Campaign calls for change in the athletic department

The home page of the “Remove Nielsen” website that raises concerns about the Kent State University Athletics Department.

Updated on Oct. 16 to include the official response from President Todd Diacon.

A group of Kent State athletics supporters is actively campaigning to fix what they perceive is “the damaged culture” in the department. 

In a letter (below) sent Sept. 13 to Kent State President Todd Diacon, former employees, student athletes, coaches and donors asked to meet with him to work on solving the problems the signees see in the department, including issues they have with Joel Nielsen, the director of athletics.

The letter lists concerns about gender equity in the department, along with a lack of success on the playing field. It also calls the work atmosphere “toxic,” and expresses concerns that attendance is down, along with monetary donations. 

A website called “Remove Nielsen” was also launched, and describes itself as “The Campaign for Change in Kent State Athletics.” 

On Oct. 8, Vice President and University Secretary Charlene Reed emailed David Carducci, one of the organizers of the effort behind the letter and the website, on behalf of Diacon that the university will be reviewing its strategic plan for athletics and will involve “stakeholders” in “charting the course for Intercollegiate Athletics over the next few years.”

The email also said Diacon will have those reviewing the department reach out “to each of your letter’s signatories to gain their stakeholder input on The Game Plan,” an initiative of retired Kent State President Beverly Warren that started in 2016 and is in its final year.

The plan addressed the “department’s mission, core values and strategic initiatives, including a wide scope of topics ranging from facilities, student-athlete well-being and competitive expectations,” a Kent State press release said. 

In an interview Tuesday, Diacon said “four years ago, athletics generated a strategic plan for athletics. It’s called the game plan and at the time we said at the end of four years we would conduct a review of the strategic plan and we will do that. So that was the second part of my response to the investigation on field hockey. Part of that review, the strategic plan will be to reach out to all kinds of stakeholders to get their opinions, what’s working and what’s not working. I think that’s another great venue for them to address the kinds of things that come up in that letter and on that website.”

Diacon said he did not get involved in the leadership of athletics or the athletic department during his time as provost. Following the field hockey game Diacon met with Kathy Wilson, faculty athletics representative and discussed the results of the climate study. After viewing the results, Diacon thought that they merited a follow up of the climate study.

Diacon declined to meet in person with the signees because “it would be inappropriate for the university president to discuss personnel matters with individuals outside of the institution.”

Buzz Starner, who is on the executive board of the Kent State University Foundation, signed the letter. 

“We’ve seen some very good people (in the athletics department) that have been, in our estimate, mistreated,” he said. “We are not people who are going to just ignore the situation. It’s come to a point now that our group and those people that are joined within that group are committed to getting this right once and for all and removing that toxic environment and treating people the way they need to be treated as employees of the university.”

Starner graduated from the university in 1967, and his wife, Marilyn, graduated in 1971. They love Kent State and Kent State athletics. They value their time at Kent so much they’ve donated to the university for years. 

“They have a group that’s called the 20 plus,” Starner said. “It’s a giving group of people who have given consistently for 20 years or more. We’re part of that group.”

Starner is one of 20 people with connections to the athletics department who signed the letter.  

Mollie Radzinski, the assistant director of athletic communications from 2012 to 2017, was an employee at Kent State when the Game Plan started. She is now the assistant athletic director for communications at the University of Cincinnati.

She said she left Kent State for the same reason she signed the letter—due to how “toxic” she felt the athletic department at Kent State had become. 

“I love Kent State,” Radzinski said. “I went there (for undergraduate) and never regretted a second I was there. When I got the job there, I was really excited and didn’t foresee myself leaving. But there were so many issues happening, both publicly and behind the scenes,” she said. “When you go to work every day, you should be happy and feel comfortable and safe in your workplace and it got to the point where I wasn’t feeling that anymore.”

Carducci said even more people wanted to sign the letter. 

“It came together so quickly that there were more people, more coaches, donors, former staff members, probably twice as many within that day, who wanted to sign but didn’t get to us before we delivered it,” said Carducci, who is the former new media director for Kent State’s athletic department and used to cover Kent State sports for Kent’s Record-Courier. “So right now, it doesn’t have the full list.” 

Another donor who signed, Stephen M. Milkovich, is a 1993 graduate of Kent State and a member of the Board of Directors for the Kent State University Foundation. 

“It just seems like there’s so many scandals coming out of this department that I just couldn’t handle it anymore,” he said. “The fireworks weren’t a tipping point for me, but just one more item of just callousness and Joel (Nielsen) doing what he wants to do.” 

Milkovich remains a proud alumnus, but said he plans to end his donations to the athletic department. 

“At this point in time, when I look at our university, I’m so proud of it,” Milkovich said. “Journalism, aeronautics, architecture—academically it’s just fantastic. But athletically, there’s always something coming out that puts a bad stain on the university. And I feel that the new president needs to really look into this and move forward with a change.” 

On Wednesday, a petition was launched calling for Nielsen’s removal. 

The Kent Stater obtained the letter via a public records request- see below. 

The Kent Stater reached out to university representatives for comment on the letter and the campaign, but they were unwilling to comment until a meeting scheduled with Diacon on Tuesday.

Contact Gina Butkovich at [email protected] and Amanda Levine at [email protected]


Letter to Kent State President Todd Diacon[2] (PDF)
Letter to Kent State President Todd Diacon[2] (Text)