On May 12, ten days after being announced as the 22nd Athletic Director in Northwestern University history, Mike Polisky resigned from the position following a wave of backlash from students and faculty. He will not be returning to Northwestern's athletic department.
Polisky is a defendant in an ongoing lawsuit filed by former Northwestern cheerleader Hayden Richardson. The lawsuit, filed in December 2020, details a pattern of abuse within the cheerleading program, including inappropriate touching by intoxicated fans and donors and a lack of support from athletics administrations. In the suit, Polisky is accused of disregarding and failing to report the abuse to Title IX administrators, as well as downplaying the interaction overall.
Following Polisky’s appointment, the Daily Northwestern reported that the University was attempting to have the lawsuit dismissed. This announcement was met with criticism from the Northwestern community, including six faculty members who began to plan a protest march to be held on May 7, marching from campus to Northwestern President Morton Schapiro’s home.
“We’re here because we can’t take it anymore,” said Northwestern anthropology professor Jessica Winegar at Friday's protest. “We’re here to change the status quo and make this university the great university we know it can be … we’re all Wildcat fans, we all love our Wildcats, we want to demand safety for them all.”
Five days after the protest and demonstration, Polisky announced his resignation in a press release, coupled with a statement by Schapiro.
“Over the last 10 days, it has become clear to me that the current challenges will not allow me to effectively lead our department, especially during these unsettling times in college athletics,” Polisky said in a statement. “My love and respect for Northwestern and for our student-athletes, coaches and staff, is greater than my own desire to lead the department. I do not want to be a distraction to our incredible men and women as they pursue a collective goal – to help our student-athletes become the best they can be.”
Polisky had been with the program since 2010, when he was hired as Deputy Director of Athletics for External Affairs under Jim Phillips. He helped transition the program into a period of great success. Listed among his accomplishments were aid in the $270 million construction of Ryan Fieldhouse – a large athletic facility for student athletes – the $110 million renovation of Welsh-Ryan Arena, home of the men’s and women’s basketball teams, and a growing partnership with the nearby Chicago Cubs.
In a statement released on May 7, Schapiro stated that he had complete faith in Polisky’s abilities, believing him to have the “best understanding of the University community.” The statement, deleted following Polisky’s resignation, went on to say “While we respect the right of individuals to seek redress through the legal system, it is important to keep in mind that a lawsuit contains allegations, not necessarily statements of fact.” Following Polisky’s decision to resign, however, Schapiro quickly reversed his claims.
“In the coming months, I will share information on the process for selecting our next athletic director,” Schapiro said in a statement. “I thank the coaches, staff and student-athletes for their patience and commitment to the University. I believe in you and support you, and I'm so proud to be at a University that is a leader in academics and athletics.”
In the meantime, Northwestern Athletics will be led by Robert Gundlach, a Northwestern linguistics professor, who previously served in the interim role before the hiring of Phillips in 2008.
“In addition to being a professor of linguistics, Bob is Northwestern's faculty athletics representative to the NCAA and the Big Ten Conference,” Schapiro said in the statement. “He has served on numerous NCAA committees and working groups and is deeply knowledgeable about the challenges facing intercollegiate athletics today.”
Northwestern will now once again begin a search for a new athletic director and likely form a new search committee. The previous committee, featuring several prominent alumni, coaches and student athletes, previously recommended Janna Blais, also a deputy director of athletics for Northwestern; Anucha Browne, a former women’s basketball star and sports executive; and Nina King, deputy athletic director at Duke University. Several members of the search committee reported frustration with the search process, urging caution and dismay with the decision.
“We will stand up for our women students. We will support racial justice,” said Northwestern history professor Amy Stanley during Friday’s protest. “And we will, together, make a better NU.”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Statement from Women Faculty for a Better NU on the Resignation of Mike Polisky pic.twitter.com/H6FnQBX4YY— Women Faculty for a Better NU (@faculty_a) May 13, 2021
Polisky’s departure will be closely examined in the coming weeks as Northwestern looks for its new director of athletics. Polisky introduced the school to incredible highs, but his glaring flaws and the ongoing investigations led to his resignation.
A timeline of Polisky’s tenure, written by North by Northwestern sports staff, will be published shortly.