February 6, 2002

The Fight for Alumni Field

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O n Oct. 19, 2001, The Sun published a small front page article entitled “Recommendation Delayed for Site of New Building.” The piece detailed the decision from the Board of Trustees to hold off votes for “the construction of a building dedicated to the life sciences on the Alumni Field until they had more information….” For most students at Cornell, this article was the first announcement that the University administration was continuing the Cornell Genomics Initiative on the practice soccer fields.

A short while later, one of the members of the Board of Trustees made a visit to the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee to explain the situation that the Athletic Department now found itself in — not knowing whether its practice space might be the new site for a multi-million dollar building.

“The only time that I ever heard about it was that one article in The Sun,” senior captain of the women’s soccer team Julie DeMichele said. “I think they did a poor job of letting everybody know about it.”

But once she found out about the Initiative, DeMichele did her best to inform the rest of the athletes and the student body of the plans for a new building on the fields.

“Julie came to the Student-Athlete Advisory Meeting with Ezra Cornell, on the Board of Trustees and he came to tell us all about it,” junior crew and equestrian team member Kiva Iscol said.

At the time Cornell gave the students the impression that the Trustees would vote on the issue soon, most likely Dec. 6., so many of the athletes formed a committee to try to keep the building off Alumni Field. Iscol, senior Ken Davies of heavyweight crew and DeMichele, classmate Ellen Daly and junior Sarah Olsen of the women’s soccer team among others passed around a petition to Cornellians to unite student support in an attempt to move the plans for the new building.

“A group of us talked about it to write a petition,” Iscol explained. “We wanted it to be from the students’ voice and not from the athletes’ voice. These fields are beautiful whether they’re used for athletics or not. Why should Cornell put a building there?”

They accrued over 800 names in the week and a half they had. Most of the signatures were from non-athletes who just enjoyed having the empty space on campus.

In addition the SAAC wrote a letter to the two student Trustees, junior Leslie Barkemeyer and senior Khary Barnes voicing its opinion. Many athletes researched the issue and sent information to Iscol, who actually wrote the letter.

“We researched separately and then everyone e-mailed me the info, and I put it together,” she explained.

DeMichele, Daly, and Olsen went into the library stacks, researching the Cornell University annals to discover the origin of the fields. Their findings included a telling passage from Charles V. P. Young’s ’99 book Cornell in Pictures: The First Century:

“By a unanimous vote on June 17, 1903, the Trustees accepted the proposition submitted by the Associate Alumni that ‘if the Board would set aside a suitable area of University lands, not alone for the athletic fields for intercollegiate contests, but sufficient to enable all undergraduates in the great future of the University to meet upon the democratic level of a student commons, the alumni would provide the means to build the commons for the outdoor sports of all Cornell students for all time.’ The Trustees designated about sixty acres east of Garden Avenue as “Alumni Field” for these purposes and alumni gave more than $300,000 for its preparation, more than meeting the terms of the contract.”

Although the area is half its original size (Lower Alumni Field having disappeared during the construction of the Biotech building) and is now reserved solely for varsity athletic use, only two fields will remain of the original 60 acres after the realization of the Genomics Initiative.

Iscol justified the Board of Trustees’ decision that it has the right to allocate the fields for non-recreational uses. But DeMichele, Daly and Olsen allege that by building a research facility, Cornell is rescinding a promise it made almost a century ago.

When the letter was sent, nothing about the history of the fields was mentioned; instead Iscol concentrated on the duress the elimination of fields would cause for the athletics program. However, one of the most significant problems was the severe time constraint the SAAC was under to produce the letter.

“We were given the impression that we had a few weeks… Then they ended up voting in January, when we were under the impression that they were voting in early December. There’s really not much that we could do,” Iscol said.

“We had about three days,” Olsen remembered, adding, “We found a lot in that time, though.”

Iscol sent the letter illustrating how every relocated team would suffer in some degree:

“There are many issues which concern us students about the elimination of the fields,” she writes.

“First, is the distance away from campus, which would create other unnoted expenses and hardships,” Iscol continues to elaborate the obstacles moving the fields would create.

Despite the support of the athletes and the students, the Board of Trustees approved Alumni Field for the site of the new $110 million, 240,000 square-foot building. And the students and athletes have 18 months to appreciate the groomed practice fields until the two western most of them are ripped up and the third is used for staging material.

