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EVANSTON, Ill. — Mike Polisky stepped down Wednesday from his newly appointed role as Northwestern athletic director as criticism continued to mount against his hiring.
Polisky was promoted from his deputy athletic director role May 3 after more than a decade in the department. But some members of the board of trustees and the search committee were displeased by university President Morton Schapiro’s decision because Polisky is one of four defendants along with the university in an ongoing sexual harassment lawsuit filed in January by a former Northwestern cheerleader, who said in the complaint Polisky dismissed her concerns and accused her of fabricating evidence.
“Over the last 10 days, it has become clear to me that the current challenges will not allow me to effectively lead our department, especially during these unsettling times in college athletics,” Polisky said in a statement. “My love and respect for Northwestern and for our student-athletes, coaches and staff is greater than my own desire to lead the department.
“I do not want to be a distraction to our incredible men and women as they pursue a collective goal — to help our student-athletes become the best they can be. While my family and I are disappointed, I move forward knowing this is the right decision.”
Schapiro said in a statement that Northwestern’s faculty athletic representative, Robert Gundlach, will run the department on an interim basis. Schapiro said in the statement that in “the coming months” he will share information about choosing the next athletic director.
After Polisky’s hiring, six female faculty members wrote a letter to the university provost asking for an independent investigation into the hiring, and nearly 400 — including Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss — participated in a march from campus to Schapiro’s home.
The university filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, and Schapiro released a letter to the Northwestern community saying an investigation by a university-hired law firm had completed an initial review and Polisky was found not to have violated any policies. More than 140 Polisky supporters addressed a letter to Northwestern board of trustees members earlier Wednesday.
Cheerleader Hayden Richardson said in the lawsuit and in a Chicago Tribune report that cheerleaders were sexually exploited and put in positions to mingle with donors and fans who groped them. She said Polisky did not take her concerns seriously.
Black cheerleaders said in reports they told Polisky of the team’s racially discriminatory policies, including a contract that included a ban on braids, and he did not respond to their satisfaction.
Former cheerleader Erika Carter began a petition asking for a more transparent investigation. She spoke at the campus protest and called for Polisky to be fired.
Cheer coach Pam Bonnevier was furloughed by the university and her contract was not renewed, Northwestern has said.
Polisky was hired to succeed longtime athletic director Jim Phillips, who left after more than a decade in February to become commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
He was one of four final candidates identified among several others by university-hired search firm DHR International.
Polisky joined the athletic department in 2010 after previously serving as president of the Chicago Wolves hockey team and president and general manager of the Chicago Rush arena football team. As Northwestern’s deputy athletic director for external affairs, he spent a decade working in branding and strategy with close ties to Phillips.
He was involved in ticket sales and service, marketing, corporate sponsorship, media and public relations, creative services, community relations, fan experience and merchandising.
Northwestern missed out on some of its early targets, according to sources, including NU administrator Travis Goff, who was hired as the athletic director at Kansas, his alma mater. Current athletic directors Pat Chun of Washington State and Jim Knowlton of California were among the candidates Northwestern interviewed earlier in the process.
Northwestern’s search committee recommended Polisky, former Northwestern basketball star and sports executive Anucha Browne, Duke deputy athletic director Nina King and Janna Blais, a decadelong deputy athletic director at Northwestern who had been serving as interim AD before Polisky’s hiring.