The dismissal of University of Minnesota Duluth women's hockey coach Shannon Miller has prompted a national group to suspend the school from consideration for its annual LGBT-friendly designation. UMD had received the designation in each of the past two years.
Campus Pride, a national nonprofit for student leaders and campus groups that work to create safe environments for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, said Thursday it has suspended UMD from consideration for its 2015 list because of its actions toward Miller and the three women on her coaching staff. The coaching staff learned in December that each of their contracts would not be renewed.
All four women are either gay or bisexual, said Angie Nichols, GLBT services director for the university. The university has not publicly announced any other athletic department cuts at a time when they are working to address a $6 million budget deficit.
UMD earned the designation as a top-rated LGBT-friendly university in both 2013 and 2014. It is the first school that Campus Pride has removed from consideration.
The organization's executive director and creator of the Campus Pride Index, Shane Windmeyer, said UMD athletic director Josh Berlo's handling of the women's hockey employment matter "is cause for grave concern."
"(LGBT) safety is shaped by incidents like this and if they are handled openly and transparently by administrators," he said in a news release.
Nichols will work to re-earn the designation, she said, but support from the top is necessary.
"Our whole community has been really proud of how far UMD has come," said Nichols, noting she believes that includes campus administration. "I think they underestimated the damage that firing four openly gay or bisexual coaches would have on our whole community."
UMD released a statement Friday in response to the news, saying the administration is "deeply disappointed" with Campus Pride's decision.
It cited past years' recognition for an inclusive campus, noting its employment of Nichols, an active Queer and Allied Student Union, gender-inclusive restrooms and an endowed GLBT scholarship. UMD also is working on offering gender-inclusive housing - in which students can have a roommate of any gender - beginning next fall, the statement noted.
But the concerns of Campus Pride are taken "very seriously," the statement said, and a "nationally known" consultant will be hired to assess the campus climate as the university continues to work on its goal of creating an inclusive campus.
Miller, who has coached five NCAA championship teams, has led the women's hockey program at UMD since its first season in 1999. Many in the LGBT community see Miller and her staff as role models, Nichols said, for their strength and success and the fact that they are "out" every day.
There are large numbers of allies on campus who show support, and that shouldn't be ignored, she said.
"But every day since these coaches were let go, not one day has gone by that someone hasn't come into my office to talk about it and how it's impacted their experience as a student, a staff member or faculty member ... and that administration has done nothing to correct the mistake of letting them go."
Chancellor Lynn Black and Berlo have cited financial concerns as among the reasons for not renewing Miller's contract. They have said there are others, while not elaborating on what they are. A University of Minnesota official said there were concerns about "the direction of the program."
Miller's Bulldog teams have not made the NCAA tournament since 2011, but UMD did win 12 of its final 13 games in 2014 - with one win coming via a shootout - and is ranked No. 9 in the latest USCHO.com poll. The team stands in fourth place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association going into its final series of the regular season, at home against Ohio State today and Sunday.
When such a label is removed from a university, it points to a hostile environment, said Helen Carroll, sports project director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights and a former basketball coach for the University of North Carolina-Asheville.
"It is a very eye-opening statement," she said, noting a national trend of lesbian coaches released under questionable circumstances, citing a case at a university in Tennessee and a recent one at the University of Iowa. It also contributes to an already low - 40 percent - number of female college coaches nationwide, she said.
Loss of the designation, and the reason for it, could have a "chilling effect" on UMD's gay community, said Pat Griffin, a longtime sports and LGBT activist and professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
To see what happened to Miller, "who for all intents and purposes had done everything right in terms of being successful and bringing positive PR to the university, it would maybe make me take a step back in terms of my own visibility," she said.
Miller has been open about her sexual orientation and her advocacy, both on and off campus, Griffin said, "so for anyone not comfortable with that, it does raise questions for me on whether they saw this as an opportunity to get somebody who advocates for women's athletics, who is a very strong woman herself."
Miller said Friday that Campus Pride made "an appropriate" move in no longer considering UMD a gay-friendly place, and it will be difficult to earn back the honor.
"I am very proud of the people who have had the courage to stand up and speak up and take action," she said, noting the "overwhelming" support she's received.
She never realized fully, she said, her status as a role model until recently.
"It's a huge responsibility, and I want to be careful and professional and do justice for the people who believe in me ... and are hoping to create positive change," she said.
Miller has retained attorneys specializing in Title IX issues in the wake of her dismissal. The federal law prohibits schools that receive federal money from discriminating based on gender.
UMD junior Jace Carlson, the head of the school's Queer and Allied Student Union, said there's hope the action taken by Campus Pride will act as a wake-up call to some. The removal of the label, Carlson said, was "disappointing but necessary," and the handling of Miller and the other coaches was disrespectful toward the gay community.
"I am not angry about the fact that (the loss of the designation) has happened, but I am angry it was necessary in the first place," Carlson said.