Q&A with Susan Bassett

William Smith College

By Staff

Athletic Management, 16.3, April/May 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1603/qabassett.htm

Susan Bassett, Director of Athletics at William Smith College, spent the past year on a very hot seat. As Chair of the NCAA Division III Management Council, she oversaw a reform package that generated plenty of controversy, both nationwide and on her own campus.

The hottest proposal was one that initially would have disallowed Division III schools to sponsor any Division I teams. This would have affected Hobart College, an all-male school that shares a faculty, classroom, and campus with all-female William Smith—and sponsors a Division I men’s lacrosse team. The legislation was later changed to only disallow these multi-division schools from offering athletic scholarships, which Hobart does not. Ultimately, however, this proposal was defeated.

Several other measures—that did pass—will have a greater day-to-day impact on Division III institutions. These include allowing red-shirt seasons only for medical and hardship reasons, reducing playing seasons, limiting the length of nontraditional seasons, setting up a financial aid reporting structure, and allowing student-athletes to self-release—to more easily talk to coaches at other institutions about transferring.

Bassett, whose term on the Management Council ended with the 2004 convention, has spent her entire career in Division III. She was Head Swimming Coach and Assistant Field Hockey and Lacrosse Coach at William Smith before moving to Union College, where she was Head Coach of the men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams. She returned to William Smith as Director of Athletics in 1995, and has seen her teams win two NCAA titles and dozens of conference championships.

AM: What was the process for constructing the reform package that went up for vote?

Bassett: It was a more than two-year process that was membership driven through the outreach we did, such as the dialog we had with conferences. We also conducted a membership survey with subsequent focus groups. From there we tried to synthesize the information we heard from the membership and come up with legislation in key areas.

In very few areas of our surveys were there large numbers of people saying they felt the same way. In most areas, about 60 percent of respondents supported making modest change. So we wanted to come out with something that touched each of the important areas of our governance, but was modest enough that it wouldn’t make any one group feel like Division III athletics just couldn’t accommodate their needs.

Personally, I didn’t support all the proposals. But I stand by the process completely, and I feel very good about the work we did as a council. Because Division III is so large—we could have up to 450 institutions in the next few years—I had concerns that we could never reach a consensus on anything. But in the end I was heartened by how much of the reform package passed.

Was it difficult being the Management Council Chair and not agreeing personally with all the proposals?

Yes, but I had been on the Management Council for three years and Vice-Chair for a year. I understood my role was to cultivate the conversation and to make sure that we considered all the issues and brought back to the membership the best possible ideas. I enjoyed that challenge, and I loved having the chance to work with colleagues from across the country and to develop strategies to engage the membership.

Everything does not always go your way, and I can live with the fact that some of my colleagues don’t agree with what might be a more liberal approach. I don’t think there’s any one right way to run an athletics program.

The hardest thing for me through all this was the multi-division status question. There I was, the William Smith Director of Athletics, with the potential of overseeing the process that could eliminate Hobart College’s opportunity of playing Division I lacrosse. And that was not a very comfortable place to be.

Plus, I’m in a conference [the Upstate College Athletic Association] with five of the 13 multi-division schools and three of the eight who offer scholarships. I happened to be in a very difficult position on both my campus and with my colleagues in the conference. I just had to hope that people understood that the agenda coming forward wasn’t the Susan Bassett agenda, it was the membership-driven future-of-Division-III reform agenda.

How did you go about smoothing those relationships and dealing with the issues that came up on such a personal level?

With the situation at Hobart and William Smith, as soon as I was aware that there was a potential proposal on eliminating multi-division status, I communicated that to Mike Hanna, the Director of Hobart Athletics, and we met with our President, Mark Gearan, just to let him know that this was a possibility. And they understood the position I was in. Within the conference, I tried to do the same.

What are the lingering issues in Division III after the reform package?

I think there is a concern about the culture surrounding athletics, and I think you’re going to see the Council looking to address that more. Whether it is perceived or real, some people see a negative anti-intellectual culture around intercollegiate athletics. I think we’re going to get at things over the next few years that are less legislatively oriented and more philosophical and cultural.

I know some of our colleagues have concerns about the lack of restriction with recruiting—that you can almost do anything since there’s no dead periods in Division III. So I wouldn’t be surprised at legislation that is a little more specific in the recruiting area.

Do you think your experience as Management Council Chair will help you be a better athletic director?

I certainly have learned to delegate better, to have more confidence in a staff to get things done. So I think it’s going to give me a chance to now do bigger picture items on my own campus—more fund-raising and strategic planning.

I also had a great opportunity to meet colleagues from all across the country and hear about their programs and their approaches. A lot of our meetings were like mini-clinics because you had time to be with small groups of directors of athletics and hear about their approach. I also really enjoyed the opportunity to work with Division I and II colleagues and to understand what their challenges are as well as the differences and similarities between the levels. I’m very impressed with my colleagues—how hard they work and the responsibility and good intentions they brought to this work.

