How Strategic Planning Can Bridge the Divide Between Athletics and Academics

Strategic Planning Process in Athletics - Image of a Basketball Hoop
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Every college and university that sponsors intercollegiate athletics, at any level, must come to grips with how that division fits into the overall mission of the institution. And, at the same time, athletics must work to integrate itself into the university’s culture. One way to achieve that is to embark on a highly collaborative strategic planning process.

by Ken Halpin Winthrop University and L. Jeffrey Perez, South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities (SCICU)

Part of the Institution, Yet a World Apart

The academic community often perceives the intercollegiate athletics division as a separate world:

  • Athletics has “admissions criteria” distinct from the institution’s.  Students will not be recruited to become student-athletes without demonstrating some athletic ability in addition to their academic accomplishments.
  • In many cases, the athletic facilities, which often take up a fair amount of real estate, tend to be grouped together in a remote part of campus creating the impression of an athletics “fiefdom.” While anyone can walk into the library or the student center, it is perceived that not everyone can walk into the athletics department. Although this is a perception and not a reality, it does foster an "us vs. them" mentality.
  • At institutions with higher profile athletic departments, additional challenges like larger marketing and advertising budgets or the continual purchase of big-ticket equipment items can contribute to a rift between “campus proper” and “athletics.” It is common to hear sentiments like “they don’t understand us” voiced on both sides of this divide.

It is essential to close this gap and eliminate the type of environment where the department of athletics is seen as competing with other divisions in pursuit of comprehensive institutional success. At Winthrop University, strategic planning at the division level gave us the opportunity to bridge this gap. Because we pursued our strategic planning process in a participatory way, the planning process itself provided the entire campus with opportunities to learn how athletics can be a valuable asset in achieving institutional success. It's probable that a participatory strategic planning process could achieve the same bridge-building for other divisions on campus, as well.

Here is a quick look at what we did and why, how this changed the culture, and what advice we would offer for division heads (in athletics or other units) at other institutions.

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Image Credit: Photo above by Mike Wilson on Unsplash.