Yale Athletics

On Thursday evening, Director of Athletics Vicky Chun emailed members of the Yale Fencing Association and fencing alumni to inform them that the Athletic Department has chosen not to renew the contract of head coach Henry Harutunian, who has worked at Yale for 49 years.

In the email, which was obtained by the News, Chun stated that “… we have decided to move forward under new leadership in our fencing program,” adding that she appreciates Harutunian’s longtime leadership and dedication to the program. Chun also added that the she and her office will be launching a national search for Harutunian’s replacement. The decision came barely a week after both the women’s and men’s teams earned seventh place at the NCAA National Championships — their best finish in 17 years. Haruntunian was also named the Ivy League Men’s Fencing Coach of the Year.

“We are confident that we will secure someone that will provide our student-athletes with a first-class experience both athletically and academically,” her email reads.

In an interview with the News, Harutunian expressed his confusion over the Athletics Department’s decision, saying that Chun did not tell him why the department had decided against renewing his contract. Harutunian added that he has since spent hours on the phone with frustrated alumni, unable to tell them why he has been forced into early retirement.

Harutunian, who is 87 years old, added that in his first ever conversation with Chun, he conveyed his desire to coach at Yale for 50 years. He told the News that in his original plan, assistant coach and Olympic medalist Haibin Wang would take the reins upon Harutunian’s retirement.

Wang declined to comment on the Athletic Department’s decision not to renew Haruntunian’s contract.

A fencing alumnus, who wished to remain anonymous to not offend the Athletic Department, described Chun’s email to alumni as “graceless,” criticizing Chun’s approach to informing the Yale fencing alumni of the situation as “ready-fire-aim.”

“Yale needed to do this in a completely different way,” said the alumnus. “One nanosecond after he walked out of that office, one nanosecond, she pushed send on an email that obviously had been prepared already to hundreds of Yale fencing alums.”

In an email to the News, Chun praised Harutunian’s achievements, adding that her most important duty as director of athletics is to ensure that all coaches meet the present needs of student-athletes and the needs of “the program” as a whole.

“In this situation, I made the determination that the overall program would best be served by a change in leadership,” Chun wrote on Sunday. “This decision was made after careful and thoughtful deliberation. The next head coach for Yale Fencing will build on Henry’s legacy, and I look forward to the exciting work ahead.”

Harutunian, who originally hails from Armenia, became an eminent coach of the Republic of Armenia in 1963, at the same time serving on the coaching staff of the Soviet National Team for four years. In 1956, a student of his was chosen for the USSR Olympic Team, winning first prize in epee at the 1958 Junior World Championships. Eight years later, Harutunian came to America and coached for three years at Brandeis before accepting a position at Yale. In 1984, Harutunian became one of three U.S. Olympic coaches, and the U.S Men’s Fencing Coaches Association named him Coach of the Year in 1986.

“I work hard, and I want to see hard work be paid back,” Harutunian said. “I’m not happy, but what can I do?

On Friday, President of the Yale Fencing Association Abel Halpern ’88 wrote an email to fencing alumni about Harutunian’s firing, noting the fencing teams’ seventh-place finish at this year’s NCAA National Championships and Harutunian’s achievement as Ivy League Men’s Fencing Coach of the Year. He also noted that the athletics director did not consult the YFA about Harutunian’s dismissal.

“Unfortunately, the Yale Fencing Association was not involved with this unilateral decision, nor were we given advanced warning of yesterday’s communication,” Halpern wrote to alumni.

According to the anonymous Yale fencing alumnus, Halpern sent his email to the Athletic Department, requesting that the Athletic Department distribute the letter to all fencing alumni — while the letter is public on the YFA’s Facebook page, the alumnus said, older members of the fencing community might not have access to social media.

When Deputy Director Scott Lukas responded on Saturday in an email obtained by the News, he sent Halpern a heavily edited version of Halpern’s original letter, noting that the changes made to the original email were what the department had approved for circulation.

“You do NOT have my permission to send this edited version of the letter under my name,” Halpern responded via email.

Lukas suggested that Halpern delete large sections of his original email and replace those sections with language that closely mirrors that of the Chun’s original email to alumni. And while Halpern concluded his original message by calling his email “bittersweet,” and saying, “Though there may be diverse views on the management of Coach’s retirement…,” the Athletic Department drew strikethroughs on those phrases as well.

Halpern then sent his original email to fencing alumni without the help of the Athletic Department.

Fencing alumna Valerie Asher ’82 explained that there are not many fencing coaches available within the NCAA, since fencing is not as widespread as soccer or other more popular sports.

“To know who’s out there and who’s really good, I think it’s hard for the Athletic Department to assess. They don’t really have any experience with fencing other than their own program,” said Asher. “I would hope, and the other alumni hope, that they would use the resources that they have, the alumni, to help give the team the new coach that they deserve.”

According to several alumni, Yale did not consult any former Yale fencers in its search for a new coach. Alumna Maggie Church ’95 wrote an email to President Peter Salovey on Sunday, calling the lack of alumni involvement in the hunt for a new coach “perplexing.”

After listing a myriad of Harutunian’s accomplishments and describing the coach’s influence on both her fencing career and her personal life, Church added that Yale’s lack of transparency in the decision to fire Harutunian shows that Yale does not value Harutunian’s service nor the alumni who have supported Yale fencing.

