If athletic departments want to signify they are truly part of their institution's academic mission, they need to do more than talk about it. Active steps include restructuring athletic oversight and initiating faculty interaction.
By Laura Ulrich
Laura Ulrich is a contributing writer for Athletic Management. She can be reached at: laura@MomentumMedia.com.
When the Knight Commission released its report last October on "Faculty Perceptions of Intercollegiate Athletics," it offered data never collected before. Professors at 23 NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision institutions provided insight into why faculty are often at odds with their school's athletic department.
More than a third of the faculty who responded said they have no knowledge about athletic programs and policies, including how athletics is financed. Forty-one percent believe faculty governance roles associated with athletics are ill-defined, and most feel those roles don't carry much actual meaning. Overall, the average faculty member believes that athletics is driven by the entertainment industry and the financial needs of athletics are costing academic opportunities.
"Thirty years ago, faculty were more connected with athletics," says Ted Leland, Vice President for University Advancement at the University of the Pacific and former Athletic Director at Stanford University for 14 years. "But today's faculty have come to see sports as a separate entity. They aren't necessarily negative about it, but the prevailing sentiment is, 'Athletics is completely run by the administration and it doesn't have anything to do with me.'
"I read two things into the data," Leland continues. "One is that faculty are incredibly busy and just don't have time to worry about athletics. The other is that they don't believe they can have any real input or decision-making power, so why would they want to learn about athletics?"
That disconnect has serious implications for college athletic departments, Leland believes. "An athletic department not solidly connected to the educational mission of its university is in trouble," he says. "Long term, athletics cannot run on a purely business model. In order to succeed, athletic directors need strong faculty involvement to align themselves with the culture and mission of the university."
How can athletic directors open the lines of communication? The process starts with finding new and effective ways to share information and dispel myths about athletics. It continues with consideration of how structural avenues already in place to connect faculty and athletics can be strengthened. And perhaps most importantly, it involves regularly bringing faculty in contact with the best salespeople for the program--the student-athletes themselves.
COMMUNICATE & INFORM
As Leland alludes to, one of the underlying causes of faculty members' disconnect with athletics is that they are very focused on their own disciplines. It may not be that faculty aren't interested in athletics, but rather they have become out of touch with any area of the university outside of their academic focus.
"A professor might not know much about athletics, but he or she probably doesn't know much about anything else at the university either," says Scott Kretchmar, Professor of Exercise and Sport Science and the long-time Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR) at Penn State University. "We essentially live in intellectual silos. We spend our time in our own building or laboratory. We're under so much pressure to publish, get grants, and get tenure, that the general feeling is, 'I need to stay home and tend to my silo.'"
That's why the athletic department must make efforts to pull them away from their desks, says Janet Lawrence, Associate Professor at the University of Michigan and Project Director for the Faculty Perceptions of Intercollegiate Athletics survey. To start, she believes most athletic departments could do a better job of keeping faculty informed about athletics.
"When we were formulating our survey, we tried to find basic information on athletics department Web sites that would interest faculty and we had a very difficult time," Lawrence says. "We couldn't find out who the faculty athletic representative was, how they were selected, who sits on the faculty athletics committee, missed class time policies, or data about student-athlete GPAs and graduation rates."
Bob Malekoff, Assistant Professor of Sport Studies at Guilford College and former Athletic Director at The College of Wooster, says this communication is especially important for engaging a group he calls "middle ground" faculty. "Faculty fall into three categories: a small group that is anti-athletics, an equally small group that is enthusiastically pro-athletics, and a very large group that is somewhere in the middle," Malekoff says. "Athletic directors tend to ignore the middle group, and that's a mistake. Since these faculty don't know much about athletics, informing them is key."
Curt Kendall, Athletic Director at Bridgewater College, agrees. "Can you get middle-ground faculty to come to games or serve as a team mentor? Maybe, but what you can definitely do is provide them with accurate information," he says. "There can be great things going on in your programs, but if faculty don't hear about them, they're going to lump you in with the latest negative story they've heard about college sports."
In an effort to reach these middle-ground faculty, Kendall makes sure he is on the agenda for the first faculty meeting of the year. "I go over the basics of our program and stress that I want their involvement," he says. "I tell them they can contact me personally with any thoughts or concerns they have."
