It was supposed to be a rally demanding the “immediate termination” of Gophers football coach Tracy Claeys.
Instead, about 75 people showed up at the University of Minnesota Wednesday to celebrate the administration’s decision to fire Claeys, calling it a victory in the battle against sexual assault on campus.
Tuesday’s announcement that Claeys had been fired, just weeks after 10 of his players were publicly implicated in an alleged sexual assault, has bitterly divided people on campus and beyond, drawing criticism from a number of Gophers athletes and supporters.
But Nancy Jane Bitenc, who helped organize the rally, took to the stage at Coffman Memorial Union to thank U officials “for their supportive actions yesterday.”
“This is a symbolic first step to reclaim the University of Minnesota campus,” she said. Bitenc was one of the sponsors of an online petition calling for Claeys’ ouster that drew more than 3,400 signatures.
Claeys ran afoul of university leaders after 10 players were suspended from the team Dec. 13 for their role in the alleged assault, and other players threatened to boycott a Dec. 27 bowl game in protest. After the players launched their two-day boycott, Claeys famously tweeted: “Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights & support their effort to make a better world!”
Trish Palermo, a political science major and student leader who helped organize the rally, said she was shocked that Claeys had supported the boycotting players. “He should have put football aside and realized we are dealing with a much larger issue here,” she said.
Claeys later said his tweet had been misinterpreted and announced he was donating $50,000 to raise awareness about sexual assault.
By Wednesday, the “Fire Claeys” rally, which had been expected to draw 500 people to Northrop Mall, was renamed simply “Stand with Survivors” and moved indoors to avoid the subzero temperatures.
“I’m really glad that decisive action was taken by the university,” said state Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, one of four state lawmakers who spoke at the rally. While student athletes may be exalted on college campuses, she said, “they have to be held accountable for their actions just like everybody else.”
Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, also praised activists for pressing the university to take a tough stand. “As you showed here, we can push responsible adults to take action,” she said.