“At a moment when collegiate athletics (including at Yale) are enmeshed in very public scandal, it is all the more upsetting that Yale would choose to summarily dismiss a coach who has spent his entire career building a program that represents the highest ideals of sport and scholarship,” Church wrote.

According to the Yale Fencing website, Harutunian has coached Yale’s fencing teams to five national titles — two for the men’s team and one for the women’s team.

Valerie Pavilonis | valerie.pavilonis@yale.edu

Correction, April 5: A previous version of this story stated that Harutunian has coached Yale fencing teams to three national titles each for the men’s and women’s teams. In fact, during his tenure, the women’s fencing team has won three titles, and the men’s team has won two titles. 

  • Nancy Morris

    “According to the Yale Fencing website, Harutunian has coached Yale’s fencing teams to five national titles, three each for the men’s and women’s teams?”

    Really?

    Three each for men and women, for a total of five?

    Yale admissions! Red alert at the Yale Daily News! Again!

    • Connecticut Football Fan

      Chun has made some questionable decisions in her brief tenure, such as firing the Clam Diggers Band from playing at Yale football games and removing the original Handsome Dan from the entrance to the John Lee Amphitheater. This latest move further demonstrates that she has a lot to learn about respecting Yale alumni, traditions and icons. This should have been handled in the same way Beckett handled Cozza’s retirement.

      • trixiebelden

        What? Handsome Dan is gone? (Haven’t been back to campus in a couple of years.) Seriously, that’s outrageous.

  • ShadrachSmith

    Algeria has the same problem with their president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, born 2 March 1937, great guy, maximum respect, but he’s just too old…like RBG, Biden, Pelosi, Sanders…and the list goes on.

    • Jim A

      He still is active and productive; he should have been permitted to coach his 50th year and then have an appropriate celebratory sendoff. Instead Yale has hundreds of angry alums and students. This is really a bad and senseless move by Chun, who should have the grace and good sense to reverse herself.

      • concerned

        Do you think Chun has become unhinged after touring with Salovey and some wealthy donors, then encountering the epicenter of a national admissions scandal around a recently resigned employee who forfeited his $800+K Swiss bank account to the feds? Yale had been contacted by the court back in November.

    • mahood

      Putting Trump on the list? Or just democrats. Also this is agist.

    • heavensdoor

      Too old for what? He’s coaching. Fencing. He’s not participating in Navy Seal training sessions. But it is probably age discrimination..so your point is important. New people like to make big changes..show they are in charge and in command.

  • James C. Murray

    The unseemly handling aside; athletic departments have little understanding of the unique skills of a fencing coach. Weapon in hand they engage in direct one-on-one training – and at the highest levels such as Yale, the instruction is not a ‘how to’ but insightful advice adjusted to each fencers personality. If interviewing a coach candidate for basketball most departments might ask about how they manage a player in foul trouble early; or extra man offence in lacrosse; rotating pitchers etc. Sorry to say that a fencing coach interview will be along the lines of “..do those wires get in the way? How do you know who gets the point again? Does that helmet obscure your vision..?” Fencers are known for fairness and sportsmanship; After almost fifty successful seasons this coach deserved much better.

    • balboaactually

      First I think you have to give the administration more credit for their upcoming interview process for a new coach. I doubt they’ll seriously ask “Do those wires get in the way.”

      Second, I’m not sure how you’d rather the coaching change have happened?

      • CharlieWalls

        Easy answer to the second: Let him retire next year/

  • carl

    We read such interesting things about Yale athletics lately.

  • Pancho Rivas

    Let me tell you what this is. Bullshit. This, is bullshit. Coach is a great man, a great teacher, a beloved friend to all his former students. Coaching is developing young men and women and Coach Haratunian would be my choice for this any day. I cannot tell you how depressing this news is. I spit upon this decision and whoever was behind it.

  • Nancy Morris

    It’s curious that the Yale fencing coach has been fired, and at the same time the Harvard fencing coach is embroiled in a potential bribery/admissions scandal (not the Singer/Operation Varsity Blues scandal) as reported in The Hill for example:

    Harvard is investigating reports that the parent of an applicant and fencing-team hopeful purchased the home of the university’s fencing coach for a higher-than-market price and then sold it for a loss.

    Jie Zhao, a businessman from Maryland, bought the home of Harvard fencing coach Peter Brand for nearly a million dollars when it was valued at $549,300, The Boston Globe reported Thursday.

    After the May 2016 purchase, Harvard accepted Zhao’s younger son who also joined the fencing team, the newspaper reported.

    “I want to help Peter Brand because I feel so sorry he has to travel so much to go to fencing practice,” Zhao told the newspaper. He reportedly did not ever live in the house and 17 months later sold it for $665,000.

    “Harvard University was unaware of these circumstances until it was contacted by the Boston Globe, and is now undertaking an independent review of this matter” a university spokesperson told The Hill in a statement. “We are committed to ensuring the integrity of our recruitment practices.”

    https://thehill[dot]com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/437506-harvard-investigating-student-admitted-after-parent-bought

    Who knows? Maybe there is no connection. Still, it’s strange. Passing strange.

  • Anon

    How many bribes has he accepted?

  • Anon

    How many bribes did he take?