A Question of Perspectives: College Presidents, Athletic Directors and Coaches

May 30th, 2016 | by Karen Gross
A Question of Perspectives: College Presidents, Athletic Directors and Coaches
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In response to a true/false quiz at the start of an article I wrote for CollegeAD in April, the vast majority of those who responded (over 300 readers) believe that the college/university president should visually recognize the ADs and coaches (and their specific sport).  Many but not all thought presidents should receive emails when members of the athletic department are appointed to key NCAA committee/task force.  Most respondents thought that ADs and Coaches should email or visit the president about a remarkable student achievements, but I was surprised that more than 12% thought that there was no such need.  

This latter question had the answer “false” most frequently.  Can you hear a wee yipes coming off the page?

Here’s why I am surprised.  If ADs and Coaches believe presidents should know them, how exactly is that going to happen?  How would a president learn about an AD or Coach without engagement and some repeated way to connect a Coach to his/her sport?  And, frankly, as a president, I am more likely to remember Coaches who celebrate the achievements of their athletes (as opposed to their own achievements).  For these reasons, the answer to the question of whether ADs and Coaches should share student achievements with the president should be true – truer than true.  Of all the asked questions, this is the one question that raises no doubt for me.

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The answers to this quiz suggested two somewhat contradictory things to me: first, I am not sure that ADs and Coaches think presidents focus on students and their individual achievements, and second, I think most ADs and Coaches seem to think they should be readily recognized for their achievements – and known by the president on sight but with no reciprocal obligation to inform presidents of good happenings.  I was president of a college with 13 NCAA D-III sports and while I certainly knew the ADs during my eight plus years at the college (and some reported to me), I knew the coaches by name and by sight almost all of the time. But, I once failed to recognize the strength coach and there was a women’s softball coach whom I did not place correctly – and missed her name too.  

Here’s what I vividly remember – almost in neon lights – student athletic achievements and successes.  And, I remember those coaches who were the most visibly supportive of their students – athletically and academically. I would see them talking to students in the gym and the dining hall and occasionally in the academic and student support buildings. And yes, I also remember the outlier coaches who did bad stuff that led to NCAA violations or to their firing.

Here’s my point.  In a world where there is not much time, what we notice matters.  And, we notice what is within our sight lines – literally and figuratively. We also tend to notice what we want to notice because whatever that is matters to us.  In short, we choose to notice some things.


Here’s another related point: faculty, staff and senior leaders are watched on a campus every minute of every day: how they spend their time, where they spend their time, whether they are engaged with students, whether they are even visible in and around campus (including athletic events).  I think we sometimes forget that college personnel – even our bigger campuses – are living in a sort of fishbowl.  Everyone is looking at everyone, trying to read body language, interpret encounters and message one’s level of interest or attentiveness.  

I noticed people on campus who say hello. We observe professors whose heads are down as they move down hallways. We see the staff who look sour and dour, as if their day (or life) were in a bad place. I used to notice people who were talking to each other in hallways and those who perpetually were in an office other than their own, chatting away without a care in the world.  I noticed who kept their doors open, and I observed that some people never seemed to be around – they were noticed by their absence.

It is in this light and with this presidential perspective that I was deeply struck by the Chancellor who recently was called out in social media for being on his cell phone for 40 minutes during Commencement, while on stage and while students/now graduates marched past him. Really? Even the Chronicle of Higher Education noted the story. What was the Chancellor thinking?  Did he assume students, parent, alums, faculty and staff would not see him?  His spokesperson suggested that he might have “had to take care of a pressing matter.” Someone actually said that?  Looking at the Chancellor’s body language, he looked bored not stressed out over a pressing issue.  

What could be more important to an institution that graduation, the symbol of achievement? I’m sorry. If one can’t manage to enjoy (or at least feign enjoyment of) graduation, it is time to move on.  

For me then, the question is how to create opportunities for presidents to engage and learn about what is happening on campuses. And, given the complexities of the job, there is nothing better than good news about a student. Presidents (well, at least most of them) care deeply about student success and want to herald student achievement. That little bon mot that appears in an email or a quick in person meeting might just land in a speech to alums or a conversation with a prospective faculty member or a new coach.

So, now answer this true/false question: an AD or Coach notify the institution’s president if there is some noteworthy student-athlete success?  The answer should be a resounding TRUE! And if not, please share why not.  The reason can’t be because leaders don’t care or are too busy or never read emails.

The better question is whether a president should and will respond back to the sent email (assuming it is sent as opposed to doing nothing or popping into the office to see the president or leave a message).  The answer to that is simple too: Yes, it should be answered.  Even a short response like “Bravo” or “Brava” works.  How about: “Thanks for helping do the institution proud?”  Or, how about: “Please share my congrats with ______________ (enter name of student)?”

We all want to be known and recognized for what we accomplish.  And, at least a major job of any college or university president is to champion everyone on campus – and herald his or her successes.

If ADs and coaches do not reach out, how exactly can that happen?

About Karen Gross
Karen Gross is the former President of Southern Vermont College, an NCAA DIII institution fielding 13 teams. She was the president of the college's Athletic Conference, the NECC. She also served on the NCAA DIII Presidents' Advisory Council. A lawyer by training, she represented an NFL quarterback (decades ago) and is a serious professional and college sports fan. She currently is senior counsel to a crisis management firm in DC where she specializes in education. A Red Sox fan, she knows a lot about losing and winning. Her son, now a professor, is a former NCAA Division I athlete.

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