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Franklin recognized for championing diversity

Departing NCAA inclusion chief is longtime proponent of fairness, equity

After his retirement in November, Bernard Franklin plans to continue to advocate for diversity and inclusion.

Bernard Franklin will close the books on his distinguished time at the NCAA national office in November. What will long persist, however, will be Franklin’s passionate pursuit of equity and fairness.

“While I’m retiring from the NCAA, I’m not retiring from wanting to continue to be a strong advocate around issues of diversity and inclusion,” said Franklin, the NCAA’s executive vice president of education and community engagement and chief inclusion officer.

During 14 years at the NCAA, Franklin has played pivotal roles in important Association developments such as the Accelerating Academic Success Program, the Inclusion Forum and the presidential pledge supporting diversity and gender equity in college sports. He has championed equitable treatment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning student-athletes. He has fought for the rights of international student-athletes and athletes with disabilities.

The NCAA Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee chose Franklin as a Champion of Diversity and Inclusion, a recognition for individuals who worked to create opportunities in college sports for racial and ethnic minorities, to honor his expansive resume of diversity-related work.

“Dr. Franklin was a stalwart with the ability to connect with diverse audiences in order to discuss issues of difference in a compelling, honest and pointed way,” said Nnenna Akotaobi, the committee’s chair and associate director of athletics at Swarthmore. “The legacy Dr. Franklin left will certainly outlast his tenure with the Association, and MOIC will strive every day to build upon the foundation he has built.

“On a personal note,” Akotaobi added, “I will miss Dr. Franklin’s warmth, constant words of wisdom, compassion, and the positive light and energy he brought into every space he occupied.”

Franklin began his career as a teacher and, after he received his doctorate, worked 15 years as a president at four colleges. In October 2003, he moved to the NCAA to serve as senior vice president of governance and membership services under then-President Myles Brand.

At that time, Franklin was the NCAA’s highest-ranking senior staff person of color. While in that position, he was invited to address gatherings around the country about the need for more minorities in college coaching and administrative leadership positions. At one of those sessions, Franklin said, “an epiphany” occurred.

“I came back from that meeting and sat down with President Brand and said, ‘This work is too important for it to be a one-off for anybody at the national office. We need to establish an office of diversity,’” Franklin recalled.

Brand listened. And from there, an NCAA office of diversity was born.

Franklin, meanwhile, continued in his governance leadership role until 2010, when Mark Emmert moved into the NCAA president’s office. Once again, Franklin’s opinion on diversity was sought by the Association’s top leader.

“He asked me, ‘What do you think about the office of diversity?’” Franklin recalled. “I said, ‘It’s a critically important function for the national office. But I would like to change the discourse. I would like us not just to talk about diversity but to talk about inclusion — because you can have diversity, but that doesn’t mean you have an inclusive culture.’”

Emmert offered Franklin a new job: chief inclusion officer. Franklin accepted, wasting no time intensifying the conversation on equity and fairness. As Franklin noted, improving diversity statistics is important, but also essential is ensuring that a diverse workforce consistently enjoys a respectful and welcoming environment.

“I believe the NCAA was probably one of the first national organizations to introduce into the discourse this whole concept of inclusion,” he said.

When Franklin looks back on his NCAA career, he said he takes particular pride in several programs:

  • The presidential pledge. Since September 2016, 839 member schools and 102 conferences have signed the pledge, committing to push for more diversity and gender equity in athletics hiring. “In the last year and a half, I’ve witnessed more discussion about issues around diversity and inclusion than I had probably experienced in the prior four or five years,” Franklin said. “If people are talking about it, it means they’re thinking about it. And if they’re thinking about it, hopefully they’re acting on it.”
  • The NCAA Accelerating Academic Success Program. The program cultivates academic support for student-athletes through grants to member schools. “I’m extraordinarily pleased,” Franklin said, “to see it from its very beginning, starting out as a pilot … and now it has mainstream financial support.”
  • The NCAA Inclusion Forum. This annual gathering of higher education and college athletics leaders and student-athletes stages sessions that delve into research and support for racial and ethnic minorities, women, international student-athletes, LGBTQ student-athletes and athletes with disabilities. “Folks come from all across the country for 2½ days to talk about best practices and policies,” Franklin said. “Hopefully, they’ll find some seed in that discussion and go back to their campus and plant it, nurture it, and it will grow into an object of change.”

Franklin is proud, too, of his many mentoring experiences, dating to his initial years as a college president when he chose a “mentee” from each freshman class and helped that student with a road map for higher education. At the NCAA, his mentoring often took the form of work with young people experiencing challenges related to diversity, gender, sexual orientation or physical disability.

“I felt like I was in a position here at the national office to give a voice to those issues,” said Franklin, who turned 65 in August.

As the Association continues to chisel away at diversity concerns in college athletics, Franklin said attracting more people of color for the pipeline of future high-level coaches and administrators is vastly important. A diverse population of student-athletes needs to see more role models in top positions.

“I’ve talked to student-athletes who’ve come out for our Career Forum, particularly female student-athletes of color,” he said. “I’ve encouraged them about going into the industry. More often than not, I hear, ‘Well, I’ll think about it, but I don’t see anyone who looks like me doing what I want to do.’ If we can create more opportunities, then I think there are generations, past and future, of student-athletes who would relish the opportunity to see themselves doing what they want to be able to do.”