Change at the Top

The NCAA is putting a full-court press on increasing diversity and inclusion in college athletics

Over the past 50 years or so, collegiate sports have been considered one of the most inclusionary elements of American society. College athletics became universally integrated by race in the 1960s, and in 1972, Title IX mandated equality for girls’ and women’s sports at educational institutions.

Nevertheless, inequities in collegiate sports still persist, mostly in terms of the women’s representation and opportunity for advancement in leadership positions such as coaches and athletic directors.

Dr. Bernard Franklin is working to change that. Since 2003, he has been executive vice president of education and community engagement and the chief inclusion officer for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the governing body of college athletics. He works with the NCAA president, executive vice presidents, and members of the President’s Cabinet to ensure the development of programs, policies, and services that address educational and community engagement. He oversees diversity and inclusion initiatives for both the NCAA membership and its national office staff.

Dr. Franklin’s role is a challenging one. Although college athletics has diversified on the playing field, change at the coaching level and above has been slow, particularly when it comes to gender. For example, when Title IX was enacted in 1972, more than 90 percent of women’s college teams were coached by women. Last year, that number was 40 percent.

The NCAA has been proactive and up-front about confronting and decreasing this gap. It has undertaken a number of studies, launched initiatives, and put together task forces to increase the representation of women and underrepresented minorities in coaching and administration. For instance, an internal review conducted in April 2016 revealed that fewer than 7 percent of the athletic professionals at NCAA member schools in all three divisions were ethnic minority females. In response, the NCAA launched a Gender-Equity Task Force.

The path to change, says Franklin, is through changing the culture at the NCAA, which begins with developing buy-in from the leaders at each of its more than 1,100 member universities—not only in the athletic department, but with school presidents and chancellors.

Diversity Woman: When you joined the NCAA 14 years ago, was it in a diversity and inclusion role?
Dr. Bernard Franklin:
No. I came here to oversee governance of what at that time was called the membership services area. Over the years, my role has changed and evolved. I was part of the formation of our first office of inclusion in the history of the NCAA national office, and was hired as our first vice president in that role. I reported directly to our president at the time, Dr. Myles Brand.

Myles unfortunately passed away and the board appointed a new president, Dr. Mark Emmert. He asked me to do a presentation to him on our issues and challenges in areas related to diversity. 
I saw that as an opportunity. We were focusing on diversity more from the representational perspective. Numbers are important and will always be important because that’s what you can see. However, we weren’t talking enough about the culture of the organization. We weren’t talking about the climate in terms of how do we embrace that diversity, how do we celebrate that diversity? So I said to him, “I would like to change the discourse and focus our attention on inclusion as well as diversity.” He loved the idea and said, “Bernard, I want you to be the new chief inclusion officer.” No good deed goes unpunished in terms of an idea, and that’s really how I came to this particular role. I saw it as an opportunity to make a difference.

DW: How do you change the culture or climate in a large institution like the NCAA?
BF: First of all, you’ve got to assess your current culture. There are instruments you can use to do that. Some of what you are assessing is quantitative and some is qualitative. Sometimes it’s sitting down with various focus groups and asking, what is the workplace culture like for you? In that process you’re going to be able to identify areas where you can improve. Once you identity those particular areas, you need to develop initiatives and strategies to address them. After a period of time, you go back and you reevaluate your culture to see if there has been improvement. In our case, we’ve seen tremendous change in terms of a culture based on the kinds of things that we’ve done here in the national office.

DW: Can the changes be implemented from the national headquarters, or do you need a certain level of buy-in from the member institutions?
BF: If we expect to see a change, we must engage presidents and chancellors because it starts at the top. Our approach has been to focus on getting presidential leadership of our member institutions to support our work and goals. Recently, our board of governors adopted a resolution to focus on improving our cultural diversity and gender equity. We formed an ad hoc committee, and one of the first items they recommended was that our school presidents and chancellors sign off on a pledge to promote cultural diversity and gender equity. Just yesterday we sent out a draft of that pledge to all of our member institutions, all of our athletic directors, and all of our conference commissioners, soliciting feedback before we make the final recommendation to the board of governors.

DW: You are very passionate about diversity and inclusion. Where does your passion come from?
BF: As an African American and an African American male, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to be the “first” in my career. Some of those experiences were wonderful and some were extremely painful. Based on those experiences, I know what it’s like to go into a culture where your colleagues have never worked with someone who looks like you. That has taught me some valuable lessons. It’s [shaped] how I think about institutions and organizations, and how I explore how they can move to more diverse representations. Over the years, we have learned that it’s not just about hiring practice. It’s preparing a culture. I guess that’s where my passion comes from, because all my past experiences could have been wonderful if someone had stopped and said, “You need to prepare the culture.” That just didn’t happen. It was painful.

DW: The NCAA recently launched a Gender-Equity Task Force. What do you expect to achieve? All these years after Title IX, why is it still a struggle to find inclusion and representation for female athletes?
BF: Some 20 to 25 years ago, the NCAA looked at gender equity. That work produced a report and a series of recommendations for action. We resurrected the Gender-Equity Task Force because we wanted to look back and see where we made progress and where we still needed to make progress. Part of the role of the task force has been assessment, looking at the numbers, because the numbers are important. While in many areas we’ve made some progress, there are many areas where we still have to do more and can do more. That’s a fundamental role for this task force. For example, we have identified as a focus area increasing the representation of women in head coaching positions, particularly of women’s teams, because we’ve seen a significant drop in women coaches. We also want to increase the representation of women in leadership roles, such as athletic directors and conference commissioners.

DW: Why has there been a drop in women coaches of women’s sports?
BF: I think, particularly in high-profile women’s basketball programs, what happened is that more men began entering the coaching profession as the salaries got more lucrative. Therefore, there was a larger pool of male applicants, and more and more institutions hired male coaches, and the number of women’s head coaches dropped. We need to change that. DW

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