For more than 22 years, Professor Richard Zamoff has led a project celebrating the life of baseball legend and civil rights activist Jackie Robinson – but this year may be the last.
Citing insufficient funds to continue the program more than a year and a half, officials in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences said they plan to phase out the program after the celebration of Robinson’s 100th birthday in January and reallocate remaining funds to other programs related to race and politics.
But Zamoff said the program has always been self-sustaining, and other donors are prepared to give funds to maintain the project. He said terminating the project would deny students the ability to learn about a prominent civil rights figure whose influence extends beyond baseball.
“This is the Jackie Robinson Project – this is not about baseball and it’s not about sports – it’s about educating people about an influential civil rights leader who impacted America in many ways,” Zamoff said.
Since 1996, the Jackie Robinson Project has led programs, lectures and educational initiatives focused on Jackie Robinson’s impact on race, sports and society. Zamoff said he visits schools across the country for lectures about Robinson and solicits funds from donors outside the University.
In a 70-page report Zamoff distributed to students Sept. 10, Zamoff described his back-and-forth with CCAS leaders and the chair of the sociology department, Hilary Silver, who he said ordered a review of the project in April. He said he was informed in June that the project’s funds were frozen, preventing him from planning the project’s events this academic year, including an annual October program.
“What we have been told is that the project is under review and I have tried to find out why the University would want to terminate something that is so impactful and positively thought about and makes a difference in so many lives,” he said.
Zamoff has operated the budget and solicited money from donors since the project launched, he said.
The report, which was obtained by The Hatchet, includes dozens of statements of support for the project and messages sent to Silver urging her to continue the initiative.
When reached for comment on the phone, Silver hung up on an editor after she identified herself. Silver also did not return multiple phone calls and emails.
Kimberly Gross, the interim associate dean of programs and operations for CCAS, wrote in a memo to Zamoff dated Sept. 2 that the project’s budget currently sits at about $10,000. She said the project spent about $28,000 on programming but received about $2,600 in donations between 2015 and 2017 – leading officials to estimate the project would run out of funds in about one to two years.
“We believe a final year of programming to celebrate the centennial of Jackie Robinson’s birth is a fitting way to provide closure of the project,” Gross wrote in the memo, which was obtained by The Hatchet.
But Zamoff, who said he received the memo Sept. 11, said that based on his budget record, he had about $14,000 in the account before the funds were frozen.
Gross said in the memo that Zamoff should only spend about $6,000 on programming this academic year and cease fundraising activity. She said the remaining funding will be redistributed “in ways that allow elements of the mission and work of the project to live on” – like setting aside the money in the Africana Studies program to fund programs related to “the intersection of race, sports and politics.”
In an email to The Hatchet, Gross said officials discovered during the spring review of the project that the initiative’s expenses “have significantly outpaced donations and the project’s available funding is diminishing.” She said the closure of the project won’t affect Zamoff’s course on Jackie Robinson or the Jackie and Rachel Robinson Society, a student organization.
Gross said that officials “invited” Zamoff to submit a plan detailing the project’s final events to celebrate Robinson’s 100th birthday. She said officials also encouraged Zamoff to limit programs to schools in the D.C. area to allow students and other community members to “benefit from the program’s educational outreach.” In the past, the program has also executed programming in Florida and New York, she said.
“The university certainly appreciates the groundbreaking role that Jackie Robinson played both on and off the field, as well as the impact of race on sports and American culture,” Gross said. “Rather than watch as the project depletes its remaining funds, we encouraged the project to end on a high note with the celebration of Jackie Robinson’s legacy on his centennial.”
Faculty, alumni and Zamoff’s colleagues – who wrote at least 23 letters to officials voicing support for the program – said the project’s elimination would hinder education of Robinson’s influence on the civil rights movement. The project has prompted those involved with it to conduct research and teach their own courses about Robinson and donate to the project, they said.
Some who were previous donors said they are also hesitant to give the program funds now that Zamoff can’t access the frozen budget.
“Reducing the scope of the Jackie Robinson Project or otherwise curtailing its influence would be a travesty, not just from a personal perspective, but also from an institutional, as well as global, perspective,” Maggie Alexander, a GW alumna and the principal of a school in Florida, wrote in a letter Sept. 4, which was included in Zamoff’s report.
Joe Dorinson, a history professor at Long Island University, said he first became involved with the program in 1997 after meeting with Zamoff at a conference about Robinson in New York City. As a donor to the project, he said he’s reluctant to continue donating because he isn’t sure where the cash will go if it’s not operated by Zamoff.
“I would hate to see this program ended, not only because I’m invested in it but because there is so much that students of all ages can learn from Jackie’s wonderful narrative,” he said in an interview. “I’m baffled, I’m angry, I’m bewitched, bothered and bewildered.”
Lauren Wrotniak, an alumna who served as the student vice president for the Jackie and Rachel Robinson Society during the 2011-12 academic year, said she can’t “wrap my brain around” why the University would terminate a self-funded project.
“You shouldn’t be removing programs that encourage equality and if they’re thinking that this is about the integration of baseball, that’s ridiculous,” she said. “They don’t understand the symbolism of Jackie and Rachel Robinson – they symbolize race relations and how society views each other.”