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 | email@example.com
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.