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DI leaders consider the difference reorganization has made

The 2019 NCAA Convention marks the fifth since Division I restructured to give more autonomy to five conferences and make the governance structure more efficient.

According to Division I leaders — both today’s and those who worked on the reorganization — the changes have been productive for the division, though several acknowledge they aren’t perfect. The most successful accomplishment, according to some, was keeping under one umbrella a group of diverse schools with varied goals, missions and budgets for athletics.

For many involved in the restructuring, it came down to shared values.

“Before the reform, I think we were heading toward a breaking point, where the needs of the more affluent conferences to better share the wealth with student-athletes were becoming divergent from the majority of Division I members that had no extra money and were subsidizing athletics with other funds,” says South Carolina President Harris Pastides, who chaired the Division I Board of Directors during the restructuring.

Before the new governance structure, the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences were unsure the NCAA was still the right fit for them.

“We came up with a governance model that allowed — and I think this is critical — the 65 schools in those five conferences to remain part of Division I,” Pastides says. “We did so because of our common values. Whether you’re a university that plays football on a major network on Saturday or at a school that rarely plays on television, our values are exactly the same.”

Eric Kaler, current chair of the Board of Directors and president of the University of Minnesota, agrees the flexibility of the new governance model helps all Division I schools fit under the same umbrella. “The creation of the autonomy group and process has allowed those schools to advance elements that apply to them without having to create a one-size-fits-all answer,” Kaler says.

Jim Phillips, athletics director at Northwestern, was the first chair of the Division I Council, one of the new governance bodies created in the restructuring. He agrees that shared values have played a major role in the success of the structure.

“I’m really proud of what I’ve witnessed. It’s still not perfect, but it is truly now a collaboration across 32 conferences, 351 schools in a way we hadn’t seen before,” Phillips says.

One important piece of the restructuring was giving student-athletes a permanent seat — and a vote — on the board and Council, as well as the Division I Committee on Academics and every standing committee that reports to the Council.

“It’s so obvious and evident that the students are closer to the action of what we are trying to do,” Pastides says. “And yet we come here and debate these things all the time but didn’t have the student-athlete voice at the table.”

Noah Knight, current chair of the national Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and member of the Division I Board of Directors, believes the role of student-athletes in the governance structure has been key to its success.

“The value of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and the student-athlete voice continues to grow and increase in clout throughout the governance structure, benefiting the entire Association, internally and externally,” Knight says.

One goal of restructuring was to provide opportunities for a diverse group of people to serve on committees. Keeping that commitment to diversity has proved challenging at times — and resulted in the creation of a nominating committee that reviews committee openings and keeps an eye on the overall picture. But to many, that diversity and commitment to getting the right people on the right committees are among the greatest strengths of the new structure.

“The intention to have all of the constituencies of the membership represented has made NCAA decisions more effective,” Knight says, pointing out the care taken to include student-athletes, faculty athletics representatives and coaches, as well as representatives from limited-resource institutions and schools from autonomy conferences.

Current Council chair Blake James, athletics director at Miami (Florida), says athletics directors are more involved in governance under the new structure. “We have taken an approach of getting as many subject-matter experts involved as possible,” James says, “and we’ve benefited from that.”

Pastides, who has announced he will retire this year, cautioned Division I leaders to pay attention to changing dynamics in the division.

“We need to continue to examine how well we’re doing,” he says. “We need to continue to see if we can be guided by our values and principles, and hopefully we can be as flexible and nimble in adapting to the changing societal forces we read about every day.”

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.