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Penn athletic director embraces new role as Division I Council chair

M. Grace Calhoun brings more than two decades of experience to the vital position

M. Grace Calhoun traces her passion for developing student-athletes back to her first experience in sports administration at Florida, where she attended graduate school. Via a part-time academic support job working with the Gators’ football team, Calhoun realized she had found her calling. “Being able to educate and holistically develop students through sport just felt like I was merging my advocation with my vocation,” says Calhoun, who is now director of athletics and recreation at the University of Pennsylvania, “and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Calhoun has gone on to accumulate 25 years of athletics administration experience and has recently taken on an important new role in Division I: On July 1, she began a two-year term as chair of the Division I Council.

The Council is Division I’s day-to-day decision-making body. She succeeds Blake James, the athletics director at Miami (Florida), and will preside over her first Council meeting in October.

In her new role, Calhoun plans to prioritize issues that directly affect student-athletes’ experiences and development. “I think one of the most pressing areas for us right now is looking at student-athlete well-being,” Calhoun says. “It’s asking, ‘How can we keep our student-athletes safe and healthy, and how do we attend to their mental health?’”

She notes that recent Association-wide legislation and a new mental health toolkit are an important starting point for this ongoing effort. With that foundation, Calhoun and the Council plan to make data-driven decisions to best serve student-athletes. Constantly reassessing how the NCAA addresses student-athlete well-being will be vital, she says.  

Calhoun, who is in her sixth year at the helm of Penn Athletics, is the first chair from a non-autonomy university. She brings an array of experience to the role, having served at all levels of Division I and on a variety of NCAA committees. Before arriving at Penn, Calhoun worked at Loyola Chicago, Indiana, the Patriot League, Dartmouth, St. Francis and Florida. She earned her electrical engineering degree from Brown, where she was a track-and-field student-athlete and graduated magna cum laude. She received her master’s degree in exercise science and a Ph.D. in higher education administration from Florida, as well as her MBA from Lehigh University. 

Calhoun sat on her first NCAA committee in 2001 and has been involved in the governance structure continuously ever since. Prior to her current role as Council chair, Calhoun was chair of the Division I Strategic Vision and Planning Committee. She also chaired other NCAA bodies, including the former Awards, Benefits and Financial Aid Cabinet and the Research Committee, and served on the Division I Committee on Academic Performance, the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports, the Olympic Sports Liaison Committee and the Division I Track and Field Committee.

Calhoun previously spent time on the board of Women Leaders in College Sports. And, in 2019, she was recognized as a National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics Athletic Director of the Year and was named a 2017 Division I FCS Administrator of the Year by Women Leaders in College Sports.

Calhoun oversees Penn’s 33 varsity athletics programs, nearly 40 club programs and intramural and recreational offerings. She cites Penn’s slogan — “Champion Your Life” — as a guiding principle in her new role and wants to ensure that all student-athletes use their college years to set the right trajectory for the rest of their lives. “That’s really why I show up to work every day,” says Calhoun. “I’m looking at what we do locally and coming at it with a lens of how we can do it on a national level.”