At Wake Forest University, Athletic Director Ron Wellman ensures athletics has a presence at every new faculty orientation by having Jane Caldwell, Assistant Athletic Director for Academic Counseling, speak each year. "I tell them what our varsity sports are and the differences between club and varsity sports," Caldwell says. "Then I talk about our excused absence policy and the role of our faculty athletics committee.
"I also tell them to expect an e-mail from me twice a semester asking about student-athletes' class attendance and effort, and I let them know how to get in touch with me and encourage them to make contact," she continues. "Last, I make sure they know our ultimate goal is graduation, not eligibility."
Since faculty are used to accessing information online, Lawrence suggests compiling a faculty information page and making sure it has a link on the campus homepage. "That way, professors can learn about your program when it's convenient for them," she says.
While the more information you can supply the better, the exact content mix and delivery methods will vary from school to school. "Each campus is different," Lawrence says. "If an athletic director really wants to be transparent, he or she should convene a group of people at the school--admissions officers, faculty, athletics staff--and ask, 'What do we want to tell faculty about our athletic department, and how do faculty want to receive that information?'"
Along with providing information to faculty, athletic directors should consider re-evaluating the role of professors in athletics oversight. Nearly half the respondents to the Faculty Perceptions survey said faculty governance of athletics is essentially meaningless. As one survey respondent put it, "Faculty input is superficial, and the faculty athletic committee is controlled by athletic administration. I know, I sat on it."
Kretchmar suggests taking a hard look at your faculty athletics committee. "If an athletic director claims to want faculty involvement, but the faculty athletics committee doesn't really have any decision-making power, faculty will see straight through that," he says. "One thing that makes faculty very cynical is a committee made up of professors who already love sports and are appointed by the athletic director and the president."
At Penn State, the faculty athletics committee is a standing committee of the faculty senate, with members chosen the same way as for all other committees. "Our athletic director has no say in who sits on the faculty athletics committee," Kretchmar says. "Once a month, he gets to sit down with 18 faculty selected by their peers and debate athletics issues.
"If that seems too drastic," Kretchmar continues, "start by making the process of choosing the committee more transparent. Instead of doing it behind closed doors, make it public."
Another way to gain faculty trust is to include some skeptics on the committee. This gives faculty confidence in the committee's independence, which is especially important in crisis situations. "When a controversy happens, you need faculty on the committee who have credibility with their peers," Leland says. "When a skeptic says, 'I trust the athletic department, and I believe they handled this well,' other faculty listen."
The faculty athletics committee must also have a meaningful role, with real tasks to accomplish. "There's no faster way to lose faculty interest than to bring them into a room, read a report, and send them home," Leland says. "The more you ask them to do, the more engaged they become.
"Facility planning, admissions issues, and long-range financial planning are all areas where I assigned my faculty athletics committee specific tasks and got valuable feedback," he continues. "And then faculty input has to be taken seriously. If they offer recommendations and no one listens, you're going to lose their trust."
Leland acknowledges that athletic directors take a risk by increasing faculty oversight. "What if you ask for their input and they reach a totally different conclusion than you?" he says. "Athletic directors worry about that, but the truth is, I never had that happen. Some of the wisest advice I ever got came from faculty."
Another important structural element for gaining faculty trust is the reporting line for the academic services department. "Faculty across the country have become very skeptical about the academic advising of student-athletes," says Kretchmar. "At Penn State, our academic support staff reports to the academic officer in charge of undergraduate advisement on campus, not the athletic director. That tells faculty we have academic people overseeing the advisement of our student-athletes."
Another option is sharing advising oversight between an academic administrator and an athletic administrator. "If academic services reports solely to an academic office, there can be a sense of distrust among your coaches and athletes," Leland says. "If it reports only to athletics, there's distrust among faculty. I always pushed for a joint report. It really helps integrate academic services with the rest of the university."
Caldwell likes the dual reporting structure at Wake Forest. "I report to both the athletic director and the dean of the college," she says. "I think I have the best of both worlds. Coaches know and trust me, but I also have credibility with faculty, and I serve as a liaison between them."
At Bridgewater College, Kendall offers faculty more oversight by involving them in hiring decisions. "We now include at least one faculty member in every department hire we make," he says. "For bigger hires with search committees, we find a faculty member to serve. If there is no search committee, we make sure our FAR talks to each candidate. We realized we need someone in the interview process who can assess candidates' commitment to academics."
