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DI grapples with building knowledgeable, prepared committees

As the division takes a close look at its governance structure, it also must consider who gets a seat at the table

By Liz Beadle

Like many aspects of Division I governance, the size and composition of committees, boards, advisory groups, cabinets and task forces may be at a crossroads in the near future.

The Division I membership is committed to ensuring that the conversations happening at these levels of governance are productive and fruitful. However, opinions differ from faculty athletics representative to commissioner or from president to athletics director on how exactly to make these meetings as beneficial as they can possibly be.

“What I like about my committee meetings is when you walk in and it’s clear that everyone is participating, prepared and informed,” said Greg Sankey, chief operating officer of the Southeastern Conference. “And what I don’t like is when the exact opposite happens.”

Sankey was 31 years old and a new conference commissioner when he was named to the Division I Transition Council. “I was told I needed to get informed fast and be prepared to be engaged nationally; I’m not sure that charge is communicated to everyone,” Sankey explained.

Sankey’s sentiment seems to echo throughout the division. The question has become: What measures might ensure that the right people are always in the room?

Dr. Greg Dell’Omo, president of Robert Morris University and a member of the Division I Presidential Advisory Group, also believes different committee members bring varying levels of interest and knowledge to the job. “I’ve definitely seen people who don’t want to be there, so then they don’t give in-depth analysis,” Dell’Omo said. “There needs to be a level of seriousness expected.”

Carolyn Callahan, the faculty athletics representative at the University of Virginia and a member of the Division I Academic Cabinet, also worries that many don’t take the appointments seriously, and some even use them to pad their resumes.

“There are people who come and never say anything; they only vote. It makes you wonder why they’ve even come,” Callahan said.

Why this lack of participation is happening, no one is quite sure. It could be the lack of expectations set forth concerning committee membership, it could be the number of people in the room, it could be the role of these people within their institutions, it could be the lack of change-power some people in these meetings have, or it could be that self-interests can outweigh broader interests, making discussion seem futile.

Callahan thinks generating good discussion has a lot to do with having a small group. “The quality of the discussion is relative to the number of people in the room,” Callahan said. “If you have 15 people in the room, everyone thinks it’s their responsibly to contribute. You put 30 people in there, and no one’s engaged.”

Meanwhile, Dell’Omo believes various perspectives help the process. . “The more diversity of views and consequences, the better. There needs to be a process of course, but more people is always better,” Dell’Omo said. “The ‘too many people in the room’ argument is a smokescreen.”

Sankey, on the other hand, thinks that whether the group is large or small, just controlling the number is not enough. “It’s hard sometimes to have a valuable conversation in a large ballroom, but sometimes that’s completely necessary,” Sankey said.

Another point under consideration is what roles within an athletic department are most important to include in the governance structure.

Callahan said she feels that it is more important to represent each role (such as Senior Woman Administrator, Faculty Athletic Representative, compliance officer, etc.) equally than it is to represent every single conference. “My preference is that representation is based more on roles,” Callahan said. “I think this is going to be a really big issue in the new governance model.”

Dell’Omo, as a university president, feels that athletic directors especially need a stronger voice in the new model. “We all have good AD’s and they’re accountable to us,” Dell’Omo said. “Their careers are at stake; this is their profession.”

Sankey feels that mandating who should be on committees based on any set criteria such as role is not the way to go about ensuring people are engaged. Rather, he says that “it seems prudent to draft some expectations that provide requirements that representatives come prepared, engaged, and informed to their meetings.”

Sankey also mentioned that it’s not necessarily about what title people have, but rather that committee representatives “have roles that cause them to be involved in important decision-making on a regular basis.”

Dell’Omo worries that if people are forced out of the room for not having enough change power, conferences like his—The Northeast Conference—will be the first ones on the other side of the door.

“I know a lot of people in the bigger conferences feel threatened by more representation, but I don’t see why they would be—it makes for better decisions,” Dell’Omo said. “We need to have a voice at the table, even if we don’t get our way.”

Callahan, Sankey, and Dell’Omo all feel that most people come to their committee meetings with the student-athletes’ interests in mind and with a respect for the needs of the whole Association.

“The greatest relief for me is that despite any issues we face,” Callahan said, “my perception is that the vast majority of people are truly looking out for the student-athlete.”