The 18-year-old woman on the phone had never been away from home, and the schools that were recruiting her to play soccer were all 4,000 miles from where she grew up in Europe. Villanova wanted her, as did schools in Florida, Massachusetts and several on Long Island.
Of all the schools that came calling for her, she chose C.W. Post, a private school on the Gold Coast of Long Island with a Division II soccer program.
“They kept telling me, ‘We’re excited to have you for the next four years,” she said. “They kept saying that. The next four years.”
Then, one month into her freshman season, the rug was yanked out from under her.
In October, Post, a division of Long Island University, announced it would merge with its sister school, LIU Brooklyn, to become OneLIU.
And in the process, all Division II sports at Post would be eliminated in favor of a single Division I program, largely based at the LIU Brooklyn campus, that will compete in the Northeast Conference.
“I feel like I almost don’t have any words to describe what I’m feeling,” said the woman, who like many of the faculty and students who spoke to the News for this story requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal from Post administrators. “Sometimes I’m angry, sometimes I’m sad, sometimes I’m crying. Every emotion in my body just went crazy, like a roller coaster.”
According to the official press releases, the move was being made to “re-brand” the school, in the corporate lingo adopted by LIU President Kim Cline and her lieutenants.
But to critics of the move, the merger is a desperate attempt to stem a financial crisis at the university caused by plunging enrollment at Post without regard to the impact on hundreds of its student-athletes. Since reaching a peak of 886 freshman enrollments in 2012, the school has averaged 553 new enrollments for the past six years.
“These days, there are more tumbleweeds on that campus than students,” said a Post professor who, despite being tenured, was concerned for his job security if he spoke publicly.
Cline declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this piece. However, she designated her athletic director, Debbie DeJong, to lay out the school’s side of the story.
“I don’t think this had to do with enrollment at all,” DeJong said. “This is about elevating our university on a national standpoint. We’re elevating our national brand. We want to be known across the country.” Cline and DeJong may get their wish, although perhaps not as they intended.
“This is a breach of contract as far as I’m concerned,” said Michael Soupios, a professor of political science and the only Post instructor to speak on the record. “These kids signed on in good faith. I anticipate a significant number will transfer.”
The merger has sent shock waves through the student body at Post, particularly among the student-athletes. Members of the DII men’s basketball team protested by remaining on the bench in street clothes during the school’s annual Midnight Madness event on Oct. 25, and for the first game of the season, only seven players suited up. The roster is now up to nine, but two are said to be walk-ons recruited by coach Erik Smiles merely to fill out his bench.
Freshman guard Liam Kunkel told Newsday, “They dropped a bomb on us. Nobody saw this coming.”
But Kunkel and his teammates have since been instructed not to discuss the merger with the media according to an email sent to the Daily News from Casey Schermick, Post’s Director of Athletic Media Relations, and Smiles has refused all interview requests.
However, DeJong was happy to make available two coaches: Bryan Collins, whose football team went 10-0 before losing in the first round of the NCAA Division II tournament and is thrilled to move up to Div. I next year; and Derek Kellogg, the coach of the LIU Brooklyn Div. I basketball team which will not at all be affected by the move. Luckily for Collins, LIU Brooklyn does not already have football team and he expects to remain the coach after the team moves to Div. I and doesn’t expect wholesale changes to his roster.
“The announcement was made in the middle of our season so we haven’t really had a chance to absorb it yet,” Collins said. “But I understand the nature of the world we live in. It’s a competitive world.”
Post student-athletes are incensed that they were never told of the possibility of a merger at the time of their recruitment, although Cline has said the move has been in the works for more than 10 years. Many feel they were lied to in order to persuade them to commit to Post, the victims of a particularly cynical bait-and-switch operation.
“I would say our coaches told them the truth that they had at the time,” DeJong said.
Also, Post officials waited to make the announcement until after the add/drop deadline, when students affected could have chosen to withdraw from the school and receive tuition refunds.
There is also confusion about whether the Division II athletes will be able to keep their scholarships. According to several athletes interviewed for this piece, they were told they could try out for Division I teams next year and if they made the team, they would keep their scholarships, although the amount could be reduced at the discretion of their new coaches.