SOLD ON STUDENT-ATHLETES
Opening up your athletic department to criticism and discussion will go a long way to gaining faculty trust. But athletic departments must also find a way to reach the "middle ground" faculty who need an invitation to come out of their silos. More and more schools are doing this through special mentoring and guest coach programs that allow faculty members to make personal connections with student-athletes.
When Dianne Dailey, Head Women's Golf Coach at Wake Forest, had her team host a faculty golf clinic last year, she set up a formal buffet for the professors. But when it came time to eat, the faculty members asked to sit on the grass in a circle instead, balancing plates on their knees and chatting with athletes. When the clinic's scheduled three hours were up, no one was ready to leave. It ended, instead, when it got too dark to see.
"It was the neatest thing," Dailey says. "We had all of these important professors sitting on the ground and asking student-athletes about their experience, how they balance athletics and academics, and what they get out of it. Bringing faculty into contact with student-athletes is probably the best way to connect with them, because their true interest is with the kids."
For the rewards it generated, Dailey says her team's clinic was surprisingly easy to arrange. "I asked each of my athletes to invite two of their professors, past or current, to participate," she says. "The athletes worked with the professors on the green, and we stepped in if they needed help explaining something. The entire event took less than an hour to plan, and it provided great informal interaction between faculty and athletics."
The clinic is part of an active guest coach program at Wake Forest, which involves almost every sport. For men's basketball, each player chooses a faculty member to invite to a game. For remaining games, Caldwell selects professors. She, Wellman, and Head Coach Dino Gaudio meet with the guest coach before the game.
Football guest faculty are also chosen by the athletes. They attend the pregame meal, sitting with the athlete who invited them. The athlete introduces the faculty member and talks about his or her expertise and why he selected them. The professors also stand on the sidelines during the game and go into the locker room after the game.
Caldwell says the key is giving faculty as much contact with athletes as possible, while respecting the comfort level of the team's coach. "For example, our men's basketball coach is not very comfortable with guests in the locker room, but our women's basketball coach is," Caldwell says. "He loves having faculty come in and he even does a chalk talk for them. It's really important not to push a coach to do something they're not comfortable with."
Wellman believes the guest coach programs connect faculty in two ways. "It allows them an inside look into the intensity of the student-athlete experience and it gives them a greater appreciation for the tremendous life lessons our athletes are learning," he says. "This makes them much more likely to get involved with athletics in the future."
In addition to its guest coach programs, Wake Forest hosts several outreach events each year for new faculty. This year, new faculty were invited to a buffet before a football game, a family picnic at a women's soccer game, and an ice cream social at a tennis match. The athletic department also sent new faculty free tickets for men's basketball games.
"Our senior administrative staff comes and eats with them, talks with them, and meets their families," Caldwell says. "It's another way of building a bridge, and lets us reach more faculty than through the guest coach program alone."
At Pittsburg State University, Head Volleyball Coach Ibraheem Suberu also has a guest coach program, but with a twist. Since Suberu himself teaches a freshman experience course, he challenges the other freshman experience professors to bring as many of their students as they can to his team's first match. The professor who gets the best turnout serves as the guest coach for the game the following year, standing on the sidelines, participating in team huddles, and going to video sessions.
"It creates a relationship between the professors and our student-athletes that goes beyond just seeing each other in class," Suberu says. "The faculty see these students in a different environment and see how hard they work. These professors get involved beyond just being a guest--they become advisors to our athletes and feel like they have a personal stake in their lives.
"After eight years of this program, we have a group of professors who even follow us on the road," he continues. "And every year, I have professors who tell me, 'When you have prospects in to visit, don't forget to send them over to my office so I can meet them and talk about academics.'"
Suberu acknowledges that his status as an instructor helped get the program started, but believes non-instructor coaches could be equally successful if they approached faculty about the idea. "Relationships have to be fostered and developed. They don't happen automatically," he says. "We in athletics can sit back and wait for faculty to come to us, but that is very unlikely to happen. We need to make the choice to close the gap."
