Presidential Politics

Communicating with upper level administration can be challenging, but it's critical to the ongoing success of your program.

By Dr. Elizabeth A. Alden

Elizabeth “Betsy” A. Alden, Ph.D., is President of Alden & Associates: Collegiate Athletics Consulting and Managing Partner at Alden-Perry Athletics Search She is a former athletics administrator and past president of NACWAA.

Athletic Management, 13.3, April/May 2001,

They’re the ones who ultimately call the shots because they’re the ones who hold the ultimate responsibility, according to the Knight Commission and the NCAA. They will be the ones asked to comment when controversies arise in the athletic department, and they’re often the ones who decide which athletic directors are fired, as well as who gets hired.

“They” are college presidents and other senior level administrators. Our bosses.

Since the Knight Commission report called for greater presidential involvement in college athletics 10 years ago, these administrators have stepped up their role in their athletic departments. And the more recent restructuring of the NCAA placed even more power in the hands of the presidents, who comprise the NCAA’s highest-ranking operating committees. As a result, presidents have been forced to understand a new set of Xs and Os, from NCAA rules and Title IX to coaching contracts and eligibility hearings.

However, it’s not only presidents who’ve had to adjust. More involvement by upper level administrators has added one more stream of communication for athletic directors to manage. No matter what level program you oversee, reporting about the athletic department to an upper level administrator has become a bigger part of your job.

On some campuses, this may mean discussing revenue streams. On others, it may mean discussing how a new athletic team might enhance enrollment figures. But, on all campuses, it’s a process that takes some thought and strategic planning to accomplish in an effective manner.

Who Are These People?
Most senior administrators, particularly presidents and chancellors, come from academic backgrounds. Many have been academic affairs officers and have prior faculty and academic administrator experiences. But many enter the position with little knowledge of intercollegiate athletics, and most have minimal, if any, experience supervising its operation.

To make things even more difficult, job descriptions for senior administrators are usually very general in nature. Here’s one example: “Focusing the University’s mission and resources on relevant and strong programs; promoting student-learner and customized approaches to learning; using technology to expand University programs throughout the state.” It would be rare to have any mention of intercollegiate athletics in a job description for a senior administrator.

To better understand where athletics fits into a senior administrator’s agenda, I looked to the American Council on Education’s recently released The American College President: 2000 Edition, which is a report on institutional leaders in higher education. The findings were as follows: When asked to select four (out of a possible 11) campus duties that consumed the majority of their time, 73 percent of the college and university presidents surveyed selected planning activities, while 61 percent listed fund-raising, 52 percent listed personnel issues, and 50 percent noted budget issues. Only 2.5 percent of the presidents surveyed said that athletic issues consumed a significant amount of their time.

This truth was further reinforced at the Council of Independent Colleges Presidents Institute convention, which I recently attended. Discussions and presentations focused on enrollment planning, fund-raising, financial aid, technology, faculty relations, and other more global topics pertinent to small college presidents. But the topic of intercollegiate athletics was just not on their radar screens. I came away from that convention far more aware of the daily realities facing college and university presidents and chancellors.

Communication Strategies
So, how do you communicate with someone who may not hold your program among the top concerns on his or her priority list? The first step is to examine who you are reporting to. If you’re at a Division I school, you’re probably reporting to the chancellor or president. This reporting line indicates both the importance of intercollegiate athletics at that institution and the chief executive officer’s desire to have firm control and clear lines of communication with the athletic director.

If you’re at a Division II or III school, you’re more likely reporting to a vice president or dean, but this varies greatly. In many cases, the decision on direct reporting has a great deal to do with the institutional culture. For example, at North Dakota State University, an NCAA Division II public land grant institution, the director of athletics reports to the President. At Slippery Rock University, another NCAA Division II public state institution, the director of athletics reports to the Vice President for Student Affairs.

By understanding the purview of your supervisor, you can then come up with strategies for communicating with this person. For example, a chancellor may have only limited amounts of time to meet with you. A VP for Student Affairs may want to hear mostly about issues with student-athletes.

The next step is to establish a regular meeting schedule with your supervisor. Whether weekly, biweekly, or monthly, it is imperative to set a schedule and keep it. When these scheduled meetings do not occur because “something else came up” on the part of your supervisor, insist that another meeting be scheduled within two or three days.

Your insistence that these meetings take place is critical to your effectiveness as an athletic administrator. Being put off for a meeting or allowing a lack of communication to occur tells the supervisor that what you have to say isn’t that important.

Weekly correspondence can also be effective. Even if you meet with this administrator once a week in person, it’s a nice idea to send him or her an e-mail or note once or twice a week highlighting various aspects of the program. This can help shorten your weekly meeting or give him or her time to think through items well before you sit down.

