Our student-athletes can excel on two fronts

Chancellor's Corner

Rachael Garner/File

Just more than a year ago, a task force I convened presented several dozen recommendations on how to better integrate Cal varsity athletics into the academic fabric of our campus and how to ensure that our student-athletes are able to take full advantage of the educational opportunities we provide.

These recommendations ran the gamut from organizational changes, such as having our athletic director report directly to the chancellor; to policy adjustments that would bring admissions criteria for athletes more in line with UC standards; to efforts aimed at removing barriers between student-athletes and the rest of the campus, such as having student-athletes and nonathletes increasingly live together in campus housing; to programs intended to better connect athletics staff and coaches to the academic enterprise, including asking them to sit in on classes each semester.

To date, 28 of the task force’s 54 recommendations have been implemented, and well ahead of the projected schedule. And while it would be premature to judge precisely the effects of such shifts in policy, all indicators show that these changes — coupled with the leadership provided by our new athletic director, Mike Williams, and a roster of coaches who truly believe in academic and athletic excellence — are helping our varsity teams succeed in the classroom and compete at the highest levels of their sports.

When Academic Progress Rate figures — NCAA measures that track student-athletes’ progress toward graduation — are released in the spring, we anticipate that our football and basketball teams, which in 2013 were the subject of scrutiny over poor grades and low graduation rates, will notch their best scores in six years. Our football team’s new recruits are already surpassing intentionally strict academic admissions requirements put in place last year by our Academic Senate. This past year, the collective GPA of our men’s basketball team showed the greatest improvement among all Cal sports teams. And it is gratifying to see that today, we have more football players returning to campus to finish their degrees (often after several years in the NFL) than we’ve had in the last decade.

Even as these student-athletes make major strides in the classroom, they remain at the top of their game. Our football team is now 5-1 on the field, and many predict that our men’s basketball team will be one of the most exciting in the nation this coming season.

Progress is not limited to those sports, of course. Sixteen of our 30 varsity sports teams are scoring a team GPA of higher than 3.0 — that’s up from 14 teams last year. Meanwhile, on the field, seven of our nine fall sports are nationally ranked, which is to say that they are acknowledged as among the best in the nation. And we just celebrated national championships for women’s swimming and diving, as well as for rugby.

What this all means, I believe, is this: When student-athletes are part of our campus’s intellectual community — not a segmented group apart from it — they are more invested and perform better in their studies, they feel more welcome and connected to campus, and they more fully reap the benefits of the UC Berkeley undergraduate experience. The data show that we can accomplish this without sacrificing our commitment to excellence on the field of play (indeed, we believe that at UC Berkeley, athletic achievement is significantly enhanced by academic achievement).

There is still work to do in closing gaps between athletics and academics. The more we do so, the more we will be consistent with our mission as one of the finest universities in the world, and the more we will be able to genuinely acknowledge and appreciate what our athletic programs bring to a university. But we should all take pride in the progress we’re seeing. While I think our momentum in this area is, in part, due to our new policies and the hard work of the staff and faculty who are implementing them, I also think our broader campus community deserves credit for its contributions as well.

So let me thank the student-athletes who recognize and prioritize classroom education, even amid the serious demands of their sports. Let me thank the professors who maintain rigorous standards for all of our students while also understanding some of the special circumstances that affect our student-athletes. Let me thank the students who invite varsity athletes to study groups, signaling to those student-athletes that they are academic peers. In short, let me thank the UC Berkeley community for responding in such a positive way to this and other efforts that seek to establish and sustain a campus environment where everyone feels welcome and respected. As much as any touchdown, that calls for an enthusiastic “Go Bears!”

Chancellor’s Corner is a monthly opinion column written by UC Berkeley chancellor Nicholas Dirks.

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  • s randall

    And it is gratifying to see that today, we have more football players returning to campus to finish their degrees (often after several years in the NFL) than we’ve had in the last decade.

    We do have an obligation to take care of these people past the point that they can play for us. Otherwise, we are more like a plantation than an academic institution.

  • BerkeleyDude

    I think that we should recognize this and put our money where our mouth is. Any student who is accepted to Berkeley on an Athletic Scholarship should not lose eligibility of that Scholarship for any reason except a poor academic record. We owe that to the students we accept in recognition of their incredible athletic talent. They are students, not employees. We should view their incredible athletic talent as one of their life experiences and attributes that enhance the campus for everyone.

  • Borracha Linda

    “Student-athlete” is an oxymoron, Mr. Chancellor. You are simply pandering to the whims of a few major donors, while at the same time imposing new budget cuts on academic programs.

    • Sam

      That’s a commom cliché, and a typical misgiving about college athletics which Chancellor Dirks is trying to address here. First, students can and do excel in both arenas, Dirk is right. Many of our best student-athletes, like Russell White, Marshawn Lynch or Kevin Johnson, students who would not have been admitted if it weren’t for their athletic profile, excelled in the classroom and ended up making contributions to their communities as alumni far beyond those of the average Cal alum.

      Secondly, big-time Pacific12 athletics help fund scholarship for female student-athletes and male student-athletes in non-revenue sports. If it weren’t for our football and basketball programs, all those scholarships would have to be cut.

    • Dajo9

      Calling student-athlete an oxymoron is an insult to many fine students who also compete for Cal. That may not be of interest to you, but it is part of the rich tradition at Cal, and is of great interest to many of us. I am a small donor, both to academics and athletics at Cal. Without the donor community there would be even greater cuts to academics. Furthermore, athletic revenue (primarily from football and basketball) helps to pay for total University overhead costs, without which there would be even more cuts to academics. You may have a cultural issue with athletics in a university setting, but I believe you are in the minority and you are also wrong on the substance. Many thanks to the Chancellor and all those involved in helping to resolve the issue of academics within the athletic community. Go Bears!

    • J Flores

      This comment illustrates the poor relationship between the university and its donor base. Some people just don’t “get it”. I’m glad to see that Dirks is finally taking a different approach.

    • FiatSlug

      If you want to critique the budget cuts and restraints on academic programs, why isn’t your focus on Sacramento? The legislature has consistently reduced budget outlays (as a percentage of total support) to the UC and CSU systems since 1980. That’s criminal behavior when both systems are supposedly public.

      If academic program didn’t have to go begging for funds, I’d bet you wouldn’t worry so much about where athletics was getting theirs.

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