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Editorial: UND sports cuts are tragic, but understandable

Running a college sports program would seem to have little in common with managing a department store. But we see a parallel between UND's decision to end its swimming, diving and women's hockey programs, and Macy's decision in Grand Forks to shutter its Columbia Mall branch.

It's this: In both cases, the organizations were beset by forces beyond their immediate control.

That makes it almost futile to lament the past—but crucial to look ahead, in order to respond as smartly as possible to the dynamics that'll continue to drive change.

In Macy's case, the nationwide chain had lost too much business. It's as simple and as complicated as that. Simple, because there's no skirting the destructive power of the color red on the bottom line. Complicated, because whole books have been and will be written about Americans' changing shopping habits and the way they're hammering bricks-and-mortar stores.

Now, the mall is faced with the problem of filling that great, big, empty space. Difficult? Yes. Impossible? No.

Because in America, such challenges are what push people to think creatively, and at times to give birth to something new.

At UND, critics and supporters must remember one thing: The budget cuts that prompted the sports' axing were imposed. They came down from "on high," meaning Bismarck.

So, the red ink that UND President Mark Kennedy saw on his books was as vivid as any that had showed up on the ledgers at Macy's headquarters.

And like the department-store executives, Kennedy was left with limited options, all of them bad.

He responded about as well as a president could.

Could the announcement have been handled better? Probably. For example, it would have been nice it hadn't been made while a hockey recruit was on campus, a sad circumstance that featured prominently in national stories about the cut.

But that kind of publicity cools down as quickly as it boils over. We'd be a lot more concerned if Kennedy had neglected "due diligence"—if he had ignored Title IX concerns, for example, or if he had acted emotionally or in haste.

None of those things seem to have happened. UND hired a law firm to get Title IX advice, and Kennedy sought input about and wrestled with the budget cuts for months.

The decision that resulted was heartbreaking on the one hand, but defensible on the other. It even left room for a headline such as this one: "Silver lining," which ran over Herald sports columnist Tom Miller's observation that UND's remaining sports teams now will be "in a much better position to succeed."

It's tragic to see good things come to an end. But this week, North Dakota's budget realities forced UND's hand, and Kennedy responded as best he could.

Here's hoping the higher-ed system now creates its own "something new": namely, the long-term budget stability that'll help prevent such cuts from happening again.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald