On March 14 we announced a decision (initially by informing Coach Niven, the student-athletes, program supporters Garry Gibson and Les Parsons, and Camrose Ski Club leaders Gerhard Lotz and Morten Asfeldt) to end funding from Augustana’s operating budget for biathlon and cross-country skiing as varsity sports. We also expressed hope that these teams, which have a long and proud history at Augustana, might be reorganized as club sports. Since then, I have received e-mails and telephone calls from alumni and community members who have concerns about the decision. Many have shared stories about Augustana’s Nordic sport program that go far beyond their love of the sport and include moving accounts of friendships, leadership development, and lifelong impacts. Not only are these stories compelling, I know them to be true, as I’ve encountered first-hand the impact that our Nordic program and many other programs at Augustana have had on students’ lives, both during their time at university and after as alumni. Many supporters have also pointed out the contributions Nordic sports once made to Augustana’s national and even international reputation.
This background is part of what made our decision difficult. It is also why my colleagues and I are anxious to find a strategy, working with current student-athletes, alumni, and community members, to preserve the Nordic sport tradition at Augustana. While some letter writers have expressed dismay about a decision to “cut” or “cancel” biathlon and cross-country skiing, our goal instead is to reorganize. But Augustana cannot arrive at an optimal strategy on our own. That will require engagement with our student-athletes and the many others who wish to support the program, both in the near term and into the future.
Our decision also needs to be placed in context. The main challenge affecting Augustana is a 4% cut in our budget and increasing operating costs that add up together to ~$1M. We are by no means alone; all Faculties within the University of Alberta are facing similar pressures. At Augustana, the reorganization of the Nordic program is just one budget-driven decision among many. Others include modest reductions in the number of courses offered, faculty positions that will not be refilled following retirements, the reorganization of work to gain operational efficiencies and reduce staffing needs, etc. Just as I am inviting friends and supporters of Nordic sports to help us imagine a different organization for this program, I have encouraged our faculty to re-imagine aspects of our curriculum, treating the budget challenge as an opportunity to strengthen, not weaken, our longstanding commitment to the liberal arts and sciences and to explore exciting opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration.
Additional context for the Nordic program has included a decline over the years in the number of participating students—this past fall there were 14 student-athletes, not all of whom were active in competitions. In addition, the fact that biathlon and cross-country skiing are not varsity sports within the Alberta Colleges Athletics Conference allows us to explore options that might not otherwise be available.
Some of my colleagues and I have already been in conversation with our Nordic student-athletes. Their maturity and their determination to contribute their thinking to creative solutions are inspiring—as was the poise and articulate advocacy of student-athlete Annika Olesen in her interview on CBC radio.
So where do we go from here? My colleagues and I believe that the club sport model, which has been very effective on the U of A’s Edmonton campus and elsewhere in Alberta, is a good option. This structure would require a new governance model, full participation by the Camrose Ski Club in decision making, and the active engagement of current athletes, alumni, and friends. I believe that drawing on models from the University of Alberta (North Campus) Nordic Club and elsewhere, it will be possible to develop a competitive program that is financially sustainable, effectively meets the needs of student-athletes, and over time attracts larger numbers of participants. We already know that club-level programs in Canada effectively produce national-level athletes, coaches, officials, and community leaders. Redefining Augustana’s program to club status, if that is the will of our athletes, partners, and supporters, will allow Augustana biathletes and skiers to continue to be eligible for the same competitions, including the Winter FISU (World University) Games. To support our athletes, Augustana will continue to offer the current six donor-funded Nordic Sport Scholarships and will assist in seeking additional scholarship opportunities in the future.
My sincere hope is that the passion of the Nordic community will help propel the Augustana program, in whatever way it is redesigned, to levels of success and prominence that are reminiscent of the program’s golden years. The initial work before us is organizational—e.g., developing a governance model. Anyone who would like to offer input or be actively involved—or simply would like more information—is encouraged to contact Randal Nickel, Augustana’s Executive Director, Student Life, at 780-679-1630 or email@example.com.
Allen Berger, Dean and Executive Officer