Frozen Jackie Robinson Project funds impede 100th birthday celebration

Media Credit: File Photo by Donna Armstrong | Contributing Photo Editor

Professor Richard Zamoff intended to host a series of lectures and panel discussions to honor the centennial of Robinson’s birth Thursday, but officials have refused to provide funds for the event.

Baseball legend and civil rights activist Jackie Robinson would have turned 100 years old this week, but GW will not celebrate.

Students and professors involved with the nearly 23-year-old Jackie Robinson Project intended to host a series of lectures and panel discussions to honor the centennial of Robinson’s birth Thursday, but officials have refused to provide funds for the event until the project’s founder submits a proposal to cut the initiative – something he has repeatedly refused to do.

The project’s money has been frozen since last summer when administrators notified professor Richard Zamoff, the project’s head, that the initiative lacks the funding to continue operating and will be phased out at the end of the academic year.

“All of these programs we’ve been planning since last summer have not been able to be implemented because we can’t spend any money without the approval of the dean’s office,” Zamoff said. “It is a very disappointing and frustrating situation. Universities all over the country are going to have celebrations all throughout the year.”

Zamoff has repeatedly alleged that the project has always sustained itself with donations and has enough money – about $14,000 – to continue for at least three more years, which officials have disputed.

He said he could hold a celebratory event for Robinson on April 15 – the 72nd anniversary of Robinson’s first major league game – instead of his 100th birthday, but the prospect is unlikely if the decision to nix the project is not immediately reversed. Zamoff added that the dozens of emails and letters that colleagues and alumni have sent to officials over the past four months have gone unanswered.

He added that Pat Sanford, the father of an alumnus and a former member of the Jackie and Rachel Robinson Society, a student organization that educates young people about Robinson’s legacy, is producing a video to stream on social media with a summary of the project and famous quotes from Robinson.

Sanford said the video will feature “high-level” individuals in baseball but declined to say who because he is waiting for their endorsements. He said that while the video’s release date is still being determined, he wants the film to build a stronger case for preserving the project.

“It’s to educate a few more people that the project exists and educate how far-reaching it has been,” he said. “Really, over the 20 something years, it has really touched a lot of different people.”

Zamoff has also been interviewed by the Joe Madison Show and was featured in an article written by The Washington Post about students advocating for the project’s survival.

Since officials’ initial notice that they would cut the project last summer, Zamoff said administrators have also pointed to declining student involvement in the project as a reason for termination. Zamoff said he proposed creating a museum exhibit about Robinson to increase student engagement, but Kimberly Gross, the interim associate dean of programs and operations for CCAS, shot down the idea earlier this month.

“On the other end, nothing has been happening, and the level of frustration just keeps increasing,” Zamoff said. “We’ve just been doing what we can and hoping that enough publicity will trigger an administrative response from University President Thomas LeBlanc.”

Gross said the project has been on “hiatus” since Zamoff declined to submit a plan to phase out the project this academic year. She said the dean’s office encouraged Zamoff to submit a proposal for programming and events – which originally intended to include a 100th birthday celebration – in September.

She added that officials initially decided to cut the project after discovering that the project’s expenses “significantly outpaced” private donations. The initiative racked up $26,055 in expenses over the past three years, compared to donations of $2,591, Gross said.

“It is unfortunate that Professor Zamoff has chosen not to submit a project plan since this is the centennial year of Jackie Robinson’s birth, and we would have welcomed the opportunity to work with him on an event to celebrate Jackie Robinson’s extraordinary legacy,” Gross said in an email.

She said that when reviewing the project, officials were “disappointed” to see a lack of local activities and “limited” student involvement in the project’s programming. In the 2017-18 academic year, only one visit to a school, senior center or community organization occurred in D.C., she said.

“We would still welcome a plan from Professor Zamoff for programming this spring,” Gross said. “If that is not forthcoming, residual funds may be transferred to GW’s student-run Jackie and Rachel Robinson Society.”

She declined to say whether the project has received donations over the past few months. She also declined to say how much money remains in the project’s fund.

Junior Jared Diamond, an officer of the Jackie and Rachel Robinson society, said that at this time of the year, the society would visit elementary schools and teach students about Robinson. But he said the student organization is inactive because it relies on funds from the project to travel to different schools across the country.

Members of the society launched a petition last semester calling on officials to preserve the project. Since its release, Diamond said the petition has garnered 510 signatures without an administrative response.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that he was more than a baseball player,” he said. “Our organization is trying to promote that concept and especially at a time like this, there is no reason to do away with it.”

Senior Clay Adams, an officer of the society, said officials’ “big reason” for ending the project this academic year was to ensure that members of the project could still “throw a big celebratory hurrah” for Robinson – but that celebration will not take place until officials unfreeze the initiative’s funds.

“The basis for which they’re trying to end the project makes zero sense,” Adams said. “They said there are no big-name donors and the project will eventually die out based on the funds that we have, which is not true.”

Sarah Roach contributed reporting.

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