EVANSTON, Ill. — Nearly 400 Northwestern students, faculty and community members marched Friday afternoon from campus to university President Morton Schapiro’s home to protest the hiring of Mike Polisky as athletic director.
Protest leaders called for a more thorough investigation of Polisky’s appointment, and some said he should be forced to step down. Polisky, whose hire was announced Monday, is one of four defendants along with the university in a sexual harassment lawsuit that says the former deputy athletic director ignored complaints of cheerleaders being sexually exploited and accused a cheerleader of fabricating evidence.
The university has filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, denied wrongdoing and said the initial phase of an independent investigation has cleared Polisky.
Some protest leaders and Evanston mayor-elect Daniel Biss said the university should rescind the appointment.
“They made a mistake. They should change their minds,” Biss told the Chicago Tribune in an interview during the march. He later addressed the protesters in front of Schapiro’s home.
“How to best handle that is up to them,” Biss said. “But really, given the lawsuit that is current, given the allegations that are still being investigated, given the values at stake, he should not have been appointed to the role at this time, and they should rescind the appointment.”
Signs taped to campus sidewalks read, “Up with cheerleaders! Down with purple tie governance!” and others taped to the “The Rock” — a campus landmark — said, “Women faculty give Morty an F!” Protestors carried signs with purple lettering reading, “Historians have their eyes on NU” and “Believe your students.”
About seven cheerleaders attended, including a former and a current member of the squad who spoke at the event. Black cheerleaders have said in media reports and repeated at the rally their complaints about racist policies were dismissed when brought in 2019 to Polisky.
“Mike Polisky is a danger to Northwestern athletics,” Jennifer Pius-Alonee, a junior cheerleader, said into a megaphone in front of Schapiro’s home. “He knew what our teammates suffered and accused us of lying to protect our coach. … When we turned to university for help, they, too, failed us. Now that our teammates and I spoke up about what happened, I’m afraid of the retaliation that could occur once Polisky takes control of the department.”
Erika Carter, who was a cheerleader and graduated in 2018, started a petition calling for greater transparency of the hiring process, an investigation and accountability for any legal or moral failings.
At the event she said Polisky told cheerleaders in a 2017 meeting any who chose to kneel at sporting events during the national anthem to protest racial inequality would not be supported by the university.
“Polisky’s appointment is not the right thing to do,” said Carter, an Evanston native. “We will not stop until an investigation is opened and, honestly, until Polisky is fired.”
Brielle Hampton, a junior cheerleader, attended the rally. She said she was one of 16 cheerleaders who wrote a letter to Polisky complaining about racist and sexist treatment.
“I’ve been really upset all week,” Hampton said. “It feels like a slap in the face after everything we’ve done. We’ve had several meetings with the university, and they said we’re going to advocate for you, and then this happens.”
Cheerleaders said a new coach has been selected and squad leaders were able to interview candidates. Former coach Pam Bonnevier, who stopped working for the university in October, is also a defendant in the lawsuit filed in January by former cheerleader Hayden Richardson.
In a letter released to the public Thursday, Schapiro said he was confident in the selection of Polisky, who was vetted and met the “highest standard of conduct and character.” A news conference to introduce Polisky is expected early next week when Schapiro returns from travel.
“I felt certain that Mike was the best person to lead our Department of Athletics and Recreation forward, based on his body of work at Northwestern and his understanding of the University community, its culture and its values,” Schapiro wrote in the letter.
Polisky replaces Jim Phillips, who left in February after more than a decade to become ACC commissioner.
Polisky joined the athletic department in 2010. He previously served as president of the Chicago Wolves hockey team and president and general manager of the Chicago Rush arena football team.
As Northwestern’s deputy athletic director for external affairs, he spent a decade working in branding and strategy, involved in ticket sales and service, marketing, corporate sponsorship, media and public relations, creative services, community relations, fan experience and merchandising. He developed the “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” branding, and he worked on partnerships with Under Armour and securing a deal with the Chicago Cubs for select football games to be played at Wrigley Field.
Sources said some search committee members and board of trustees members have expressed disappointment with his promotion.
At Friday’s rally, organized by six women faculty members, Northwestern history professor Kate Masur said they hope to see a more impartial investigation into Polisky’s hiring. They wrote a public letter earlier this week to university Provost Kathleen Hagerty with similar demands.
“I hope today’s event prompts the university to reconsider this hire,” she said. “I hope more people become aware how problematic it is. … The issue goes beyond Polisky himself. We can touch on why this appointment is a problem but also why the process and priorities reflected in his promotion are a problem.”