Henry Harutunian had coached Yale fencing for 49 years. He had wanted to coach for 50 years. He had informed Yale’s athletic administration about that hope.
And yet, the administration fired Harutunian suddenly last week, hastily informing the alumni base moments after.
At a school where traditions are so cherished, where the Whiffenpoofs still sing “To the Tables Down at Mory’s” every Monday, where the Hewitt Quadrangle is graced by the names of those who fought and died in World War I, where our mascot is the 17th of his lineage, the unceremonious dismissal of a coach in his 49th year stands out as an unfortunate aberration.
Forty-nine years of commitment to anything is remarkable. I do not know anyone who has worked at the same job for 49 years. Yale fencing has been around for 125 years. As high as that number is, as much tradition as that has cultivated, Harutunian was there for just under 40 percent of fencing’s long tradition at Yale. In fact, he started the women’s fencing program. Harutunian was an Olympian who had sent many Yalies to the Olympics, including the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in fencing. He led Yale to five national championships. And, according to alumni, Harutunian guided the program with integrity and class throughout his 49 years at the helm.
If administrators wanted him to move on, there was no need to do it this year, rather than the next – his 50th. If they wanted him to move on, there was no reason to handle it as they did. Simply put, unless the Athletic Department knows something I don’t, they handled this poorly.
It is true that Yale is not the Ivy League’s powerhouse in fencing. That honor certainly belongs to Columbia. And yet, this year, Yale finished seventh in the nation, and Harutunian was named Ivy League Coach of the Year. More importantly, it is true that a coaching change might be necessary to dethrone Columbia. But there was no reason that change had to happen this year, before Harutunian’s 50th, and there was no reason the announcement had to happen as it did, via hasty email.
The Yale Fencing Association — a group comprised of Yale’s fencing alumni — was shocked and upset by the news. It had hoped to see assistant coach Haibin Wang succeed Harutunian. At the least, it had hoped to be involved in this decision, which the YFA president, Abel Halpern ’88, described as “unilateral.” Halpern also noted that the alums were not “given advanced warning of yesterday’s communication.”
Frankly, I am all for the administration taking control of coaching decisions. At the end of the day, it should be our athletic director’s call. But it might be wise to consult the alumni even if the final determination is entirely in the hands of the director. Our athletic alumni played for us. They actually donned the Yale blue and might know and understand the program better than our administrators. Our alums should be treated respectfully, even though it should be the department’s final call. There is absolutely no excuse for the alumni not knowing this would happen. And worse, there is no excuse for the manner in which this coach, who served Yale for 49 years, was dismissed.
The alums are now scrambling to plan the event to celebrate Harutunian, which Yale should have had already set in place prior to his departure. At the least, if Yale had given the program a heads-up on Harutunian’s dismissal, the YFA could have planned an event to immediately follow the coach’s final season. Instead, this event will be held in the fall — most likely because of the fact that Harutunian’s dismissal came without notice.
One of the beautiful things about going to a place like Yale is its traditions. We uphold them intensely. But those traditions are subject to revision, to update and to improvement. Nobody would deny that the Yale of today is better than the Yale of 1701. But we have made these revisions, these updates and improvements with grace. Moving on from Harutunian might have been the right decision, but it was handled poorly. Firing Harutunian unceremoniously and informing the Yale fencing community without prior warning via email a year after he wins Ivy League Coach of the Year — and the year before the 50th of Harutunian’s tenure — is not a good look for a place that respects its past but implements change with graceful purpose and deep intention.
Unless there is something we have not been told, we are better than that.
Kevin Bendesky | firstname.lastname@example.org