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Commissioner’s Corner: Jennifer Heppel – Patriot League

By Jennifer Heppel, Patriot League

Boasting the highest retention rate of all NCAA Division I conferences, the institutions of the Patriot League recruit Student-Athletes that embrace the challenge of managing athletics in a highly academic environment. Led by Jennifer Heppel, the League consistently makes an effort to make its presence felt nationally while refusing to veer too far from its core values. Heppel took some time out of her schedule to contribute to this edition of ADU’s Commissioner’s Corner.


1. The Patriot League is rich with history and tradition. How do you insure the conference and its member institutions are well positioned for the future of college athletics, while also preserving the elements that make it unique?


The Patriot League celebrated its 25th Anniversary during the 2015-16 academic year. This was also my first year as the Commissioner, and on many different levels it was perfect timing. In attending the on-campus celebrations, I was able to learn so much more about the League and meet many of the people – former and current student-athletes, coaches and administrators – that make it special. It really was a crash course in Patriot League history and a truly unique opportunity at the start of my tenure.  It gave me an even deeper appreciation for the principles upon which the League was founded.


In positioning the League for the future, I am very focused on being guided by and remaining true to those founding principles. Our history and traditions will continue to be written and expanded upon – but those are a byproduct of our foundational mission. Patriot League institutions are dedicated to shared values of integrity, character and the personal development of all students. We are deeply committed to enrolling and graduating student-athletes who are academically representative of our institutions. Further, we expect our student-athletes to demonstrate their commitment to both academic excellence and athletic competitiveness.


As a result, the League is very successfully focused on athletics participation as a four-year, undergraduate experience, which mirrors the undergraduate experience of all our students. This is really what makes us unique within the context of Div. I athletics. Our student-athletes are strong candidates for admission to our institutions, regardless of their skill as athletes, and – like their classmates – are on four-year graduation paths.


While we routinely rank among the best in the nation in NCAA graduation metrics, the stat that I always like to point out is that the Patriot League has the highest retention rate among all Div. I conferences. Our coaches do a remarkable job of recruiting talented student-athletes that embrace the challenge of managing athletics in a highly academic environment. And, who clearly love being full members of their campus communities.


While it often feels like we are swimming against the stream in Div. I, our commitment to insuring the personal development and academic success of individual student-athletes is non-negotiable. The Patriot League model is one that maintains the same academic standards and values for all students, including athletes, and for all programs, including athletics. We are best positioned for the future by not straying from that foundational core value.


The charge that I – and our institutions –  embrace is to do everything we can to actively promote our model. It’s noisy out there, and being heard can be a challenge. But we believe very strongly in the importance of what we do and remaining faithful to our values is our strongest positioning weapon. Put simply, the Patriot League will continue to be legitimate, successful and very important to the future of college athletics because we graduate well-rounded students that are well-equipped to become leaders in their personal and professional endeavors.


2. Does the constantly shifting landscape of college athletics worry you, or do Patriot League institutions feel that their approach is insulated from the rest of the industry?


It would be both naïve and irresponsible to behave as if we are immune to or insulated from any of the forces that shape the college athletics landscape. We – the League and each institution and all staff and coaches – are very much a part of that landscape. Our obligation is one of full and meaningful participation.


However, just as institutions have differing missions, the approach to college athletics can vary greatly from institution to institution and conference to conference. I believe that level of variety is healthy for the overall landscape. Differences should be respectfully recognized and accommodated in a manner that works for the greater good. I believe we have that responsibility to each other. If we insulate ourselves, we give up our opportunity to be participants in shaping our environment. Being a bystander is more worrisome to me than any outcome that may result from full and thoughtful participation.


That being said, it can be hard not to get bogged down in worry…I absolutely have what I call my “Chicken Little Days” where it feels like the sky is falling on college athletics. But, I cannot run from that. Being a student-athlete was life changing for me and thinking about a day when other young women and men don’t have that same opportunity is a pretty significant motivator.


3. You worked tirelessly, yet successfully, on bringing Ice Hockey to the Big Ten as a conference sport, has that crossed your mind relative to the future of the Patriot League?


It’s funny, the very first question I got from a media member when I became Patriot League Commissioner was about ice hockey. The answer then – and now – remains no. I have successfully transitioned from being an administrator to being a fan of college hockey! I love that Patriot League schools are members of multiple hockey conferences. I have lots of opportunities to cheer. If I’m traveling in the winter, I always check hockey schedules to see if I can sneak in a game. And I still go to the Frozen Four every year…as a fan! It is a fantastic national championship and one of the best fan experiences out there. Kristin Fasbender and the other folks at the NCAA do an amazing job with its management.


4. Leadership change is one constant in higher education, specifically as it applies to Presidents & Athletic Directors. With both roles under significant pressure on their respective campuses, how should a Commissioner help both constituents perform their roles most effectively?


Presidents and Athletics Directors are highly capable leaders, but each has a unique perspective and style that is very much shaped by their campus environment. My approach is to learn as much as possible about each campus – history, culture, challenges, etc. – so that I can best understand the context in which they are processing information and making decisions.


Leading a League requires a thorough understanding of each of its parts. The goal is to bring those parts together in a manner that advances the whole.  The majority of the work happens outside of the meeting room. When I travel to our schools, I take the time to walk around by myself and get a sense of what is happening on-campus. What are the big issues? I love having coffee in student centers, reading activity boards, talking to students…I attend nonathletic events. Our ADs do not run departments that exist on islands. They are senior leaders on our campuses. So, for me to best understand and assist them, I need to understand their institutions.


The same holds true for my work with our Presidents, which includes the Superintendents at Army and Navy. Athletics is a very important component of higher education, as it builds leadership, teamwork and decision-making skills, but the ability to place athletics within the context of the missions of the Academies and our other institutions is necessary. I feel I can be most helpful when I am most knowledgeable and understanding of the realities in which they are operating.