Courant: Judge declines to block University of Hartford’s move to Division III

Hartford Courant, Published Dec. 23, 2021.

A federal court has dismissed almost all claims of fraud and misrepresentation against the University of Hartford by student athletes suing to block the school’s decision to downgrade from Division I to Division III athletics, and left the students only faint hope that they might try again to stop the move in the future.

In two decisions made public Thursday, U.S. District Judge Michael P. Shea said the student athletes demonstrated that their college experiences and athletic ambitions are harmed by the decision to compete in lower tier athletics. But Shea said the students largely failed to support claims that they agreed to enroll in the school based on fraudulent promises and misrepresentations about competing for at least four years at a Division I level.

“I disagree with (the university) and find that (student athletes) have alleged sufficiently that the University’s decision to transition to Division III will impact their Division I experience, resulting in concrete and particularized injuries,” Shea wrote.

But, he said, “I find the (student suit) fails to allege that any statements made to the Plaintiffs were known to be untrue when made.”

Shea made one exception, allowingMalcom Bell, a senior and partial scholarship lacrosse player recruited by five schools, to continue pressing the suit on the sole claim that he enrolled based on the university’s “negligent admissions and breach of contract” over promises to remain a Division I school for athletics.

In addition to seeking monetary damages, the 10 student athletes asked Shea to block the transfer to Division III. Shea declined, saying that the student suit failed to show the likelihood of success required for such a ruling. The students can renew the request if Bell continues to press the suit and if that produces new evidence.

“This case is a reminder that a college coach’s recruiting pitch to a talented high school athlete provides no guarantee that her dreams of glory will be realized,” Shea wrote.

Attorneys for the students and the school declined to discuss the decision. The school applauded it.

“We are very pleased with the court’s ruling; it clearly supports our position from the beginning of this case,” said Molly Polk, Vice President for Marketing and Enrollment. “The University of Hartford, like any private institution, has a duty and a right to make decisions that are in the best long-term interest of the school and the entire University community. The Division III intercollegiate athletics model better aligns with the University’s mission and goals of creating exceptional academic, athletic, co-curricular, and wellness experiences for all students. We look forward to submitting our NCAA transition application early in the new year.”

The NCAA separates intercollegiate athletics into three divisions to allow schools with similar student bodies and athletic ambitions to compete among themselves. Division I schools provide athletic scholarships and grants-in-aid to student athletes, have the largest student bodies and compete at the highest athletic levels. Division III schools do not provide athletic scholarships and educational grants-in-aid.

The University’s athletic program has had little success in Division I and had become a financial liability in the view of the administration. The decision to change divisions followed years of study.

University president Gregory S. Woodward, trying to control costs, was considering the downgrade before he officially became president, according to the decisions. A reassessment of athletics was underway, even as the school’s athletic department was pitching prospective recruits on the benefits of competing at a Division I school.

Two months before he took office on July 1, 2017, Woodward emailed basketball coach John Gallagher, bemoaning what he described as the school’s lackluster athletic prowess, according to court filings.

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