This article is a summary of the following: LeCrom, C. W., & Pratt, A. N. (2016). Exploring interactions between NCAA Division I athletic directors and university presidents: A qualitative study from athletic directors’ perspectives. Journal of Intercollegiate Sport, 9, 200-225.
Leadership in college athletics is not simply a one-on-one relationship between the president and athletic director (AD). Many individuals and groups impact organizational success, and the structure of college athletic leadership is growing increasingly complex. As the NCAA moves toward a more president-led form of leadership nationally, this shift impacts the job of ADs and how they interact with their presidents for the benefit of their institutions, conferences, and college athletics nationally. So what do athletic directors want when it comes to working with their university presidents? That’s what we set out to determine, and what better way to do so than by asking the ADs themselves?
By interviewing 12 ADs across the diverse landscape of NCAA Division I college athletics, our goal was to explore their perspectives on building relationships between ADs and presidents. Eight of the 12 were from public institutions with a median of 22,000 students and an average of 17 sports; the four private institutions had a median of 6,000 students and an average of 23 sports. The ADs had been at their current institutions for an average of 8.7 years, with a range of 2 to 21 years. Their presidents (at the time) had been on campus an average of 4.6 years, with a range of 1 to 10 years. Two of the ADs were female; three of the ADs (males) had female presidents. In short, we asked ADs what an ideal relationship would look like between him/her and his/her president, as well as how that relationship can be fostered and maintained. While the results are nothing shy of earth-shattering (kidding, they’re not…), their impact lies in their consistency: Four factors of strong relationships between ADs and presidents came across in every one of our interviews. So what are they—and the challenges to achieving them?
1. Trust and Communication: The “No Surprises” Rule
An essential part of the relationship between ADs and presidents is following the “no surprises” rule when it comes to trust and communication. ADs, to a person, took very seriously their role in making sure their presidents were well-informed about anything related to athletics that might show up in the media. This was especially the case for anything negative that might put the institution in a bad light.
The immediacy of the current media environment is likely making “no surprises” more essential and challenging. Media are in constant competition to be first with the latest story, which often results in inaccuracies. However negligent those inaccuracies might be, presidents and ADs alike will still find themselves in the position of correcting misinformation and clarifying their positions. Social media adds to this challenge by the speed in which non-media publics can also participate in the reporting and spreading of information, as well as stirring a groundswell of public pressure on ADs and presidents to act. Even the most proactive ADs cannot stay ahead of every social media story involving their departments, and must also be selective about what they choose to investigate further, much less report to their presidents.
This presents a challenge to ADs who want to follow the “no surprises” rule with their presidents, yet not overwhelm them with information. As news becomes less scheduled and more immediate, ADs and presidents will have to come to new understandings about what constitutes a story worthy of response (i.e., trending, content, source), and how best to compose and deliver that response.
With such a wide scope of constituencies to oversee, presidents benefit from having ADs who are proactive about giving them a “heads up” about any issues headed their way. However, to what extent must presidents be informed? And what happens after the informing takes place? The answer to these questions may indicate more about the power dynamics between ADs and presidents than anything else. Regarding the former question, the ADs we spoke with indicated that they usually informed the presidents on major developments, so as not to overwhelm them with too many details. However, it is not always clear what differentiates a major development from a minor one. For example, it is common for athletic directors to receive complaints from student-athletes about coaches. But in some cases, a few complaints may lead to a lawsuit, which may lead to more student-athletes coming forward with lawsuits, and finally a full-blown athletics crisis with public pressure and national media attention. At what point in such a scenario does the “no surprises” rule kick in? When and what carries enough gravitas to have a conversation with one’s president is far from clear, which indicates that the “no surprises” rule might be more difficult to follow than its simple concept implies.
This leads to the latter question of action and responsibility. If ADs inform their presidents about major developments, does that necessitate presidential responses, or simply approval of ADs’ responses? Take the men’s basketball coaching abuse scandal at Rutgers University. Then-new president Robert Barchi approved AD Tim Pernetti’s suspension of head coach Mike Rice for allegations of player mistreatment. However, once video was released to the media of practices showing Rice shoving and shouting gay slurs at players, Barchi was criticized for not insisting that Rice be fired months earlier, when evidence of the abuse first came to light. Rutgers ended up firing Rice, and Pernetti resigned under pressure. However, Barchi did not step down himself, which led to a new round of criticism that the AD was used as a scapegoat for poor decisions that the president approved. The law firm conducting the post mortem investigation indicated that Barchi did not view the incriminating video evidence until after it had been released to the media, and therefore had not been sufficiently informed in the first place. In this type of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario, the only thing that is clear is that simply keeping presidents informed will not be enough to protect ADs in situations involving a high degree of public pressure and media attention, especially if the initial information is later deemed to have been insufficient.
