Task force: 50 ways to improve climate for student-athletes

Following a nine-month examination of issues and opportunities related to student-athletes’ academic experience at UC Berkeley, the Chancellor’s Task Force on Academics and Athletics issued its report Friday, offering more than 50 wide-ranging recommendations intended to maximize the academic performance of student-athletes and the overall quality of their campus experience.

Mike Williams at press briefing

Mike Williams, Cal interim athletic director and a task force member, speaks at a press briefing Friday as Chancellor Dirks listens. (UC Berkeley photos by Kevin Ho Nguyen)

“With today’s release of the report and recommendations, Berkeley is reaffirming the important role of our student-athletes, coaches and staff in the life of this great university,” Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said. “Our goal in establishing the task force was to ensure that our student-athletes are enabled to take full advantage of the extraordinary educational experiences and preparation provided by our world-renowned programs and comprehensive academic excellence.”

Formed in January 2014 and chaired by UC Berkeley Class of 1960 Professor of Anthropology Emerita Margaret Conkey, the panel comprised 20 members and included faculty, staff, coaches, students and alumni. Dirks charged the committee to “devise new means to ensure that our academic mission informs every part of our intercollegiate athletics programs.” The task force did not carry out a review of the athletic department, but rather looked at how the university could more fully connect student-athletes and Intercollegiate Athletics into the wider campus community, seeking improved integration, communication and partnerships.

“We looked at things from a very holistic standpoint,” Mike Williams, Berkeley’s interim athletic director, said at a briefing Friday.

Also: see Chancellor’s Task Force on Athletics and Academics Issues Its Report, which includes links to the report and related materials.

Conkey stressed that while the Academic Senate reviews Berkeley’s admissions policies for student-athletes, admissions is just one of many factors that need to be addressed, adding that “most of the recommendations are going to happen this year.”

“We’re going to bring our coaches back to the classroom,” she said. “They’re going to go to the classes so they better understand the dynamics of the classroom, and it’s especially for those coaches who don’t have an experience comparable to the Berkeley experience, or if they’re new coaches.” She also stressed the importance of finding a mentor who can help them “navigate through the complexities” of life at Berkeley, noting that this is true for all students, not just student-athletes.

Conkey

Meg Conkey, task force chair: “Most of the recommendations are going to happen this year.”

“Our student-athletes are not the only students on this campus who have time constraints in their lives,” she said. “We have students who work, we have students who are parents, we have students who are commuters. So in a way, by revealing some of these constraints, sort of pinch points, if you will, we actually are identifying some things that will help and contribute to making things better for the rest of the students on the campus as well.”

The task force received direct input from Cal head coaches on a variety of topics, including recruiting, admissions, campus integration and academics. In addition, panel  members held discussions with appropriate parties on campus and consulted with academic peers at UCLA, Stanford, Virginia and Harvard to discuss best practices and policies.

“When I set the goals for the task force’s work, I stated my belief that our university benefits from a robust intercollegiate athletics program,” Dirks said. “I rejected the notion that there is a necessary conflict between success in athletic and academic arenas. I insisted that our educational values permeate all that we do. I emphasized the need for Cal Athletics, as an integral part of our identity as a campus community, to be fully integrated into the broader life of this campus. The task force report reinforces my belief in each of these principles.”

In a message to the Berkeley campus, Dirks announced that his administration had endorsed all of the task force’s recommendations, including:

  • The Director of Athletics will report directly to the Chancellor and will become a member of the Chancellor’s senior leadership team.
  • A full-time recruitment coordinator will be hired to develop a new, comprehensive recruitment and admissions program that will, among other things, provide for more faculty involvement. The program will also provide greater emphasis on academic factors in the recruiting process, as well as an on-going evaluation of academic support for athletes.
  • Student-athletes will be incorporated into the revised advising program of the College of Letters and Science, in which all students will have a professional adviser.
  • The campus administration will engage in new efforts to improve the campus climate to ensure that every member of the Cal Athletics community is fully integrated into the social and cultural life of the broader campus community.
  • Academic performance will be a central element of the annual performance evaluation for the Director of Athletics and for all coaches.

The Academic Senate, which has sole authority over Berkeley’s admissions standards, is in the process of reviewing and revising the campus’s admissions policy, which, after an initial phase-in period, will provide for a single, comprehensive undergraduate-admissions process that will be applicable to all students. The policy for student-athlete admissions will be the same as for dancers, artists, musicians and other individuals with exceptional talents.

“All of these students enliven our community and exemplify Berkeley’s commitment to nourishing the widest possible range of human achievement,” Dirks said. “The new admissions policy will also be linked to our commitment to provide the necessary academic support to all the students who need it.”

The report notes that many of the issues examined are already being addressed, some by the recent hiring of additional full-time learning specialists. Recent results have shown that some of the teams with poor academic records are improving, often markedly, with changes in culture, climate and focus, but that some challenges do remain.

“While we took as a starting point that there were deeply troubling situations regarding the graduation rates for several teams, we want to make it very clear that this problem does not characterize most of our now 30 teams,” Conkey said. “In fact, most teams and most student-athletes are graduating at a rate equal to or greater than the campus average graduation rates.”

Williams, who has served as interim Director of Athletics since July, said the athletic department is fully prepared to embrace the proposals accepted by the chancellor. An active member of the task force based on his role as vice chair of the UC Berkeley Foundation, he did not vote on recommendations due to his new position.

“When the task force began its work, we understood that the athletic department and campus community needed to come together, taking dramatic and immediate steps to better the climate for student-athlete academic success,” Williams said. “We knew this was a complex problem. The solution – that our campus and athletic department develop an infrastructure to consistently provide conditions in which all of our student-athletes can balance Berkeley’s academic rigors with Division I athletic competition – is one that, perhaps, can only be found at a place like Cal.”

Dirks emphasized that the recommendations in the report impact the entire campus and not just the Intercollegiate Athletics program.

“The report makes clear that in some instances we, as a university and a community, have not adequately supported all of our student-athletes, nor have we created all the requisite conditions for their academic success,” Dirks said. “The changes outlined here are designed to provide a concrete commitment to all of our student-athletes.

“As with any complex endeavor, this is not something we can simply fix, forget and leave behind,” Dirks added. “We have a shared responsibility to make this work over the long term. We will ensure that every Berkeley undergraduate, including each of our student-athletes, has the opportunity to take advantage of all that we have to offer, and leaves Berkeley not just with a degree, but with the set of competencies and dispositions necessary for a rewarding, intellectually engaged and meaningful life, fully equipped as well to make the world a better place.”