The athletes are no longer concentrating on saving their playing space, but contemplating the effect the new building will have on their teams, and the campus they love.

“I think that recruitment is going to be lower,” prognosticated Iscol. “One thing students love about Cornell is that everything’s right there. Traveling to fields is really hard on athletes. Even if transportation is provided, it’s really difficult.”

Iscol knows first-hand the difficulty of having to practice off campus since Oxley Equestrian Center near East Hill Plaza and the Collyer Boathouse on the Cayuga Inlet are both a distance from the Cornell campus.

“People can’t be late [to practice] and if you are late you don’t get a ride…It’s nothing is provided for us out there. The tennis team, the squash team, everybody has to transport themselves out there . And it’s difficult,” she continued.

Daly expressed her worries also. “To build something one mile away, two miles away, you’re going to have to add another hour to practice,” she said.

The move will also end up severing the athletic community further from the student body while also splitting the varsity athletes themselves.

“[Having the fields near Bartels Hall] brings all the teams together and builds camaraderie,” DeMichele said. “With the fields out there you’re going to lose all the athletic spirit.”

There are also more conflicts, especially those concerning athletes’ schedules. Committing up to 20 hours per week for their respective sports, athletes appreciate the proximity of Alumni Field to practice.

Iscols writes in her letter: “One of the big reasons that we athletes love Cornell and our recruits end up choosing Cornell over the other big schools is that our campus and athletics are connected. It is easy to get to practice from classes and easy to get back to night classes after practice.”

Which brings up another problem. With the intense competition among Ivy League schools for top recruits, Cornell is losing one of its most enticing features. Few Ivy schools have fields that are as closely integrated into the campus. Even fewer have the quality fie
lds that one finds at Cornell.

“We have the nicest fields,” Olsen said.

The University promises to compensate the Athletic Department for the facilities it will be losing, however can it build the same quality fields that it currently boasts?

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is paying fully for the new Athletic facilities, and when the Genomics building is completed, there will be at least one more field than before and an indoor facility.

“It’s great for athletics that they get all this new stuff, but at the same time I know Columbia has problems with recruiting because they have to travel to their athletic facilities. So it will be the same thing for us,” Iscol commented.

The women’s soccer team will not freely mention the relocation of the fields to prospective recruits even though they will see the transition if they commit to Cornell.

Although most varsity athletes are upset at the Board of Trustees’ decision, few seem as agitated as senior tailback of the football team Evan Simmons.

“I think that the removal of [Alumni Field] at Cornell [is] just another example of how much this University does not appreciate their athletic teams,” he opined.

“I know from experience that athletic teams are stressed for practice space. The varsity football team has to share the limited grass fields they have with the lightweight team. The football team doesn’t even get preference over the football stadium. And it’s our field,” he mentioned.

The shipping of athletics off campus further supports his allegations.

“I know a lot of athletes on campus feel like they’re not respected. Some athletes feel like there’s a split [among the student body],” said Iscol who believes that many athletes may even quit teams once they have to travel to their practice fields.

“These are athletes, but they also got into Cornell,” she warranted. “When it comes down to one or another, being a student [wins out] over being an athlete. And when you separate the fields [from campus] it’s going to be harder for these athletes to be students. So you might have students quitting because it’s harder to be both.”

DeMichele, Olsen, and Daly recognize the compromises their program, into which they’ve invested so much time, must make. On one hand, they feel lucky to have been able to practice in one of the few undeveloped areas on campus. But this is not the legacy that they want to leave behind.

“We talked to the people who weren’t athletes too, and they loved the fields and how they brought everyone together,” the women’s soccer players voiced in unison, a sentiment expressed in former Cornell President Frank Rhodes’s quote cited in the document they sent to Iscol:

“[Cornell’s] job is to harness and utilize the remarkable diversity of Cornellians on the campus and build a true community, a community appreciative of the things that make each member unique, but also willing to build on the things we hold in common, both as members of the human family and as fellow members of Cornell. That shared community perspective can be a powerful force for good — for tolerance, mutual respect, and real community throughout the nation and the world.”

Once embodying the community spirit here, Alumni Field has now unfortunately become a symbol of the ever-widening gap between academics and athletics at Cornell.

Archived article by Amanda Angel