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Harrison to receive Ford Award

Hartford president led academic reform effort

When Walter Harrison has a bad day or can’t sleep at night, he doesn’t count sheep or read a book.

Walter Harrison, University of Hartford

Instead, he calms his mind by picturing the 13,805 student-athletes crossing the stage at graduation who, without the NCAA’s recent academic reform, may not have earned their degrees. Harrison, president at the University of Hartford, spearheaded that effort as the first and only chair of the NCAA’s Division I Committee on Academic Performance.

 “We gave those student-athletes an opportunity, and they took advantage of it,” he said. “Their lives will be forever changed for the better.”

In recognition of his work to improve the academic success of student-athletes, Harrison will receive the NCAA President’s Gerald R. Ford Award at the 2015 NCAA Convention in the Washington, D.C., area.. To hear Harrison tell it, the award really belongs to the scores of people who served on the committee between 2004 and 2014.

“We had athletics directors and athletics administrators and conference commissioners and conference personnel and faculty athletics representatives and provosts and presidents from all over the country, from all kinds of institutions and all kinds of backgrounds, who devoted hours and hours and hours to very painstaking work,” Harrison said. “I’m so grateful for what they’ve done … What I know, I learned from listening to them.”

The Ford award is named in recognition of Gerald Ford, the 38th president of the United States and a member of two national-championship football teams at the University of Michigan. The award honors an individual who has provided significant leadership as an advocate for college sports over the course of his or her career. It was established in 2004 by the late NCAA President Myles Brand and was first awarded to former Notre Dame President Theodore Hesburgh. James Andrews – an internationally known orthopedic surgeon and researcher of knee, shoulder and elbow injuries – was last year’s recipient.

University of Hartford President Walter Harrison led the NCAA Committee on Academic Performance for the entire decade of its existence. A man with an unusual background for a university president, Harrison once was the radio color commentator for Colorado College’s Division I men’s hockey games – a skill he continued to use from 1999-2008 in the booth for the New Britain (Conn.) Rock Cats, a minor league baseball team

In addition to chairing the Committee on Academic Performance for its entire existence, Harrison also serves on the Presidential Advisory Group – a group of presidents who represent conferences without permanent seats on the Division I Board of Directors. Harrison served on the board from 2002-2007, the Executive Committee (now known as the Board of Governors) from 2004 to 2007 and chaired that group from 2005 to 2007.

Before becoming president at Hartford in 1998, Harrison served in administrative positions at Colorado College (where he had sports information duties as part of his job as associate director of college relations) and the University of Michigan, where he earned a master’s degree. Harrison received his bachelor’s degree from Trinity College (Connecticut) and began his career teaching English and American Studies. The former U.S. Air Force captain received his doctorate from the University of California, Davis, and wrote his dissertation about baseball’s influence on American culture.

That love of baseball led to his service on the Baseball Academic Enhancement Working Group, which brought together coaches, athletics administrators, academic personnel and presidents to devise targeted solutions for academic difficulties faced by student-athletes who compete in baseball. Those recommendations, including requiring fall certification for spring eligibility, setting counter and squad-sized limits and requiring individual scholarship packages to include at least 33 percent athletics aid, have worked. Baseball’s single-year Graduation Success Rates increased four percentage points over the past four years, while the sport’s Academic Progress Rate rose eight points since the group completed its work.

Though he is being honored for his work in academics and athletics, University of Hartford President Walter Harrison is also a devotee of the theatre – even taking the stage as Sylvester Frye in a performance of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” His two goals in life reflect his passions – to see every Shakespeare play performed live and see a major league baseball game played in every park. He’s seen every play and has two new parks yet to visit.

Tom Burnett, commissioner of the Southland Conference, served on the Committee on Academic Performance from 2008 to 2011. Burnett, who often spoke on behalf of lower-resourced schools such as those he represents, was impressed with Harrison’s fairness, noting that Harrison showed particular interest in issues facing historically black colleges and universities.

Diane Dickman, NCAA managing director for academic and membership affairs, said the quality and longevity of Harrison’s leadership was critical to the success of the academic reform movement.

“Walt is central, foundational to the success of CAP,” she said. “He listens and seeks to understand all voices in any discussion better than anyone I’ve ever seen. Whether they’re coaches or presidents, high-resourced or low-resourced schools, he genuinely wanted to fully understand everyone’s issues and concerns.”

In fact, Harrison believes the struggles faced by lower-resourced schools will be accentuated within the new governance structure. Though he will not be leading the new Committee on Academics, he hopes the new members – some of whom will carry over from the former Committee on Academic Performance and Division I Academic Cabinet – will continue considering the challenges those schools face.

“I think we’ve done a lot there, but there’s a lot more to do,” he said.

Michael Cross, athletics director at Bradley University, was a Committee on Academic Performance member from 2009 to 2012. Cross noted Harrison’s ability to move between high-level issues and microscopic details and ask insightful questions that led the committee to make the best decisions possible.

In Harrison’s mind, the true leaders of the academic reform effort were the presidents on the Board of Directors in 2001. Those presidents reacted positively to a Knight Commission call for the NCAA to focus on academics, forming a group to study the issue and later build and maintain the Academic Performance Program.

“They set out what I think is the single most important principle of this work – to make data-driven decisions,” Harrison said. “It was easier for the committee because we knew the board had our back.”

Harrison is amazed at what the committee was able to accomplish in a decade. Graduation rates are up 10 percentage points. The overall Academic Progress Rate is 976, up from 948 in 2005, when the first rate was released. While the numbers themselves are impressive, Harrison thinks his committee’s greatest accomplishment was spurring culture change within Division I.

Gerald R. Ford Award-winner Walter Harrison, president at the University of Hartford, often addressed the NCAA Convention on academic issues. Harrison, who played baseball for the freshman team at Trinity College but never made varsity, loves the game and even wrote his doctoral dissertation on baseball’s place in American culture. Called “Out of Play: Baseball Fiction from Pulp to Art,” the piece was the first of a number of scholarly articles on baseball and track and popular articles on different sports topics.

“He was the right leader at the right time – a time that demanded improved academic performance from student-athletes, coaches and administrators,” Cross said. “All of us owe him a debt of gratitude for his service.”

“The collective work over the past decade, I think, has really brought to the forefront the importance and the centrality of academics to the athletic enterprise,” he said. “It’s changed the attitudes of coaches, administrators, commissioners and student-athletes.”