetings, or so many constituents I had to answer to."  

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.

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."

Altogether, the support that she had suspected resided in the Twin Cities for women's athletics did materialize, it just took some time. It took time, Voelz says, for her to learn to work in an area where everyone, from donors to parents to legislators to news columnists, are constituents with an opinion. "It was great at the beginning, tough in the middle. But we're very well-positioned in the community now. When I got here there was an infancy about us. Now, after 10 years of evolving, we're poised to have a fabulous next decade."

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