Wealthy Alums Give Crew a Cut

When Coach Harry Parker wanted to send his men's crew team to Egypt in 1979 to race against the Cairo Police Department on the Nile, all he had to do was pick up the phone and give his team's top fundraiser, Nick Bancroft, a ring. Bancroft then put the proposal before the management committee of the Friends of Harvard Rowing--and the rowers were on their way.

Since its establishment in 1955, this network of former oarsmen has funded trips and other vacation time activities for the approximately 250 men and women undergraduate rowers each year. Today, virtually every other Harvard sport has a "friends group" for such amenities as vacation trips and training--programs beyond the range of the University's sports budgets. Fundraising for men's and women's athletics is the sole responsibility of these friends groups and they do it through solicitation of the alumni of that particular sport.

But, until recently, the amounts of money raised often differed significantly between men's and women's teams. Back when the women's sports programs began at Harvard during the 1970s, women were unable to accrue as much funding for their programs as the men could. In the track and field program, for example, women were only able to pay for one third of their amenity activities by themselves. At that time the graduates of women's athletics were too young, too few and too poor relative to their male counterparts that Radcliffe sports could not keep pace with the level of funds raised by the men, says Robert Rittenberg '55, chairman of the Friends of Harvard Track. While the men being solicited "were from the 20's, 30's and 40's," he says, the Friends of Radcliffe track were "a struggling undergraduate group."

To remedy the situation, most of the friends groups for men's sports, including Friends of Harvard Track, gave some money to the women's groups to help them out. Friends of Harvard Track, for example, paid for one third of the women's travel and vacation fees. An anonymous donor paid another third, while the women only paid for the final third, according to Rittenberg.

The Coming of Title IX

In 1972, this type of assistance to women finally became federal law with the passage of Title IX, which mandated equal opportunity for men and women in all aspects of collegiate life. At first, colleges were under the impression that equal opportunity meant only that the budget of the university had to be set so that men and women's sports programs would be of the same quality, says Joseph D. Bertagna '73, the executive director of the Harvard Varsity Club, which serves as a liaison between alumni and the college. Later, though, the courts ruled that it was not fair if donations from alumni allowed men to be training in distant lands while women couldn't afford to travel beyond the boundaries of the college.

In order to reconcile the disparaging incomes of men's and women's friends groups, the friends took two different approaches. While most men's groups simply continued to supplement the women's income, the friends of crew and track opted for a different alternative.

In 1981, the Friends of Harvard's men's and women's rowing merged to form the Friends of Harvard Rowing. Under the new system, men and women apply for grants for individual programs. The managing committee, which accepted its first woman member in that year, judges the applications on the basis of merit, regardless of sex.

With alumni funding both men's and women's teams, the overall quality of rowing amenities has not suffered because the Friends of Harvard Rowing is such a wealthy organization, according to Parker.

But Clara L. Bui '86, co-captain of the women's lightweight crew team, says that the men still receive some preferential treatment in terms of better uniforms, the number of training trips, and the amounts of money that cover spring break meals.

"There are discrepancies [between the two programs], but mostly because alums contribute to the guys," says Bui, a Lowell House resident. "I guess that will change when we get enough alumni of our own."

Bui says, however, that because the friends group is so heavily endowed, Radcliffe is the only college in the nation which can afford a separate women's lightweight team. "We're so completely spoiled compared to other college programs," she says.

The amenities of the Track and Field program have not suffered either since the male donators merged with their female counterparts in 1983, says Head Coach Frank J. Hagery '68. To date, these are the only two friends groups to share fundraising sources, although the Friends of Men's Tennis and Friends of Women's Tennis have entered into an agreement which will merge the two groups over a five year period.

While the Friends of Crew frequently aided the women's crew program before 1981, the process of actually bringing women onto the management committee was a slow one. In the annual awards banquet sponsored by the friends, "there wasn't even the question of inviting women to the dinner" in 1960, Bancroft says. In the mid-60s, only wives were allowed to attend the festivities while later in the decade rowers were allowed to be accompanied by "credited females," which meant a girlfriend of wife.

In 1975, after the Radcliffe crew program started, the alumni organization inaugurated the tradition of joint dinners for men and women. The final step of the merger occurred when the first woman was elected to the managing committee in 1981.

Today, Bancroft says, the Friends "have come so far we don't even think if it's a women's crew or not." As an example, he points to Devin Mahony '86, a woman who is the coxswain for the men's varsity heavyweight crew. She is officially listed as a member of the Harvard crew team, while other female rowers are members of the Radcliffe team.

The chairmen of the Friends of Rowing say they think merging was a good idea because it avoids the bureaucratic problem of having two organizations do half jobs. "For me, it was not so much a question of Title IX," says Bancroft, "as much as it was a question of how to raise the most money for Harvard Rowing. That's our job."

Fundraisers for the Friends of Track and Field agree. "We didn't see the distinction between the men's and women's programs," Rittenberg says. "We looked at the women's program and it looked like one which deserved our support."

Some Rich Friends

The Friends of Rowing has been able to maintain its high level of amenities by supporting an endowment which sets it "in a class by itself," Bertagna says. He would not comment on why the endowment, which nears $1 million, is so large but adds that "crew is not a blue-collar sport." While that $1 million endowment generates about $30,000 every year for the rowers, Bancroft says, the Friends annually raise another $30,000 or so in contributions.

The Friends of Rowing, founded more than 30 years ago to ensure that Harvard's oldest sports team was well equipped and had the opportunity to travel, has been able to fund all trips and vacation practices which the crew has needed, Coach Parker says.

With an estimated $60,000 available each year, Friends of Rowing can, for instance, purchase brand new shells for the teams. This year the alumni group spent $12,000 for a shell which will be dedicated to J. Paul Austin '37--and then contributed another $2000 for a pair of oars. In addition, they have sent crew teams overseas for competitions like the World Championships in Moscow in 1973. The friends also pay for the cost of meals--at $60 a head--over spring break when the crew teams stay in Cambridge for practices. As far as recruiting high school seniors, Bancroft says, "we don't get into that game at all."

The Friends' expendituresvary from year to year depending on the success of Harvard's crews. The Friends could spend as much as $30,000 in a year to cover travel expenses alone, Bancroft says. The most expensive junket the teams took was in 1979 when the Friends sent a crew team to Egypt to race on the Nile against Yale and the Cairo Police.

But the traditional bureaucratic paperwork involved with running a large rowing program is taken care of by the Harvard Varsity Club, Bertagna says. The Varsity Club acts as "a clearinghouse" for the Friends, sending letters, acknowledging contributions, and organizing functions for the athletes-turned-contributors. "It's not the most exciting position in the world," Bertagna says but it makes the Friends more than someone you "just write a check to."

Crew is a special sport for Harvard partly because the first Harvard-Yale crew race, held on August 3, 1852, was the first inter-collegiate event in America, the Varsity Club director says. Harvard won that race by four lengths, but thanks in part to the Friends of Harvard Rowing, has stayed way ahead of other collegiate rowing programs ever since.