Falling Northwest Fog Brings Calls to Stop $800M Ryan Field Rebuild

The Northwestern football hazing scandal and the botched firing of head coach Pat Fitzgerald have brought new calls to reevaluate the athletic culture at the Big Ten school and temporarily halted an $800 million rebuild of Ryan Field.

While some Evanston neighbors have raised concerns about noise and congestion at the new stadium, the opposition may coalesce around the larger issue of whether Northwestern needs a new home for its football program or a complete housecleaning.

“If we were to invest $800 million in a new football stadium, it would distract university leaders from the most pressing problem in front of them, which appears to be a cultural problem in Northwestern athletics,” Northwestern player Caitlin Fitts said. The history professor said Tuesday. “Before we put $800 million into building a new house, I think we should get our own house in order first.”

Fitz was one of six faculty members who sent a letter Monday to Northwestern President Michael Schill, Athletic Director Derrick Kragg and Board President Peter Parris. Community groups, students and others have expressed similar sentiments.

The fallout from the fast-moving situation could be dizzying and devastating for a private, academically elite university that has had several high-profile stumbles in recent years as it seeks to compete at the highest level of college athletics.

Within days of Schill announcing a two-week suspension to Fitzgerald, an independent investigation into the player’s alleged hazing led him to admit he “might have made a mistake” in enforcing the sanctions. On Monday, Schill informed Northwestern’s all-time winningest football coach that he was being “relieved of his duties” immediately, according to an open letter posted on the university’s website.

“Ultimately, the decision to suspend Coach Fitzgerald in the first place was mine and mine alone, and the decision to part ways with him,” Schill said in his letter.

A Northwest spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Northwest announced plans for a privately funded redevelopment of Ryan Field in 2022. The modern stadium will have a canopy to reduce noise and light pollution, better sight lines, chair backs instead of benches and 35,000 seats — 12,000 fewer than the current Ryan Field. will be demolished.

Northwestern University's renderings show the project design for the new Ryan Field.

In addition to soccer games, the new stadium will host concerts and community events, which worries neighbors worried about increased noise and traffic.

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The primary benefactor of the new stadium is billionaire Patrick Ryan, Aon Corp. is the founder and retired CEO and alumnus of Northwestern. The Ryan family donated $480 million in 2021 — the largest gift in Northwestern’s history — largely to help build the stadium.

A Ryan spokeswoman said he was out of the country and unavailable for comment Tuesday.

Pending approval from the City of Evanston, the new stadium is slated to open by 2026. As of Tuesday, those plans are still moving forward, according to City Manager Luke Stowe.

“At this time, the city is not aware of any changes from Northwestern University regarding the Ryan Field proposal,” Stowe said in an email. “The Ryan Field application is tentatively scheduled for consideration by the Land Use Commission on August 9, 2023.”

The football hazing scandal is the latest high-profile misstep for the Northwestern athletic program. In 2021, Northwestern cheerleader Hayden Richardson filed a federal lawsuit alleging that she and other cheerleaders were sexually exploited and forced to mingle with fans and donors. In May, Michael Polisky, named as a defendant in the suit, resigned as athletic director under pressure from students, faculty and community members — just nine days after being promoted to the position.

Northwestern quickly named Crock as its new athletic director, filling the void left by the departure of Jim Phillips, who became commissioner of the Athletic Coast Conference after 13 years.

Northwestern University athletic director Derrick Kragg speaks during a news conference announcing his new position on June 7, 2021, at Ryan Fieldhouse in Evanston.

As the football hazing scandal unfolded this week, more revelations about bullying and misconduct by first-year Northwestern head baseball coach Jim Foster came to light.

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The Northwestern Accountability Alliance, a coalition of community and student groups, released a statement Tuesday condemning the university’s record of “racism and sexism” within the athletics department and calling for the stadium project to be put on hold.

“We hope that university leaders will rethink their approach to students and the wider community and begin to engage with genuine respect and transparency,” the group said. “In the meantime, Northwest will have to put the Ryan Field plans on hold until they take appropriate action.”

Before Fitzgerald’s firing was announced — on Monday — six faculty members sent a letter calling for the Ryan Field reconstruction to be put on hold. They also cited a recent history of problems in the athletic department as a reason to end the program.

“I think faculty members are confused about where the money is coming from,” said Mark Kanis, a Chicago-based sports business consultant. “It’s a direct contribution from the Ryan family for the stadium. It’s not like these resources can be used for anything else.

A new stadium is decades overdue and needed if Northwestern wants to stay competitive in the Big Ten, Kanis said. Even after the school’s most successful football coach was fired, he believes the Ryan family will stay committed to the program despite the damning allegations.

While Kanis said major college sports budgets have “spiraled out of control” in the new millennium, they generate revenue that supports the broader institution, including academics. The game brings alumni together in a common cause and generates donations.

For example, the $480 million Ryan endowment includes gifts to fund biomedical, economic and business research at Northwestern.

“The academic side can sometimes be short-sighted about these things,” Kanis said. “They don’t understand how athletics is used to generate money that pays their own salaries in many cases.”

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Kanis said Fitzgerald’s firing could prove a costly mistake for the athletic program and the university.

Beyond alienating deep-pocketed donors, Kanis said in a statement that Fitzgerald’s threats of legal action, which she has hired high-powered Chicago-based attorney Dan Webb to defend her rights, can go back 10 years. Coach signed a $57 million contract extension with Northwestern through 2021.

Kanis agrees with faculty critics, however, that the university’s waffle over the decision to fire Fitzgerald was a public relations disaster, reflecting poorly on the new president who succeeded Morton Shapiro in September. Shill, who previously served as president of the University of Oregon and dean of the University of Chicago Law School, was Northwestern’s second choice after President-elect Rebecca Plank was forced to step aside due to illness.

Plank died in February.

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Part of the problem with Northwestern’s response to the hazing scandal, Fitts said, is that decision makers at the university may be all male.

“Northwestern lags far behind its peers in keeping women in leadership positions,” Fitz said. “I think it’s an open question whether having more women in the room during these conversations would have led to a different outcome.”

The secret investigation into the matter, which was published only in an executive summary, should be made public, Fitz said, so the community at large can decide whether the administration has enough information to fire Fitzgerald — pressure Northwestern mounted before the Daily Supplement reported.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, a political science and religious studies professor who signed a faculty letter calling for the Ryan Field program to be stopped, said she was “really disappointed” in Schill’s response. rug.

He said the decision to fire Fitzgerald should have been an easy call for Schill.

“If I took my international relations class and made them strip naked and run around and brush each other with shaving cream, I’d lose my job,” he said. “It doesn’t seem too complicated. Let’s hold everyone to the same standard and clean it up.”

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