Vanderbilt University’s David Williams, no stranger to collegiate sports, is by now a familiar face at the Southeastern Conference athletics directors’ meeting. He attends every event, armed with Commodores gear and the latest National Collegiate Athletic Association gossip.
But Williams’ name tag must be something of a surprise to the non-regulars: What’s a vice chancellor for student life and university affairs doing at a sports convention?
The answer lies within the university’s unconventional athletics structure. Early in the 2003-04 academic year, Vanderbilt announced its decision to dissolve the athletics director position and merge varsity sports and recreational activities into a single department within the division of student life and university affairs.
“We felt that athletics had drifted toward an isolationist view on campus,” Williams says. “You had the university and then college athletics. We saw conflicting messages -- and in our view, athletics is part of the university.”
Said E. Gordon Gee, Vanderbilt's chancellor, at the time of the announcement: "Nothing short of a revolution will stop what has become a crisis of conscience and integrity for colleges and universities in this country.... Institutions of higher learning are in danger of being torn apart by the 'win at all costs' culture we have created for ourselves."
Nearly three years since the restructuring, it seems appropriate to look at what has changed at Vanderbilt. But how do you measure successes or failures in a university’s attempt at athletic reform: in wins and losses? Donation totals? Athletes' academic performance and campus involvement?
Any data would tell part of the story. And the opinions are wide ranging. Some perceive Vanderbilt’s attempt to rein in its athletic wing as a landmark move meant to be a model for other NCAA Division I members. Others see the restructuring as much ado about nothing, a classic case of style over substance.
Myles Brand, president of the NCAA, frames the discussion in less black and white terms. “It’s an exaggerated position that they did away with the athletic department,” Brand says. “It’s a good model in terms of integration, and Gordon [Gee] gets credit for making the change systematically, and all at once.”
Vanderbilt is used to being the exception in the SEC. Eleven of the conference’s 12 members are large public institutions -- Vanderbilt is not. Most of the sports programs are defined by their successes in football -- Vanderbilt is not.
So it was, perhaps, not a tremendous surprise for the university to distinguish itself from the SEC membership in another way. What’s interesting in this case is that the mastermind behind the restructuring worked at universities with some of the biggest and most competitive sports programs in the country. Gee had been president at West Virginia University, the University of Colorado and Ohio State University (though he came to Vanderbilt directly after a short stint as president of Brown University, which competes in the Ivy League).
Williams was vice president for student life and community affairs at Ohio State, where the nation’s largest intercollegiate athletic program reported to him. Gee, by all accounts an avid sports fan, brought Williams with him to Nashville.
In the first few years of Gee’s Vanderbilt tenure, the athletics department looked like other major Division I programs. There was an athletics director, Todd Turner, and an operations staff that reported to him.
With the change, the university created the Office of Student Athletics, Recreation and Wellness, which combines varsity sports, intramurals and community sports programs. Several athletics department positions were eliminated, including the athletics director, and others were consolidated with existing offices in student life.
In the newly created office, an assistant vice chancellor oversees the day-to-day internal operations. Six staff members, called directors of sports operations, report directly to Williams. Each director has jurisdiction over a number of varsity sports, with an even distribution of the "major revenue" sports.
The directors determine scheduling and budgets for their sports, and handle other operational matters. Each also has responsibilities in student life. Williams is one of six vice chancellors at the university. He is expected, like an athletics director, to provide oversight of the sports teams. But he also has a hand in day-to-day student affairs matters.
Michael Schoenfeld, a Vanderbilt spokesman, says that the university has saved money by eliminating what it felt were "duplicate expenditures." For instance, where there used to be facilities management staff in both athletics and student affairs, there is now one unit that oversees operations for all student recreation facilities.
Schoenfeld says fund raising has also changed -- from a focus on raising money for facilities to a campaign to endow scholarships. And he says Vanderbilt has seen increases in annual giving generally in the past two years.
Vanderbilt’s Sports Culture
Just how the university would raise money for athletics teams was one of many questions raised by those who were skeptical of the structural changes.
