EVANSTON, Ill. — In the wake of a hazing scandal in the football program that led to the dismissal of its head coach on Monday, a group of Northwestern professors is calling for a delay in proposed upgrades to Ryan Field.
In a lengthy letter obtained by WGN, six members of the faculty have asked the school to stop the planning and marketing of an $800 million renovation of Ryan Field “until this crisis is satisfactorily resolved.”
Changes to the stadium were first proposed in September 2022 and are in the early stages of planning, with the most recent meeting with the Evanston and Wilmette communities taking place on June 27.
This comes after head coach Pat Fitzgerald was fired due to details of alleged hazing within the program. It came to light over the weekend following the release of an investigation launched into those accusations late in 2022.
Initially, Fitzgerald was only suspended for two weeks in July, but Northwestern president Michael Schill reconsidered punishment and decided to fire him three days later.
It was authored by Northwestern associate professor of history Caitlin Fitz, professor of political science and religious studies Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, professor of history and Board of Visitors professor Kate Masur, professor of history Susan Pearson, Wayne V. Jones II research professor of history Amy Stanley and professor of anthropology Jessica Winegar.
It was addressed to Schill, athletics director Dr. Derrick Gragg and Board of Trustees chairman Peter Barris.
“Over the past decade, Northwestern has made major and high-profile investments in athletics. But disturbing evidence of harassment and abuse – and high-level efforts to minimize those problems – suggest that we need to get the existing house in order before expanding it,” said the faculty members in the letter. “We share an interest in ensuring the future success of NU athletics, and in stellar facilities where our students can compete on the highest level. But first, we must ensure that our Athletics Program enables all our students to thrive.”
The topic of Ryan Field was one of many discussed in the letter, which was focused on concerns about the culture of Northwestern Athletics. This also includes a mention of the 2021 lawsuit filed by former cheerleader Hayden Richardson, which would lead to the resignation of then-athletic director Mike Polisky.
“In 2021, it was clear to us that many student athletes felt uncomfortable coming forward with concerns about behaviors they witnessed or pressures they experienced, fearing retaliation or ostracism. Putting a competent outside observer in the football locker room will help mitigate the issue that brought us to this crisis,” said the faculty in the letter. “But we believe greater oversight of the Athletic Department is needed, perhaps through the creation of a dedicated ombudsperson or office and a widely publicized tip line.”
WGN reached out to Northwestern benefactor – and stadium namesake – Pat Ryan for comment, he did not immediately respond.
Here is the full text of the letter from the faculty that was obtained by WGN.
Dear President Schill, Dr. Gragg, and Mr. Barris,
We are a group of six tenured faculty members who are concerned about the culture of athletics at Northwestern. In 2021, we drew attention to abuses on the Northwestern cheer squad and to the misguided selection of Mike Polisky as Athletic Director after he was implicated in Northwestern’s failure to adequately respond to the cheerleaders’ allegations.
We are dismayed to find Northwestern Athletics embroiled in another major scandal that involves allegations of sexual abuse and harassment as well as negligence or indifference among administrators and coaches. We call on Northwestern leadership to take immediate, comprehensive steps to remedy the current situation and to protect all student athletes from future abuse.
The first step is transparency. The findings of the investigator should be made public to the fullest extent permitted by law, contingent on the consent of the victims. It is essential to learn what was known by NU coaches, staff and administrators, and when, and what steps were taken or not taken to address hazing on the football team. The broader community of NU students, staff, alumni, faculty, and donors deserves to know what occurred, in part so that we can ensure it never happens again.
Next, we call on the administration to provide all necessary support to the students who experienced hazing and trauma. They should be reassured that they will not face retaliation from the administration or their peers, and they should be guaranteed full access to any mental health support they require. We applaud the courage of the athletes and staff members who have come forward, and we salute NU student journalists for their work bringing the details of the allegations to light. We also call on the administration to encourage the perpetrators and enablers of the abuse to acknowledge what they saw and did, and to apologize.
Looking ahead, we strongly urge university leadership to protect student athletes by ensuring that the Athletics Department abides by Northwestern’s principles of moral integrity, honesty, and responsibility. The Department is staffed by professionals who care about athletes’ well-being, but the potential for abuse is also immense. In 2021, it was clear to us that many student athletes felt uncomfortable coming forward with concerns about behaviors they witnessed or pressures they experienced, fearing retaliation or ostracism. Putting a competent outside observer in the football locker room will help mitigate the issue that brought us to this crisis. But we believe greater oversight of the Athletic Department is needed, perhaps through the creation of a dedicated ombudsperson or office and a widely publicized tip line.
Northwestern recently announced plans for an $800 million rebuild of Ryan Field. We believe the university should halt that planning and marketing process until this crisis is satisfactorily resolved. Over the past decade, Northwestern has made major and high-profile investments in athletics. But disturbing evidence of harassment and abuse – and high-level efforts to minimize those problems – suggest that we need to get the existing house in order before expanding it. We share an interest in ensuring the future success of NU athletics, and in stellar facilities where our students can compete on the highest level. But first, we must ensure that our Athletics Program enables all our students to thrive.
Finally, we welcome more information about our football program’s leadership. After heading our football program for seventeen years, Coach Fitzgerald is responsible for the culture and behavior of his team. He must be held accountable. Unless the university presents compelling evidence that Coach Fitzgerald proactively and systematically worked to prevent abuse and investigate potential hazing throughout his tenure – and hold the perpetrators and any knowing staff members accountable once he learned of misbehavior – we have no confidence in his ability to protect our students and represent the university’s values.
We were heartened by President Schill’s recent message to the NU community, acknowledging that the sanctions against Coach Fitzgerald have been inadequate. We trust that you share our concerns and that you and other members of Northwestern’s leadership will take comprehensive action to right past wrongs and create a better future for all our students.
Caitlin Fitz, Associate Professor of History
Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Professor of Political Science and Religious Studies
Kate Masur, Professor of History and Board of Visitors Professor
Susan Pearson, Professor of History
Amy Stanley, Wayne V. Jones II Research Professor of History
Jessica Winegar, Professor of Anthropology