What would you say to other athletic directors who might be wary of the time commitment involved with something like the Management Council?

I wouldn’t have traded the opportunity for anything. I am so enriched by having had the chance to do it. You learn so much and have such a wonderful opportunity to meet people that the time pressure and additional work is well worth it.

William Smith fields many national-caliber teams. How do you maintain that level of success year after year?

It’s become much harder as many of our colleagues have increased their attention on women’s athletics over the last decade. We simply view each team each year as a new group with their own set of goals and expectations. We try not to say last year’s team won the conference championship or an ECAC championship or a national championship.

Will we win another national championship? I’m not worried about that. What we want to do is make sure our student-athletes are reaching their potential, that we compete well, and that they represent the institution well.

It wasn’t that long ago that you were a member of the coaching staff at William Smith. Was it a difficult transition to come back and supervise people who had been coaching colleagues before?

Yes it was, so I tried to be very respectful of the seniority of some of our coaches. Before I got involved with the process I called Pat Genovese [Lacrosse Coach and Assistant Athletic Director at William Smith]. I was her assistant field hockey and lacrosse coach and the new kid on the block when she was already a fairly senior member of the department. I told her I was interested in the position, but if it was something she wouldn’t support or be comfortable with, I wouldn’t even apply.

How does the coordinate relationship between Hobart and William Smith affect the Title IX process there?

Hobart and William Smith is still viewed as one institution by both the NCAA and the Middle States Accreditation Board. So we have to comply with Title IX and meet all the guidelines. However, because of who we are as an institution and because of our commitment to leadership opportunities for women, it’s part of our institutional fabric to be committed to achieving gender equity. So we take those discussions seriously.

Is it difficult when there is a difference in approach between the Hobart and William Smith athletic departments?

I think the beauty of the coordinate system is that we share so much and work so closely together in facilities and programming, but yet we are separate and we can create our own priorities and our own approach. When Hobart lacrosse elevated to Division I, the William Smith department was offered the opportunity to elevate a sport. But our coaches like the idea of competing on the national level in Division III, and I think they’ve been able to do that. That opportunity is still there for us if I ever feel that would be the right direction for one of our programs.

You recently added women’s golf. Why golf, and what was involved in adding it?

Golf was easy, actually. We were having some gender-equity discussions and there was talk at one point that maybe Hobart should drop golf. I’m not in favor of dropping sports. I don’t think it’s good for the institution. Hobart has dropped enough sports over the years and it’s been painful for everybody. So I said "Let’s not drop Hobart golf. Let’s support that better, add women’s golf at William Smith, and have two great programs."

I was pleased to find that there are more than 120 Division III women’s golf programs and a number in our neighborhood that we could compete with. We’re playing at the same golf club that Hobart plays at, so it’s very convenient, and it was easy and relatively inexpensive to add.

You have a varsity team in sailing that does not have NCAA championship competition. How does working with that team differ from working with the others?

It’s entirely different. College sailing is very organized and has its own governing body, the Intercollegiate Sailing Association. We’re very fortunate because our sailing coach, Scott Ilké, is the most outstanding professional we could ever hope to have, and he wants to make the sailing experience like any other intercollegiate sport. But the thing that makes me uncomfortable is that they compete in four or five different regattas during any one weekend and we have only two coaches working with the program. So obviously we have students traveling on their own. That is not our policy in any other sports, but it's the norm in collegiate sailing.

When we were looking into elevating sailing to a varsity sport, I asked colleagues at similar schools ‘How do you do it?’ And they said, ‘It’s a whole other world, You have to put safety procedures in place with really careful policies about travel.’ So that’s what we did.

Do you miss coaching?

It was hard my first few years away from it, but not so much any more. I love what I’m doing now. I love working with all the sports and trying to create a culture around our programs that’s really healthy and positive.

I think it’s very important as director of athletics to be visible, and I go to as many contests as I can. I also try to get to know the student-athletes off the field. We have a group of peer facilitators, who work with all our teams, that I meet with monthly to talk about issues. I also get together with our student-athlete advisory council regularly. I do the best I can to know all the student-athletes’ names. That’s been a little hard over the last two years, but it’s important to me to make the effort.

It’s been about a year since the Title IX Commission held its hearings. What do you think about the Commission and the findings that came out in the past year?

Obviously I’m relieved with what they came out with. The Commission was one of the most frightening things I’ve seen in my career. It was an attack on what I think is such a core value to intercollegiate athletics—gender equity. I am so proud of my colleagues from the Women’s Sports Foundation, the National Association of Women’s Collegiate Athletic Administrators, the NCAA, and the National Association of Women and Girls in Sport. There was such a strong coalition built and a grassroots organized approach to combating this challenge to Title IX that it was effective and successful.