“When it first happened, everyone was extremely nervous,” says Virginia Shepherd, co-chair of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, a national group of faculty members that monitors sports issues, and a pathology professor at Vanderbilt's medical school. “Concerns ranged anywhere from athletes who were being recruited not knowing what would happen to them, to rumors that athletics was being eliminated and being turned into an intramural program."
Kari Boersma, incoming president of Vanderbilt's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, says her fellow athletes were most concerned about recruiting, but that many weren't worried about the changes at all.
Turner, the former athletics director who now heads the sports program at the University of Washington, says the restructuring at Vanderbilt came as a “total surprise.”
“There was no indication that anything in athletics was broken,” Turner says. “The year I left was the best year in the history of the department. I accepted the changes and didn’t second guess anyone, but I was disappointed in the decision.”
Turner says he was told the changes were driven by the university's desire to cut costs and operate more efficiently.
Schoenfeld, in an e-mail, said that "cost savings were never the principal goal of our restructuring.... As the cost of intercollegiate athletics increases across the country, we are just hoping to slow the rate of growth."
Williams made clear from the beginning that the primary reason behind the changes was to integrate athletics into campus life. As he explained to administrators, professors, coaches and athletes, he believed that Vanderbilt athletes were having a “vastly different experience” than the average student and having to make too many concessions, he felt. They weren’t taking part in other extracurricular activities. They weren’t studying abroad. Many couldn’t do summer internships because their training schedules called for them to take summer school. Coaches often discouraged players from joining fraternities and other clubs, Williams said.
“We had to tell [players], you don’t have to sacrifice your other options,” he says. “We talked to coaches and said, ‘no buts here.’ ” “There’s nothing about the old structure that prohibited some of these changes, but it did tend to get in the way."
Turner disagrees with Williams’ notion that the athletes and the general student body lived on different plains. “They were more integrated at Vanderbilt than at any place I’d been,” Turner said. “I thought our students were doing well in the classroom and engaged in community life.
“Elite student-athletes have a huge time commitment,” Turner adds. “A passion for their enterprise makes it difficult for them to be regular students. Training prevents them for study abroad. It’s the way of life.”
Boersma, who graduated in May and has a year of eligibility left on the women’s soccer team, says players are slowly becoming more integrated. “It’s happening; we have seen more involvement in student government and honor council. We still have a long way to go,” she said.
Williams said he has seen increased integration over the past three years. According to Schoenfeld, there were no athletes in student government and honor council the year before the restructuring, but seven during the last academic year.
The university is offering a class next year on South African history, culture and government, and opening the course up to 16 non-athletes and members of the men’s and women’s tennis team. At the end of the term, students will travel to the country to volunteer and teach tennis clinics. The idea, Williams said, is for the athletes and non-athletes to begin a discussion not only about the course topic but also about their experiences as Vanderbilt students.
Shepherd says the university “still has a way to go” in getting athletes more involved in leadership positions across the university. And “there needs to be a better connection between athletics advising and the academic advising areas on campuses,” she says. “If there’s a physics study session [during an athlete's sports season], they need to know about it, too.”
Turner says progress on integrating athletics with the rest of the university is "hard to measure unless you have benchmarks and financial metrics."
The Road Ahead
Williams knows there will always be skeptics of Vanderbilt's reorganization. “Anytime anything goes wrong or falls through the crack, it’s 'if you would have kept the old structure, this wouldn’t have happened,’ ” he says.
And how does Williams measure success? One indicator: No coaches left during the first year under the new system, and many have signed long-term contracts, he says. Williams added that a number of college officials have privately expressed interest in learning about the university's changes -- though no institutions in the SEC or in Division I have jumped to follow Vanderbilt's lead.
Shepherd says the sheer size of some of the athletics departments at some institutions makes the athletics director position necessary in a way that it may not be at Vanderbilt.
“I don’t think the Vanderbilt model is appropriate for every university,” Shepherd says. “The important lesson here is that those involved in athletics should have more of a say in university governance.”