The role of alumni in organizational decisions

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April 28, 2017 by jessepell

Seth Appert addresses the media at hockey media day, three days ahead of the 2016-2017 season opener. (Courtesy of Lori van Buren/Times Union)

Written by Jesse Pelletier

On Mar. 6th, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) fired head men’s hockey coach Seth Appert. Appert coached the Engineers to a dismal 8-28-1 record in 2016-17 after finishing 18-15-7 just one year prior. In his 11-year stint at RPI, his record was 152-221-46.

Now to some this may not seem like a big deal; after all, this is college hockey we’re talking about, not football or basketball. And in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a big deal. It was the right move and I had been calling for it all season. It was a poor season that featured a disorganized offense that was somehow worse on the power play than at even strength.

The big deal is not Appert’s firing. The big deal is the response of some notable RPI hockey alumni.

Shortly after Appert was fired, an article was published by The Troy Record summarizing the dissatisfaction of RPI men’s hockey alumni. Their concerns ranged from the rusting Houston Field House to the extra responsibilities taken on by Appert on top of his main role as head coach. Some of these alumni actually wanted a say in who filled Appert’s shoes.

Frank Chiarelli, captain of the 1954 National Championship team, was quoted as saying “[The administration] have available to them, in the immediate Tri-City area, a group of RPI hockey graduates, knowledgeable people. And that they would take to hire a coach, and have the people that select the coach that are not hockey people, is unconscionable.”

RPI hired a firm to conduct a search for the head coaching role. When Chiarelli says that this firm isn’t made up of “hockey people,” he isn’t wrong; the firm has never been hired to conduct a search for a hockey coach. Understandably, this is frustrating for the alumni who have tried for so long to have their voices heard.

We’re not here to talk about RPI hockey, so let’s pose a more general question: should alumni have a say in decisions of this caliber?

As I am not a college athlete (outside the intramural ranks), I turned to my college athlete peers. The first response I received was from a source who wished to remain anonymous. They suggested that the alumni should stay out of it.

“I don’t think alumni should really have a say,” they said. “I’m sure it’s very possible I feel different because I play at a different division, but I think that once a player graduates, they will begin to lose touch with the team over time. The team will continue to evolve on, and if the coach no longer fits the team, it’s time they be replaced.”

The athlete plays in Division 3 as opposed to Division 1 and they noted that this could make a difference.

To test if the division made a difference, I turned my attention to Division 1. I thought that Nicole Woods, who was recently selected to the USA Field Hockey Under-21 team for the second straight year, would provide an interesting perspective. After all, she has played for a college team AND a national team. Interestingly enough, Woods gave a similar take.

“Alumni who are boosters of some sort should have a say on some matters,” Woods said, “but I’d always consider executive decision should be made by the athletic department and the AD.”

Woods just finished her junior season at the University of Louisville, so some may argue that she isn’t even an alumnus yet. Thus, I reached out to former Southern University baseball player Alejandro Santiago. Santiago, a Division-1 catcher, became an early alumnus due to injury and now finds himself at RPI with me. Lucky him.

When asked how he would feel about alumni being involved in a head coaching change, Santiago gave a simple response.

“As an athlete, I wouldn’t be so happy if they get involved in such an important decision like the acquisition of a new coach.”

One final opinion came in from a Division-1 athlete, also wishing to remain anonymous. They are not an alum yet, but when asked if an alum should have any say in a decision like a head coaching hire, they didn’t stray from the pack. “If an alum isn’t already a part of the organization, no I don’t think they should have a say unless they’re asked directly.”

It’s a good point that has yet to be considered. What if Chiarelli held a stronger connection to his alma mater than simply ‘hockey alumnus?’ Perhaps Chiarelli is a significant donor or has held roles in the organization previously. For now, let’s forget any status beyond alumnus. As far as being asked directly, that doesn’t seem like the case either.

With that, the athlete concluded “I don’t think it should work that way.”

In Chiarelli’s defense, he was not suggesting that the alumni should have the final say in the head coaching hire. It seems most of the RPI alumni just want their opinions heard. Moreover, most of their concerns were in regards to issues outside the head coaching search, like recruiting tactics and fundraising.

Furthermore, Chiarelli is a clear hockey guru. He was a four-time National All-American who once averaged 3.06 goals PER GAME and was the fourth member of RPI’s Hockey Ring of Honor. Who did he join? His head coach Ned Harkness, NHL-er Joe Juneau (’91), and NHL Hall of Famer Adam Oates (’85).

I agree that the alumni’s opinions should at least be heard in some capacity, and it doesn’t seem like that’s happening with anything related to the hockey program. That’s another story. But to say it is “unconscionable” to exclude RPI alumni from the final decision on a new head coach? Perhaps Grandpa Chiarelli should stick to the Sunday crosswords.

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