At Bridgewater, the athletic department has found success with a faculty mentoring program, where one professor serves as an academic resource for a team and builds a close relationship with the coach and players. "On the baseball team, we have a professor from the foreign languages department who serves as our mentor," says Kendall, who is also the school's Head Baseball Coach. "She's very involved with teaching our players study and time management skills. She comes to as many home games as she can and goes on the road with us twice each year.
"We open the program up to any professor who wants to be part of it," he continues. "Coaches have to want a faculty member as part of their team, but it can function any way the professor and the coach want it to work."
The greatest success story may be with the women's basketball team, whose mentor is the director of the music program at Bridgewater. "He attends practices and games, travels with the team, and sits on the sidelines," says Kendall. "The team feels so connected to him that they've started attending music recitals to repay the favor."
And the effect isn't restricted to the professors who act as mentors. "The great thing is, every faculty member we have serving as a mentor goes to other faculty members and says, 'This is what I've seen,'" Kendall says. "They really become ambassadors for our programs with their peers."
A CAMPUS CITIZEN
Beyond orchestrating interaction between athletics and academics, the athletic director has another role to play. "If you want faculty to see your department as part of the educational mission, you have to be seen as more than the businessperson who runs athletics," Leland says. "You have to be seen as an educator who is interested in campus issues."
Kendall agrees. "Faculty need to know that the athletic director understands and values the things that they do," he says. "It's a two-way street--if we want them involved in athletics, they need to see us taking an active role outside athletics."
Leland suggests looking for opportunities to serve on committees that aren't directly related to athletics. "I asked to be put on search committees or groups related to student life or academics," he says. "I also went to lectures and took an interest in academic issues."
For Kendall, regularly attending faculty meetings, whether or not there is a specific athletics issue at hand, is a valuable way of demonstrating his interest in his school's broader mission. He also keeps up with the academic achievements of faculty and makes sure to acknowledge them when he can.
"When professors have published books or won awards, I've contacted them to congratulate them," he says. "If I know a professor is studying something I have an interest in, I'll ask about it when I see them. Those things let faculty know I'm part of the university outside of athletics and really open the lines of communication."
Connecting with faculty should be an ongoing process. "It's not the kind of thing you check off your to-do list and it's done," Malekoff says. "To really work, it has to become part of the culture, and that starts with an athletic director who sees it as part of the job."
The Faculty Perceptions of Intercollegiate Athletics Survey can be accessed on the Knight Commission's Web site at: www.knightcommission.org/ at the "reports" link.
Sidebar: AN INTEGRATED APPROACH
Because everyone on campus leads busy lives these days, sometimes the hardest part of connecting athletics with academics is getting the right people in the same room. In NCAA Division III, that challenge is being met through an initiative called "Integration Institutes."
Organized by the College Sports Project (CSP), an Institute brings presidents, academic and athletic administrators, faculty, and coaches from a handful of institutions together for in-depth discussion. "We started the institutes to give athletic administrators and coaches the chance to sit down and talk with academic administrators and faculty," says Bob Malekoff, Assistant Professor of Sport Studies at Guilford College, former Athletic Director at The College of Wooster, and one of the lead organizers of CSP's Integration Institute initiative. "I've had several participants tell me, 'Before the institute, we'd never had this group in a room together.'
"The other objective is to allow institutions to share ideas about connecting athletics and academics," Malekoff continues. "There are a lot of great efforts going on at individual institutions, and schools can benefit from each other's ideas."
Curt Kendall, Athletic Director at Bridgewater College, attended an Integration Institute in 2006 along with his college's president, the senior woman administrator, an associate athletic director, a men's coach, a women's coach, and the FAR. During the program, they listened to speakers, participated in break-out sessions addressing specific topics, and came up with some goals or action plans.
"It was great to sit down and focus on this issue, which can get swept aside with all the other things we have to deal with," Kendall says. "We realized we were doing some things really well, but there was more we could do."
Kendall believes schools without access to the Integration Institutes could replicate the concept on their own. "It could be as simple as getting a group together at your own institution," he says. "If you could do it in conjunction with one or more other schools, that would be even better, since you could share ideas."
Malekoff adds that follow-up is key. "If people get fired up about integrating athletics and academics, but then go back to their day-to-day work and lose momentum, it won't work," he says. "It's important to create a regular time to assess whether the goals created are being met."
For more information on Integration Institutes, go to the College Sports Project Web site at: www.collegesportsproject.org.