What to Tell Them
Once you’ve implemented a system that makes communication the norm, the next step is discovering exactly what information your CEO or Vice President needs to know regarding your athletics program. Some senior administrators will not want to know the details of your program. These are “30 minute meeting managers” who want to know the “quick and dirty” facts and how you are handling the situation or person. Others will want to know more specifics.

When organizing which topics you plan to cover, start by deciding what information you would want them to learn about from you first. I would suggest that personnel, financial, and compliance issues top the list. Often, it works to think like a risk manager. What is “need to know” and high level information? What is not?

Another way to figure out what information should be communicated is by creating a concentric circle, sharing it with your supervisor, and then discussing what he or she would want to know during your individual meetings. This outlines the issues, allows you to discuss what is a “need to know” item, and streamlines communication. It also keeps you from always wondering what to share in meetings.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that covering departmental problems or concerns is not the only purpose of these meetings. Take some time to let the upper level administrator know that you’re doing a great job. Share your department goals, and let him or her know when you’ve accomplished a goal. Don’t bother them with news about every win that week, but give them news from your world that will make them as proud of the athletic department as you are.

With a good handle on what your supervisor wants and needs to know, also be sure to organize your thoughts before any meeting takes place. When you sit down with your supervisor, present your report in a way that will be easily understood. For example, come up with sections or topics regarding concerns or issues such as personnel, athletic training, facilities, and so forth Or ask how he or she wants the meeting structured. For instance, would it help to e-mail an outline 24 hours before the meeting?

Other Interactions
Along with scheduled communications, there are other interactions that should take place periodically with this person. The first involves his or her presence at athletic events.

Ask your supervisor which games or tournaments he or she will be attending. Don’t ask if they will be attending any—assume they will attend at least one home game for every sport. Share with them how important it is to you and your staff that they attend these events and cheer on the student-athletes. Offer them schedules for each of the athletic teams with the games of greater interest highlighted.

Once a year invite your direct supervisor to tour all the facilities in your program. I strongly recommend that they see any facilities that are of particular concern to you. If there are risk management issues related to a facility, it is crucial that you show them the facility and ask for their assistance in correcting the situation as soon as possible.

Fitting In
As a former director of athletics, I have oftentimes wondered about the place of intercollegiate athletics in the broad scheme of higher education. Day and night, my world was completely focused on coaches, student-athletes, games, and facilities.

Luckily, my tenures often had me reporting to a vice president for student affairs—and this connection provided me with great insight. This senior administrator had the residence halls, campus safety, career services and development, dining services, student health services, and other related offices reporting to him or her. It was always both a reality check and a breath of fresh air for me to sit in Student Affairs directors meetings and hear the issues and problems of other administrators on campus. My world was so small, and understanding that helped me to recognize other issues occurring on campus.

From this I also began to understand the importance of getting to know what my upper level administrator was focused on. My last tip, therefore, is this: Take an interest in the work that your supervisor is doing.

Pay attention to the issues and concerns they are currently dealing with. Understand that your program is a part of the entire picture, and inquire about what is happening in their world. It will help you better understand the reasons for the decisions they make and the attention they give to you and your athletics program.

Most senior administrators understand the importance of intercollegiate athletics given our society's preoccupation with sports. What is critical for athletic administrators to know and understand is the broad picture, as well as communication tools and techniques which will enhance the relationship between the two administrative groups.


Tips from Dr. Comstock
Dr. Joni Comstock, Director of Athletics at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, says she works hard at communicating with the Chancellor at her school. This means including him in her strategic plans, viewing him as an ally, and being involved in his world.

“Sharing information is vital toward good communication with the CEO,” says Comstock. “I see our Chancellor on a regular basis both in group settings as well as individually. I participate in weekly senior cabinet meetings, meet monthly with the Chancellor, and interact with him a great deal at university activities. Part of that time is spent discussing plans for achievement of goals, timelines, and updates regarding progress toward those goals.

“I view all of those contacts as quality opportunities to convey the department’s status, messages, or concerns,” she continues. “I am very fortunate to have an interested, committed, and very visible and accessible Chancellor.”

Some tips from Dr. Comstock include the following:

• Communicate the goals of the department and their importance to the university overall. Also be clear in how the CEO can assist in the achievement of those goals.

• Provide a regular update to keep the CEO apprised of the status of projects.

• Whenever there is an emergency or potential problem, communicate this immediately to the CEO. Inform him or her of your suggested plans for correction, problem solving, or damage control, and for handling any related public relations issues.

• Communicate good news, achievements, and information that can be shared to enhance the image and reputation of the university.

• Always be a builder. Bring to the table your ideas to make the university and department better or solutions to assist with challenges.

• Remember to communicate the value of the department—illustrating ways that intercollegiate athletics enhances the university.

• Convey appreciation for the CEO’s game attendance and support for athletics.

• Keep in mind that as passionately as you feel about the value, role, and need for intercollegiate athletics, the university is first and foremost a place of academic preparation and achievement.