New athletics director: Sports are the ‘front porch’ of UC Berkeley

In his first three months as athletic director, Jim Knowlton has met with all 30 sports teams, 15 athletic business units and some 650 alumni. Video by Roxanne Makasdjian, UC Berkeley.

How can UC Berkeley balance athletic and academic excellence while building a sustainable sports program that feels like it is an integral part of the Berkeley campus?

That’s the kind of question that keeps new Athletic Director Jim Knowlton coming to work each morning. Knowlton took over as UC Berkeley’s athletic director just three months ago, and on Thursday he spent an hour talking with members of the campus community about his experience and vision.

The wide-ranging question-and-answer talk was part of Berkeley’s Campus Conversations program, where key administrators take questions from students, staff and faculty. Speakers last semester included Chancellor Carol Christ and Chief Financial Officer Rosemarie Rae.

“I have just hit my three-month mark here, and I don’t think my feet have touched the ground yet,” Knowlton said, adding that already he has met with all 30 sports team, 15 athletics business units and some 650 alumni. “Really, my job is to make (athletics) more integrated into the campus.”

More Campus Conversations

Watch earlier talks with other campus leaders

The key, Knowlton said, is using sports programs like football, basketball, beach volleyball or gymnastics to “build affinity and really build community.” He later described athletics as the “front porch of the university.”

“How do we use a football game to be more than a football game and to use it to be a platform for our university to celebrate what makes it exceptional,” he said. “I’ve been talking to faculty, I’ve been talking to deans, asking ‘How do we celebrate what’s going on in your areas at halftime, or at the 30-yard line between quarters?’”

Knowlton, who was previously athletic director at the U.S. Air Force Academy, said he has developed a list of potential improvements that will become part of a strategic planning process for his department.

“Until we do have vision statement and a strategic plan, everyone is going to have an opinion about what success looks like in athletics,” he said. “We have 450,000 alums and we have 450,000 different ideas of what success looks like.”

Knowlton went on to take questions from faculty, staff and student on a variety of topics, including his department’s budget deficit, gender equity, the football schedule and why he left a military school for a job at a place like UC Berkeley.

Jim Knowlton in front of a blue UC Berkeley screen

Knowlton’s talk is the first of five scheduled this semester. (UC Berkeley photo by Hulda Nelson)

Asked why UC Berkeley, which has a $30 million to $40 million budget deficit, should contribute $20 million a year to the athletic program budget, Knowlton was unequivocal.

“We provide a world-class development experience for student athletes,” he said, noting that major athletic competitions also give UC Berkeley a chance to celebrate its brand on national television.

“There’s 1,500 universities in the country that have athletics, and at last count I think there are 14 of them that don’t have institutional (financial) support and they don’t look like us; we don’t want to be like them either, we’re very different from what they are,” he said. “I think the investment in us is maybe more than I would like — we have some great opportunities to generate more revenue, to be more philanthropic, and those are things that we are going to work hard on — but there is an investment to provide this world-class opportunity.”

Jillian M’Barki, a who works in fundraising for the College of Letters and Science, said she appreciated hearing from Knowlton. Athletics often come up when she speaks with donors, and M’Barki said she planned to relay much of what Knowlton said about his vision.

“He did a great job of explaining his process – he’s extremely transparent – and explaining his depth of knowledge,” she said.

The next Campus Conversation with Cathy Koshland, vice chancellor for undergraduate education, and Fiona Doyle, vice provost for graduate studies and dean for graduate division, will take place on September 25.

Contact Will Kane at willkane@berkeley.edu