Making the Grade: Sandy Announces Transition

BERKELEY -- What is Sandy Barbour's lasting legacy? It could very well be the renovations to California Memorial Stadium, but over the past few years, no story has taken a greater toll on her department than that of plummeting graduation rates and academic progress.

On Oct. 24, 2013, the NCAA released its graduation success rates (GSR), and the numbers for the California athletic department were, in a word, disappointing. Among all BCS conferences, the Cal football team ranked dead last. The men's basketball program ranked last in the Pac-12. The department as a whole had a GSR of 78, meaning that 78 percent of all student-athletes who came to Berkeley with finacian aid from 2003-06 graduated within six years. The national average for the NCAA was 81.

Athletic director Sandy Barbour -- under who's watch those numbers fell – stepped aside to transition to a new role within the University's academic side on Friday, moving on to do "market research," as she called it, to determine how best to structure an undergraduate Sports Management program.

"Both Nick (chancellor Nicholas Dirks) and I have talked about this," Barbour said. "Certainly, when you get the opportunity, when you have the privilege to do something like this, you think you're going to do it forever. You want to do it forever. But, there comes a time when […] actually, an intersection, both organizational and personal, where you just say, ‘You know what? It's time to find out what's next. I think that's where we were."

Beyond the financial model for funding the renovations at California Memorial Stadium – something for which Barbour can be held only partially accountable – and beyond the near-cutting of four sports and demotion of a fifth in the fall of 2010, the biggest stain on Barbour's 10-year resume is the falling academic performance of the most visible student-athletes on campus.

The football four-year APR – or academic progress rate – had dropped from 970 in 2007-08, steadily down to 969, then 949, then 936 and 935, before bouncing back up slightly to 938 in head coach Jeff Tedford's final year. From comments made by Dirks at Barbour's press conference on Friday to announce her transition, it was shortly thereafter the announcement of football APR rates in October of last year, that Barbour and Dirks began talking about making a change.

"We've been really talking over the course of the last six months," Dirks said. "It was a combination of general organizational issues and personal issues."

Barbour had granted Tedford a lucrative extension in 2008, which was the last year that the Cal football team had shown an improvement in APR (increasing from 945 in 2004-05), and hired Mike Montgomery, who, while going to the postseason each year of his tenure (2008-09 to 2013-14), saw the APR drop from 967 in his first season, to 939 in 2012-13.

When asked how much of a part of the impetus for change the dropping graduation rates were for the university, Barbour demurred, and deferred to Dirks.

"Looking back over the issues that have been wonderful and the issues that have been challenging over the last 10 years, certainly, we both talked a lot about graduation rates, in the fall," Dirks said. "Of course, some of that had been behind the transition in the football program, the year before I got here. A lot of work was already being done, and a lot of work, since then, has been done. We're going to have much better results for our football program, as they start getting posted."

As noted above, the graduation rates for both football and basketball fell continually over the past six years, and only after the bottoming out of both were measures taken to ameliorate the drop, a drop which showed 54% of scholarship football players graduate in 2011, 48% in 2012 and 44% in 2013, as single-year APR for those years was 921, 923 and 923. It was not until October of 2012, 18 months after the 921 single-year APR was released, that Barbour announced steps "recently taken" to rectify the issue. As noted in the numbers at the start of this article, there were signs of dropping years before the single-year APRs inched into near-sanctionable levels.

"I'm satisfied that enormous efforts have been made to address these issues here at Cal," Dirks said on Friday. "I'm aware, however, that we not only have a lot of rebuilding to do, and rebuilding in relationship to ensuring that our student athletes have the full support of the institution, as they seek to realize their academic, as well as their athletic goals, but we are also in a national context, in which issues around graduation rates and around academic performance and around the whole experience of being a student-athlete are being scrutinized. They're being addressed in a variety of ways, and addressed by all of us … We'll see, in the months going forward, as we discuss recommendations that come out of the task force that we set up, there may be things that we do to change the way in which we organize our programs."

That task force – the Chancellor's Task Force for Athletics and Academics – has been working since last fall to review the reasons for the APR and GSR drops, and it comes as little surprise that the selection to succeed Barbour – at least on an interim basis – is former Bears wrestler H. Michael Williams, a member of that Task Force.

When asked about his take on graduation rates, Williams – who volunteered for the post – urged patience.

"First off, I'm just going to listen," said Williams. "I want to take a few days, a few weeks to get the lay of the land, and learn where we stand. I don't have really any plans or goals, beyond that. In a month or two, I might be able to answer that question more directly."

"These are huge issues that really are national in scale," Dirks said. "We are, and always wish to be a leader in that regard."

Williams has no aspirations to remain in the post permanently, so the search for a new, permanent athletic director has already begun, in earnest.

"I'm actually completely wide open," Dirks said, of what qualifications he is seeking in a future athletic director. "I think that these jobs are marvelously difficult. You have to be a manager of a very, very difficult and complex financial organization, to be a manager of people, you have to be an educator, and you have to be a fundraiser. I think that we'll just find somebody, like Sandy, who can do all of those things. As we eventually constitute a search committee and being a process of a search, we will come up with a list of individuals who exemplify that profile, and broaden and deepen our sense of what we're looking for, but we really haven't thought about it in those terms quite yet."

The appointment of Williams, though, seems to contradict that. He has experience with the people management side – as the vice chair, Capital Markets, for Barclays Global Investors, is currently the vice chair of the UC Berkeley Foundation (fundraising, check), spent 16 years at Barclays Global Investors and was elected to the UC Berkeley Foundation Board of Trustees in 2007 (finance, check). While Williams is the interim solution, it certainly seems like Dirks has his prototype for a full-time replacement.

What does Cal need to thrive in athletics, both on the field and in the classroom? Barbour gave the following answer, after initially saying it would take two weeks to adequately answer the question.

"I'll be very honest, it doesn't need a whole lot more than what we already have," Barbour said, seemingly contradicting her initial response. "I said to our staff, this morning, ‘Sure, we've got challenges, but I'll take our challenges over those of anybody else. Nobody else gets to recruit to, gets to work for, the No. 1 public institution in the world. We do.' That is a huge, huge advantage. Sure, everybody wants more resources, but I'll put my staff up against anybody's coaches, support staff, administrators against anybody for doing more with less. It's not a moniker I love, but it is something we do. I do think the one thing that we've been working on, and I think we've made great progress, we also maybe slipped back a little bit, particularly with the success issues or lack of success issues, from an academic standpoint, but that is rallying every aspect, every stakeholder, every part of our community around athletics, and understanding kind of a singular voice about what we're about and our value is. I think if there was an area where we could [improve] – as a community, as an entire community – it's embracing the value of athletics, and everybody's noses are all pointed in the same direction. The noise that exists at times – here and other places I've been – doesn't help us succeed, doesn't help us actually do what every member of our community wants."

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