A Northwestern U. Cheerleader Sued an Athletics Official. Now Faculty and Students Are Protesting His Promotion.

For years, cheerleaders at Northwestern University have complained that they’ve been paraded as sex objects to entertain wealthy donors and forced to suppress their racial identities to fit a certain mold. On Friday, a crowd of faculty and student supporters marched to the home of the university’s president, Morton O. Schapiro to protest the decision to promote an athletics official who they say played down the cheerleaders’ grievances. Protest organizers say hundreds turned out for the event.

At issue was the hiring of Mike Polisky as the university’s new athletic director. Polisky is one of four Northwestern employees who, along with the university, was sued in January by Hayden Richardson, a senior and member of the cheer team. The federal lawsuit alleges that the university failed to adequately respond after Richardson complained about being groped by drunken fans and alumni at tailgates and fund-raising events. The head cheer coach, Pamela Bonnevier, expected cheerleaders to mingle with powerful donors, the lawsuit states, and it became clear to Richardson “that the cheerleaders were being presented as sex objects to titillate the men that funded the majority of Northwestern’s athletics programs.” Richardson said Polisky minimized her concerns and accused her of fabricating evidence of mistreatment.

Asked to confirm published reports that Bonnevier was fired late last year, a university spokesperson said the coach’s contract was not renewed after an investigation by Northwestern’s Office of Equity found that she had violated university policies on discrimination and harassment, as well as nonretaliation. Bonnevier could not be reached on Friday.

Schapiro issued a statement on Thursday defending the decision to hire Polisky as the new athletic director. It acknowledged the pending lawsuit but cautioned that such a legal challenge “contains allegations, not necessarily statements of fact.” Polisky, who had been Northwestern’s deputy athletic director for external affairs since 2010, did not respond to The Chronicle‘s request for comment on Friday.

After reviewing Richardson’s complaint, “Northwestern denies that it or any of its current employees violated any laws, including Title IX,” the president wrote in his statement. The university has moved to dismiss claims against any current employees. Schapiro wrote that Northwestern hired an independent investigator to examine any new concerns of discrimination, harassment or retaliation, or any such concerns that the cheer team felt hadn’t been previously addressed. Based on the investigation’s initial findings, he added, there was no evidence that Polisky engaged in conduct that violated university policy.

Polisky’s fitness for the job was further validated, Schapiro wrote, by an external search firm’s detailed investigation, which involved interviews by a former FBI supervisory special agent and a review by a former federal judge. “Their findings gave me further confidence in Mike’s full fitness for the position, and I would not have hired him if he did not meet the highest standard of conduct and character.“

In a statement released on Friday, the protest organizers wrote: “The issue is not simply whether Polisky acted legally. It’s whether he did what was morally right. Northwestern claims to be a frontrunner in values-driven leadership with a values-driven athletics program. Instead, university leadership is hiding behind assertions that the deputy athletic director didn’t break the law and that he was vetted by a former FBI agent. We should set a higher bar for Northwestern leadership.”

In February, the campus newspaper published an article in which current and former cheerleaders described demands and behaviors that they felt were racist and sexist, including being told that ethnically Black hairstyles like braids weren’t allowed and that Black cheerleaders shouldn’t stand together on the sidelines because the “optics” looked bad.

On Wednesday, six female faculty members sent an open letter to Northwestern’s provost, Kathleen M. Hagerty,
saying they were alarmed by Polisky’s hiring and “embarrassed on behalf of the university.” Before formally hiring him, they wrote, “the university must commission and make public an independent, transparent, third-party investigation that demonstrates that Polisky performed his legally mandated duties and acted with integrity when addressing the concerns of the cheerleaders and their allies.” They said that they weren’t convinced that the unnamed investigator hired by the university was truly impartial and that the process was most likely intended to make the university’s legal problems go away.

The six women were among 80 female faculty members who signed a letter to university officials in February demanding greater transparency about Richardson’s complaint.

“Someone has to have our students’ backs, and I’m not sure our leadership does,” Caitlin A. Fitz, an associate professor of history and one of the protest organizers, said in an interview on Friday. “If leadership cared as much about our brave cheerleaders as they cared about their old boys’ network, I don’t think Polisky would be our new AD.”

Among those at Friday’s protest was Erika Carter, a Black member of the cheer squad from 2016 to 2018. Carter, who said she suffered emotional trauma from feeling that she needed to suppress her identity as a Black woman, circulated a petition demanding a more transparent investigation of Polisky’s conduct. The petition also called for his immediate firing if he broke any laws or violated university policies.

“I’m doing this because I love Northwestern,” Carter, now a student at Columbia Law School, said on Friday. A cheer contract that banned ethnic hairstyles was just one way, she said, that “Black women were basically asked to sign away their racial heritage.” Black women were also treated more harshly when they were injured, she said. “We were expected to be superwomen and bounce right back,” she said, while a white teammate would be encouraged to sit out. She said Polisky was aware that Black cheerleaders felt they were being treated unfairly and did nothing to help them.

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