Last May, I held the year’s final fireside chat in University House, this one attended by about 60 students. About a dozen of these students were student-athletes: men and women from a number of different sports. As I introduced some of the thinking behind my initiative to examine and enhance the undergraduate student experience at UC Berkeley, I heard a lot about the desire to create a more powerful set of connections and a more palpable sense of community across campus. Some students gave a strong endorsement of a new program, Berkeley Connect, which uses graduate students as mentors across a range of departments, offering small seminars introducing students to majors while facilitating interactions with faculty and fellow students alike. Other students proposed new ideas for expanding the connections among undergraduate students to the intellectual life of the campus, through programs in residence halls, other extracurricular activities and more creative thinking about the different stages of college life.
Significantly, however, one of the major themes of the evening’s discussion was the passionate desire everyone expressed to have more opportunities to interact with one another. One student said he felt overawed by some of the student-athletes, though he noted he wanted to get to know them better. This observation was echoed by many others, including some student-athletes, who made it clear they would welcome being more and better connected to students across campus.
As most of you know, the Task Force on Academics and Athletics that I commissioned last December came out with its report last week, after nine months of intense collective work. The initial reason I convened the committee had to do with the release of statistics showing low graduation rates in some of our athletic programs. Although the statistics reflected the experience of students who enrolled at UC Berkeley between 2003 and 2007, they came out just months after my arrival on campus, and I was dismayed.
I have repeatedly stated my full commitment to the central role of a strong and dynamic intercollegiate athletics program at UC Berkeley. When I arrived here in the spring of 2013, I quickly learned about the extraordinary traditions in athletics, the overall excellence of our program and the fact that we are a perennial powerhouse in Olympic sports. And my new colleagues assured me there was a broadly shared belief that the vast majority of our student-athletes were students first — athletes who came to UC Berkeley not just because of our great athletics programs but because of the extraordinary education they could receive here.
In fact, our new football coach, Sonny Dykes, had been hired by my predecessor with an explicit commitment to restore the academic performance of the team and had already begun to do so. At the same time, however, a national conversation about the role of intercollegiate athletics began to raise serious questions about how well universities in general serve student-athletes in terms of their education. There were also continuing concerns at UC Berkeley. We know that the ambitious goals we have for the academic achievement of all of our students can exist in tension with the high aspirations of our sports teams for success. When I convened the task force, I asked its members to be as ambitious as possible in order to help us better understand the issues here at UC Berkeley in terms of where we might be failing our student-athletes and all we might do to guarantee that every student receives the full benefit of a UC Berkeley education and degree.
When I read the task force’s report last week in its entirety, it brought back vivid memories of the conversations we had at the fireside chat. Nearly every one of its recommendations resonated with what we heard last May — above all in the focus on the importance of integrating student-athletes more tightly into the fabric of our community, through more-integrated residence hall assignments, a shared orientation for all new students, the inclusion of student-athletes in the revised advising program of the College of Letters and Science and a consistent set of academic expectations. In the future, we will treat student-athletes, from the admissions process on, in the exact same manner as we do dancers, artists, musicians and other individuals with special talents who both enliven our community and exemplify UC Berkeley’s commitment to nourishing the widest possible range of human achievement.
As we continue to work to create the best possible conditions for each member of our community to thrive, we are mindful that we are a human community bound together not just by individual talent and achievement but by something greater than the sum of these parts. We sometimes represent this idea through reference to the school spirit that is generated by athletics, even as we know that idea must ultimately be in the service of a broader commitment to not just the public good but to the idea of the university. To make all of this real, we rely on shared ideals and values. We should, in other words, work to create the kind of community the students at the fireside chat so clearly desired. We acknowledge, celebrate and support our differences — but we do so by working together. In the months ahead, I look forward to more conversations with you as we debate how to move forward in this and so many other arenas of campus life.
Chancellor’s Corner is a monthly opinion piece by UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.