‘Game on’ for push to boost athletes’ academic performance

What Chancellor Nicholas Dirks called the campus’s “shared responsibility” for ensuring the academic success of Berkeley’s student-athletes began taking shape Tuesday, as members of the Task Force on Academics and Athletics — a cross-section of faculty, alumni, coaching staff, former student-athletes and current students — gathered for the first time around a conference-room table in California Hall.

Announced by Athletic Director Sandy Barbour in the wake of reports that graduation rates for Cal football and basketball players were far below nationwide averages, the panel is charged with exploring such questions as campus policies and practices; the role of coaches, administrators and faculty; and issues related to academic expectations and the student-athlete experience on the Berkeley campus. Dirks has asked for a report by June 2014.

Dirks noted that the alarming graduation rates for the two Cal teams reported recently by the NCAA — based on freshmen admitted to Berkeley from 2003 to 2006 — were “lagging statistics,” and cited sharp improvements for more recent student-athletes. Nonetheless, echoing Barbour and others in the campus community, he called the numbers “simply unacceptable,” and urged the task force to to look at “the resources we put toward supporting the academic experience of our athletes,” “the culture of athletics” at Berkeley and other factors that may not yet have been identified.

“Ultimately, it’s going to be a universitywide enterprise,” Dirks said, ” to see if we can come up with a record that actually matches our rhetoric, a rhetoric in which we talk about the student-athlete experience as being complementary to, and not in opposition to, the goals, values and ethos of our great university.”

Barbour, who also spoke to the group before leaving them to their deliberations, made a passionate plea for finding the “institutional will” to help Cal athletes get the most academically out of their time at the nation’s No. 1 public university.

“I want to be better. I want us to live up to what we owe these students,” Barbour said.

“The answers,” she added, “are all in partnership. They are about our faculty, they are about our administration, they are about the folks in the trenches.”

The task force is chaired by Meg Conkey, an emerita professor of anthropology and chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee to the Athletic Study Center.