Northwestern University’s athletic director admitted in a secretly-taped meeting just before his Wednesday resignation that he had not been sufficiently sympathetic about allegations of sexual harassment that were brought to him.
A day before his resignation, Mike Polisky admitted during a private meeting with Northwestern student-athletes and staff that he had regrets about how he reacted when cheerleaders came to him with allegations of sexual harassment two years ago.
“I wish that I would have been more empathetic in the moment. … I think that that might have alleviated some of the angst and frustration from some of the members of the cheer team,” Polisky said on a secretly recorded tape of the meeting, obtained exclusively by WBEZ.
“My reaction, I think, might have been not as sympathetic as they deserved it to be. I was more in the mindset of ‘Oh my gosh, OK, let’s start fixing this,’ just being a little bit more regimented in my response. And what I really needed to say repeatedly was, ‘I’m so so sorry, and this should never have occurred to you.’ And that’s the kind of empathy that I wished that I had expressed.”
The Evanston school has been rocked by controversy since its May 3 announcement of Polisky as its new athletic director. Polisky resigned nine days later. He is named, along with the university, as one of the four defendants in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed in January that alleges he ignored complaints of cheerleaders being sexually exploited. The lawsuit accuses Polisky of claiming that the cheerleader who made the complaint fabricated evidence. Polisky has been at Northwestern since 2010.
Until now, Polisky’s only public comment on the lawsuit came in a statement when he resigned. He said, “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.”
In the private meeting, Polisky did not address the allegation that he had accused the cheerleader who filed the sexual harassment complaint of fabricating evidence.
But he stressed that he believes he followed the “letter of the law [and did] exactly what we were trained to do to protect our student athletes.” On May 6, Northwestern denied that it or any of its current employees violated any laws, including Title IX, and has filed a motion to dismiss claims against its employees. Title IX protects students against sex-based discrimination.
A Northwestern spokesperson said the university will reserve comment as it has not heard the recording. Polisky’s lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.
Northwestern President Morton Schapiro also said in a letter to the school community after Polisky was named athletic director that an initial investigation to consider any potential new concerns of harassment or discimination found no evidence that Polisky violated any policies.
In the university meeting, Polisky also said he felt sickened by what he heard from the members of the cheer squad when they came to see him in his office.
“There was also alleged inappropriate touching and different things at some of the tailgates, and what I felt in my head, what I felt in my stomach … again, as a father of two daughters, this cannot happen to anybody. And by the way, our mascot, we came to learn, also had been inappropriately touched at tailgates out on the road. It’s not acceptable.”
In his public letter after Polisky was named athletic director, Schapiro said the university worked with an independent investigator and an external search firm to examine any new concerns around discrimination, harassment and retaliation, and to conduct a detailed examination of Polisky’s background.
“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,” the letter said.
The letter has since been removed from the university website. When asked about the removal, a Northwestern spokesperson said the school has no further statements beyond what has been posted.
In reaction to Schapiro’s letter, last Friday afternoon nearly 400 Northwestern students, faculty and community members marched from campus to Schapiro’s home to protest Polisky’s hiring. Former state Sen. Daniel Biss, who was recently elected mayor of Evanston, attended a rally that followed.
“The values of racial equity, of supporting and believing women, and fundamentally of accountability are really important to our community,” Biss said in an interview with NPR. “And those values need to be the foundation of the relationship between this community and this university. And I felt like, as the incoming mayor, I had to stand up for that.”
The Northwestern community has been divided. Darren Rovell, an alum and an influential sports business analyst, tweeted screenshots of a letter addressed to the university board of trustees in support of Polisky. The letter, signed by a group of former and current NU athletes, athletic department staff members, alumni, donors and “supporters,” called on the university to release a statement to clarify that Polisky is not accused of sexual harassment and to state the university will “take no action that jeopardizes the employment of any staff associated with or named in the lawsuit until due process has run its course.”
“We are proud for Mike Polisky to be our Director of Athletics and we respectfully urge the Board of Trustees to allow the legal process to play out — which we are confident will completely vindicate Mike,” the letter read.
Hours after the letter was posted on social media Wednesday, and in the wake of the outrage, Polisky resigned.
Following the resignation, the faculty members who organized Friday’s rally released a statement calling for an independent, third-party investigation into Northwestern’s Office of Equity and the athletic department, specifically an investigation into the complaints of racism by Black cheerleaders.
Separate from the sexual harassment lawsuit, Black cheerleaders have provided WBEZ with documents that show former cheerleading head coach Pamela Bonnevier prohibited Black cheerleaders from wearing braids.
According to a report in the student newspaper, Polisky was made aware of their issues, and while the braid policy was removed, other broader charges of racism involving the cheerleading program weren’t addressed. Eventually, there was an Office of Equity investigation last summer. A university spokesman said Bonnevier was found to have violated the university’s policy on discrimination and harassment. Her contract was not renewed last year.
“Together we have learned that students have power and can steer the university to deliver on the values it professes,” the statement by faculty read. “But this action took far too long. The women of the cheerleading team spoke up repeatedly, and the university repeatedly let them down. Northwestern must do better. We believe the decision to make Polisky Athletic Director was made possible by an insular culture that protects its own leadership, often at the expense of students.”
Emine Yücel is a news assistant with NPR Investigations. Follow her on Twitter @emineirmakyucel