Sink or swim at Pepperdine? That’s the $1.6 million question


The outcome of a pledge drive with a Jan. 31 deadline will determine the future of the university’s women’s swimming and diving program.

By Patrick Timothy Mullikin / Special to The Malibu Times

Pepperdine University’s Women’s Swimming and Diving program, earmarked for elimination in the wake of school budget cuts earlier this year, could resurface if a $1.6 million pledge drive is successful.

In February, when the university announced a 10 percent across-the-board reduction of its operating expenses, the athletic department responded by laying off nine employees, and eliminating the women’s swimming and diving program, and the men’s track team, Pepperdine Director of Athletics John Watson said.

Swimming and diving team members learned the news the Friday before spring break in an e-mail from Watson.

Sophomore Leslie Wade, who is on the diving team and attends Pepperdine on a scholarship, remembers the day. “I think we were all pretty shocked at what happened,” the Atlanta, Ga., native said. “I was never really resentful. I understand the economy and everything that was going on. Cuts had to have been made. It was tough decision they had to make.”

Watson said rather than diminish every sport somewhat, the department chose to eliminate the women’s swimming and diving, and men’s track, although funding for the swimming and diving program continues through the end of the 2010 academic year. Additionally, the Division 1 school agreed to honor all existing scholarships through graduation, program or no program. For incoming freshmen who had signed national letters of intent to come to Pepperdine on a swimming scholarship, the school is honoring those scholarships for the first year in order to give those students a year to find an institution where they could obtain another scholarship, Watson added.

Despite these concessions, the future looked bleak for the swimming and diving team members, until the administration stepped in last week. “President [Andrew] Benton and John Watson have really done a great job of helping it come back,” Wade said.

In a Dec. 1 memorandum, Pepperdine University President Andrew K. Benton outlined a plan he hopes will keep the program afloat. Benton declined a request for an interview with The Malibu Times, writing in an e-mail: “I am going to do all of my communicating directly with parents, team members and donors.”

In his memo to “Friends and Supporters of the Pepperdine Women’s Swimming and Diving Team,” Benton outlined a drive that, if successful, would secure $1.6 million in pledges?-enough to fund the swimming and diving program for the next four years. The school also plans to work on establishing a $10 million endowment for scholarships and to fund the program beyond the pledge drive’s initial four years.“It’s not fair to bring a young person in and have her wonder if the program’s going to continue on an annualized basis,” Watson said. “So when they come in, the intent is that they know we have pledges to fund the program for the next four years. The intent at this time is that at the end of January we will have $400,000 for next year in hand and then pledges for another $1.2 million to cover the $400,000 for the next subsequent three years.”

Benton made it clear in his memo that while the $1.6 million doesn’t have to be actual cash in hand, a combination of cash and pledges totaling that much-and not a penny less-must be on the books by Jan. 31, or it’s a no-go for the program. “We simply must know if this is going to work by January 31, 2010; I do not wish to offer false hope or to create or prolong another round of disappointment,” he wrote in the e-mail.

Furthermore, if the drive does not meet its goal, all monies and pledges must be returned, and the swimming and diving program will cease in March as scheduled.

While the $1.6 million must be on the books by Jan. 31, actual donor payments can be stretched out over four years and paid each January.

Nick Rodionoff, head coach of the Pepperdine Women’s Swimming and Diving Team, and his wife Carrie, an administrative assistant for the team, have already pledged $20,000, which they will pay in $5,000 installments each January, if the $1.6 million goal is indeed met by Jan. 31. Watson said he already has $75,000 in pledges one week into the drive.

The Rodionoffs are also optimistic–cautiously optimistic-about the success of the pledge drive and that the team will persevere. As its head coach, Rodionoff is doubly concerned about the team’s future.

“Basically what’s happened is that we went from no hope at all to a pretty good opportunity. The [Pepperdine] administration has decided it’s going to do everything it can to save the program. We’re pretty excited about it-but it’s certainly not going to be easy,” he said. “It’s either going to happen, or it’s not. For the kid [planning to attend Pepperdine], she needs to know if it’s going to happen. If not, she needs to find another place.”

In his memo, Benton wrote that some 1,500 individuals have indicated they are willing to provide annual financial support. “If that is true, our task is relatively easy, especially if there are some generous lead gifts. If not, we must know by the last day of January 2010,” Benton wrote. “If the target of at least $400,000 per fiscal year is not achieved in gifts and firm pledges by January 31, 2010, all gifts will be returned and pledges cancelled and we will conclude our swimming and diving program as previously announced.”

Gifts and pledges should to be sent to John Watson, director of athletics, at, or he can be contacted at 310.506.4242.