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Division I Council makes fast start in tackling important issues

First quarter finds a flurry of activity

The Division I Council was handed a heavy task when it was formed: Reform the NCAA’s most visible division. But in its first 100 days, the Council’s achievements have grabbed the attention of college sports leaders, who view them as nothing short of impressive.

Already, the Council has:

  • Created the council substructure of seven standing committees designed to support student-athletes and improve their experiences in college sports;
  • Populated those committees with skilled, experienced people who provide vital perspectives in each area; and
  • Created smaller working groups in the following areas: transfers, legal issues, the future of the committee nomination and selection process, the voice of faculty athletics representatives in the council structure,  and policies and procedures development.

After Division I spent 18 months creating the foundation for the new structure, the Council filled in the blanks in just three months. The group built the structure that will do the complex, research-driven work of Division I and chose the people to serve in the structure through a new method that required intense scrutiny of candidates, their backgrounds and experiences.

University of South Carolina, Columbia, President Harris Pastides, chair of the Division I Board of Directors and part of the team that created the Council, believes the group is skillfully carrying out the mission it was given during the recent governance restructuring. He praised the work done so far and the leadership of Council chair Jim Phillips, vice president for athletics and recreation at Northwestern University.

“Through governance reform, we formed the Council to take on the strategic issues the Board believes need more work. Jim has been very humble and says that he knows they report to us, but we look at it more as a partnership,” Pastides said. “We have (the Council’s) respect; (they) have our respect. The work they have accomplished thus far has been nothing short of phenomenal.”

Since it convened for the first time during January’s NCAA Convention in Washington, D.C., followed by a more substantive meeting three weeks later in Indianapolis, the Council clearly has operated in the manner Pastides and the other presidents envisioned.

In its early days, the Council has dealt with issues in a nimble and streamlined way while being responsive to the membership, coordinating with the autonomy structure and incorporating the voice of practitioners while still maintaining presidential oversight through the Board of Directors.

A lot of that work has been due to the Council Coordination Committee, a group of Council members representing each subdivision within Division I who meet weekly via teleconference to discuss issues. The coordination committee dissects issues and considers membership feedback on a more immediate basis. The group brings recommendations to the full Council in between meetings, allowing the Council to work efficiently and responsively.

The full Council has practitioner representatives from each Division I conference, and the group understands that it reports to the Division I Board of Directors, the majority of which is composed of presidents.

It’s the type of functionality the new governance structure outlined for the group.

“It’s been a tremendously successful and productive first 100 days,” Phillips said. “And that is because of the group. We have practitioners, student-athletes, faculty and commissioners. People have gone about the work in a collaborative way, knowing that we have differences across the membership but understanding we’re working for the good of college athletics. This Council represents 175,000 student-athletes at 354 schools. Every voice is important.”

The Council moved aggressively from its first meeting, creating small groups to work on specific issues and bring recommendations back to the full Council for a vote. It has found success in that model, with working groups tackling topics such as legal and transfer issues.

The Council Coordination Committee, led by Phillips with support from members representing every subdivision within Division I, has facilitated much of the ability to move forward by conducting weekly conference calls to handle business between full Council meetings. The coordination committee then provides summaries of those weekly discussions to the conferences.

The group has made strides more quickly and purposefully than many in and outside the media thought possible – including some Council members actually tasked with doing the work.

Keith Gill, athletics director at the University of Richmond and vice chair of the Council, said he was surprised at how much has been accomplished so quickly.

“I’ve been impressed with the work of the Council. We’ve tackled a lot of big issues (such as creating a new governance structure and figuring out how to populate it) and done a lot of heavy lifting in a short period of time,” Gill said. “We’ve put the new substructure on a great course to be successful. Jim has done a phenomenal job making sure all voices have been heard and options have been considered. He makes sure we make good decisions that move the Association forward in a meaningful direction.”

There have been bumps in the road. Phillips acknowledged that some NCAA members were unhappy when the Council decided not to reserve a spot for every conference when populating the standing committees that report to it. The small number of faculty also was noticed.

Admitting his unease over the issue, Phillips brought those concerns to the Board of Directors in late April, explaining that while the nomination process was competency-based, the selection process was based on the needs of each committee.

The Board members agreed with the Council and decided the committee selections would stand, which meant Division I would not return to a representative form of governance in which spots are guaranteed. The new structure also had strong diversity from a gender and ethnicity standpoint – a mix that came together before the group needed to consider it.

“This is a new structure, and I think this is a new way of doing business,” Phillips said. “The Council has representation across all 32 conferences. Everything comes back through the Council; whatever is discussed in the committees will be voted on at the Council. Everyone will have a vote.”

As the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee makes its appointments to the committees, Phillips said he has found the role of student-athletes to be both remarkable and significant. Dustin Page from Northern Illinois University and Devon Tabata from Duquesne University, each of whom  recently completed college soccer careers, both serve on the Council. Kendall Spencer, who competed in track at the University of New Mexico, serves on the Board. Each committee will have representation appointed by the SAAC. Additionally, many of the sport-focused committees will have additional student-athletes to give their voice.

“This is a new day for the voice of the student-athlete,” Phillips said. “It’s strong, it’s vocal and it has great significance in our structure. I’m really proud of where we’ve gotten to.”

Now that the structure is established, Phillips wants the Council to keep progressing in its work for the division. He identified playing and practice season issues, early enrollees and issues surrounding cost of attendance as just a few of the topics the group will tackle, in addition to the work already underway on legal matters and transfers.

“We will come together to address the issues within college athletics that are really important,” Phillips said. “We need to make sure we continue to look for ways to improve.”