2. Alignment: Situational vs. Core-Level
ADs defined alignment as the ability to be in sync about major university issues, and saw it as paramount in the relationship dynamics with their university presidents. Not only does this alignment help the AD and president set priorities that are in line with the direction of the university, but it also trickles down to areas such as media and fundraising.
This coordination, or alignment, presents an opportunity for ADs and presidents to work together to develop strategic plans that allow both parties to accomplish goals. However, this can only happen if ADs and presidents are also in alignment regarding their relative positions of power. If an AD and president see each other as sharing power in a system of mutually agreed-upon goals and priorities, then strategic planning and negotiation over donor and partner relationships should proceed smoothly and productively. In such an ideal situation, the focus of both would be the greater good, in addition to the mutual success of both parties. In less-than-ideal relationships between ADs and presidents, this negotiation might be derailed by conflicts related to power and ego, competing priorities, and/or a lack of respect for the other’s position.
Therefore, it seems that surface-level alignment is not indicative of anything more than situational expediency, and the true ideal to strive for is core-level alignment that addresses power and priorities. In today’s higher education and collegiate athletics environments, this ideal may be difficult to reach. Kevin Kiley of Inside Higher Ed noted significant turnover among university presidents while SportsBusiness Journal’s Michael Smith has written about the “high churn rate” among Division I athletic directors. Such turnover means that ADs and presidents not only have less time together to develop the type of relationships that facilitate core-level alignment, but the nature of their progress in their professions may lessen the motivation of one or both parties to do so.
3. Respect for Expertise: Micromanagers Need Not Apply
Respect is an often-reported characteristic of leaders, and it was clear that the need to be respected for their expertise in terms of college athletics is an important factor to ADs. The manner in which the ADs discussed this facet of professional respect may be indicative of complex power dynamics at work in today’s higher education environment, especially at institutions with high-profile athletic programs. ADs often described their interactions with their presidents in deferential terms; for example, seeking an audience with the president on limited occasions, seeking to please “the boss,” taking care of the president’s informational needs, not expecting equal levels of information from the president in return for what the AD offers. This deference suggests that ADs see ultimate institutional power in the hands of their presidents.
However, ADs also made it clear that they expected to be consulted on all athletics-related issues, and trusted to carry out decisions on behalf of the athletic department without interference from the president. The ADs felt very competent and well trained in the business of college athletics, and viewed their hiring as a unilateral vote of confidence in their ability to make the final call in all athletics-related decisions. The fact that many institutions are hiring ADs with business backgrounds and higher levels of education lends support to this perspective.
Where these power dynamics of deference and delegation come into conflict is when a situation arises in athletics that affects the image and viability of the entire university. It is rare that only the AD is involved in decisions leading to or addressing a crisis, and therefore it is also rare that only the AD is held responsible. Some university presidents have resigned or been fired outright in the wake of scandals related to athletics. This reality calls into question the notion of presidents truly delegating full and complete responsibility of athletics to ADs. Even if that is their intention, public pressure and scrutiny surrounding athletics may prohibit this ideal from being fully realized.
4. Formal & Informal Relationships: The Importance of Intentional Effort
Ultimately, it was clear from our interviews that building relationships with their presidents is the key to a sense of self-efficacy and influence for ADs, especially on campus. As previously mentioned, the formality described by several ADs in their relationships with their presidents (e.g., setting up formal meetings), suggests a degree of deference toward their presidents. However, the informal relationship strategies touted by many ADs suggests that forming friendships beyond the traditional workplace context helps ADs raise their esteem by creating situations where the AD and president interact as peers (e.g., playing or watching sports together, going out for casual meals).
In this informal context, both the AD and the president may be exhibiting a form of soft power, where developing mutual likeability aids in their mutual understanding of one another, perhaps leading to the accomplishment of individual or mutually-held objectives. ADs who considered themselves to interact formally and informally with their presidents, and who felt healthy levels of trust and communication, were very comfortable with their on-campus leadership balance. What remains to be learned is whether university presidents also intentionally develop this formal-informal relationship with their ADs.
Ultimately, having strong working relationships between team members helps all organizations run more efficiently and effectively. However, given the unclear power dynamic that can exist between university presidents and ADs—often due to tremendous media attention on college athletics—there is room to explore how best to build and maintain positive working relationships between these institutional executives. This initial look into president and AD dynamics points toward a foundation upon which to build future relationships: trust and communication, alignment, respect for expertise, and formal and informal relationships. Leadership is a skill best honed through practice. Therefore, the best way for ADs to prepare for positive relationships with their presidents is for them to develop relational skills throughout their career at different levels of leadership. While the ADs we interviewed clearly indicated four critical factors of this foundation, each of those ADs communicated and practiced them differently, highlighting the importance of not taking a cookie-cutter approach. No doubt each factor needs to exist, but the ways in which they are carried out must be cultivated to fit each individual AD-president relationship for optimal success.