Some say they were told if they didn’t make the team, they would lose their scholarships. However, if they chose not to play at all, their scholarships would be honored for the remainder of their time at Post.
“Even if I know I could try out for the team and get a scholarship, what is the odds that I will make it?,” said the European soccer player. “I mean, their coach is from Brooklyn. She doesn’t know me. I can’t risk that scholarship might go away completely. It’s a huge gamble and I don’t know what to do.”
DeJong said Post will honor all scholarships whether the athletes choose to play or not. But sympathetic faculty members have urged the athletes to insist on getting that pledge in writing. So far, none have.
“I keep warning the kids, you better get this in writing,” Soupios said. “What they did and how they did it was so duplicitous, where’s the guarantee they’re going to honor their word on anything?”
The official announcement of the merger was made without warning on the morning of Oct. 3. Student-athletes were summoned from their classes by a group text ordering them to an “emergency meeting.”
“Our first thought was, either we’re in a lot of trouble or someone died,” said Lauren Kloos, a sophomore on the volleyball team and one of the few students willing to speak on the record.
“They’ve already taken away my reason for going to Post,” said Kloos. “At this point, what more can they do to me?”
When Kloos and the hundreds of other student-athletes arrived at the “emergency meeting,” they were met by their coaches, many of them in tears, who broke the news that the athletic careers they had planned to have at Post – and in many cases, was funding all or a significant part of their $35,000 per year tuition – were likely coming to an end.
“It was a betrayal, a stab in the back to all of us,” said a softball player who traveled more than 3,000 miles from home to attend Post and also did not want her name used in the story. “I wouldn’t have come this far if I knew this was going to happen.”
What is likely to happen is that Post’s women’s soccer team, which went 14-4-1 in 2018 and advanced to the third round of the NCAA Division II Championships, will no longer exist. Dawson, the winningest coach in Post’s Division II program’s history, will be out of a job.
Also to vanish is the volleyball team, which went 19-13 and made it to the East Coast Conference Championships, along with its coach, Stephanie Sheehan, who just completed her first season.
The same fate likely awaits Dierdre Moore, the coach of the women’s basketball team who was a star point guard for the Pioneers in the 1990s and has coached the team for 11 years.
As for the men’s basketball team, Kellogg paid lip service to the possibility of its members trying out for his Div. I squad, but their real options are clear: give up college hoops, or transfer.
Many that athletes reached by the News have opted for the latter.
“My immediate thought was, I’m transferring,” Kloos said. “I just want to get away from whatever is going on here. I don’t think I can wear Post/LIU on my back anymore.”
Last month, Kloos and her teammates on the volleyball squad staged a mini-protest, wearing their warmups inside-out to conceal the LIU logo, and covering it with tape on their game jerseys. But just before the start of the match, the team was told by the referees that they would forfeit their game unless they removed the tape.
“We had researched the NCAA rule and we knew it was OK to do it,” Kloos said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if maybe the AD came down to the refs and told them to threaten us with that.”
That suspicion of the motives and intentions of Post administration is shared by some of the faculty, especially because, during a 2016 contract negotiation, Cline locked out the faculty of LIU Brooklyn and threatened to replace them with scabs.
“There is a kind of mean-spiritedness, vindictiveness about them,” Soupios said. “Their first instinct is to punish. I don’t think they would hesitate to fire non-tenured professors.”
Post’s main mission these days seems to be to present the merger with Brooklyn in the most positive possible terms, emphasizing how a shift to Division I athletics will benefit the university rather than how it could adversely affect scores, if not hundreds, of students.
After refusing repeated interview requests from the Daily News, Cline issued the following statement through LIU Post P.R. official Gordon Tepper:
“Long Island University is a nationally recognized teaching and research institution. We understand the importance of athletics in enhancing our brand nationwide by unifying our university community and our 200,000 alumni around the world. Our student-athletes competing at the highest-level plays a major role in this. We are extremely pleased that the NCAA has embraced this vision for our university’s future.”