Belinson: An open letter to Jamie Pollard

Iowa State Athletic Director Jamie Pollard speaks during the pep rally held Dec. 27, 2018.

Matt Belinson

To take a page out of Iowa State Athletic Director Jamie Pollard’s book, I decided to write an open letter to address some issues that have taken place these last two weeks on our campus. Specifically, the topic of closing Stephens Auditorium and the decision to have no fans in the stands is the topic of conversation in this letter.

But this letter isn’t meant for Cyclone fans like Pollard’s letters normally are.

This is for Pollard himself.

And let me be clear before I dive in, I have respect for Pollard. He has always treated me and my colleagues with respect. But as a journalist, you have to check leaders, especially when there are shortcomings in their duties.

These last two and a half weeks have really made me upset as a student at Iowa State, one, because of how public this whole debacle has been and two, for the shortcomings I have seen in one of Iowa State’s most important leaders.

COVID-19 has not been a friend to anyone this year, leaving everyone in terrible positions to operate from. There are no winners in 2020, only people who lose less. This includes Pollard.

And yet it seems like Pollard has navigated these last two weeks unaware that his actions and words can leave people more frustrated than where they started. That’s not what leaders should do.

Pollard and the Iowa State athletic department’s announcement to recommend the closure of Stephens Auditorium, along with the possibility of cutting sports and laying off athletic department staff on Sept 4., was met with severe backlash from the Ames and Iowa State community. The idea of losing a landmark in performing arts like Stephens Auditorium left the music and performing arts sectors of Iowa State scrambling for answers. 

But yet in that time of confusion and obvious frustration, Pollard sowed division. 

Just two days after his letter detailing the financial struggles ahead due to the loss of fan attendance for Iowa State’s first home game, Pollard released a Twitter statement explaining his position and calling on others to figure out the problem for him and Iowa State. In that same vein, he chose to draw a line between sports and the arts.

“The university is now in an unfortunate situation of having to choose between continuing to subsidize the community’s access to performing art events or eliminating resources for the student body (i.e. dropping a sport) or laying off employees,” Pollard said in his tweet.

Notice how Pollard presents subsidizing the arts for the community to enjoy as a problem, while the “resources” for the student body is only coming from the athletics side of the equation. This was unnecessary and led to even more anger from students and faculty looking to find solutions. Why even pit the two against each other? The athletics department took control over Stephens in 2019, putting it under the umbrella of athletic department finances, so why act like the arts are getting in the way of the “important” things under the athletic department’s control. 

Right after that statement, Pollard once again dropped the ball and chose to make sports and arts enemies when the time for coming together for solutions was the only thing a true leader should have done in that scenario. 

“As you can imagine it would be really hard for any of us to have to tell a staff member that we decided to eliminate their position while continuing to subsidize community member’s tickets to performing arts events,” Pollard wrote in his tweet.

Again, why act like arts is getting in the way of athletic department staff? Why is that included at all? The idea of pitting someone’s job against measly arts programs is reckless. Arts being subsidized is not the sole reason a staff member may have to lose their job, so why would a leader like Pollard make the call to create disdain for the other side?

This is where the situation gets even messier.

On Thursday, Pollard continued his explanation/frustration tour and made a stop at Cyclone Fanatic on a podcast with Chris Williams. The true essence of a leader was absent in that episode in my opinion.

The podcast was all about the last 14 days, with the back and forth battle with Pollard and university faculty on what the right move was on allowing fans back into Jack Trice Stadium. In his detailed account of what took place over the last two weeks, Pollard said President Wintersteen was “turned on” by her faculty and staff and left her out to dry on the decision to allow fans back.

But that’s the price of being a leader. 

Pollard continued to throw out quotes that did more harm than good on the podcast. Instead of being the patient and steady force a leader needs to be in a tough spot, all he did was throw some more lighter fluid on a burning building.

“I stood up for our staff and said, if we are going to put sports on the line, then we outta put the arts on the line,” Pollard told Williams.

And then later on in the podcast, Pollard admitted the true intentions of his recommendation to close down Stephens Auditorium.

“I knew we weren’t going to shut down the performing arts center, but you know what, those people needed to understand there were consequences too,” Pollard said.

It was all a sort of scare tactic from the athletics department essentially. How does that come off like leadership?

Someone in a position of authority like Pollard is looked upon by the community to lead by example. To lead with patience and a willingness to hear the frustrations of all sides involved.

An objective person can’t tell me that is how he approached these last two weeks.

Now look, I completely understand why Pollard is frustrated and outraged on behalf of his athletes and staff. 2020 has given sports the ultimate wake-up call, including colleges right in our own backyard in Ames. There is an unprecedented amount of fear inside athletics and with good reason.

I don’t want sports to be cut. I don’t want layoffs. But I also don’t want arts to be cut as well. And I know Pollard doesn’t either.

But leadership isn’t supposed to be rainbows and gumdrops every second of the day, which is why people commend strong leaders for being the same no matter what comes their way.

Pollard may be correct in saying faculty on campus have made the process hard to navigate and he may be correct in saying decisions don’t happen in a vacuum. But he is incorrect in how he has framed the issue and made it a choose one or the other approach.

Don’t give into the hysteria, Jamie. People may be throwing shade and saying you have no idea what you are doing. Faculty may be against you and saying nasty comments. So what?

You’re a leader on this campus and you’re expected to rise above the nastiness, not sink in with and participate and throw divisive statements back at them.

So as this difficult challenge continues, rise above the fray and be a leader your staff, student-athletes and campus community need you to be.