Why Varsity Athletics Should be Part of Student Affairs

Varsity athletics should be a student life imperative. Two years ago, when Bentley University engaged the Gallup organization to help us understand the impact of our students’ co-curricular experience on engagement, we learned something powerful: not only is being an athlete impactful but attending varsity athletic events as a spectator and fan also has a positive impact on students. Both had correlations to well-being, engagement and hope for the future. Gallup asserts they have lifelong impacts. This connection to our values as a place-based institution makes it clear that varsity athletics should be a part of the student affairs division.

We were not surprised to learn that student-athletes, like other students engaged outside the classroom, had higher levels of engagement, hope and well-being than their peers.  However, for students attending at least five varsity athletic events, we saw significant improvement over their peers who did not attend any events. We knew from many other research studies that leadership opportunities had an impact on students.  We wanted to understand the impact of attendance at the programs we provide to students—floor programs, career development programming, arts and lectures and athletic events. All programs had a positive correlation on hope, well-being and engagement. In most cases, attending more than five athletic events was the most significant driver.

Bentley has long considered varsity athletics as not separate but part of the student life strategy for the university. As a division 2 institution (with division 1 hockey), this is true for our student-athletes as we emphasize the student over the athlete and advocate for balance in the athletic experience. But the university also recognizes the impact athletics has on the overall student life experience – including the influence that student-athletes have on campus culture – making it all the more crucial for a synergy between athletics and student affairs.

Certainly structure helps. Having the athletic director report to me ensures that together we work toward a student development perspective for our athletes; create more engagement opportunities for non-athletes; and also provide opportunities for professional development for our coaches and athletics administrators. Our division has a working group on diversity and inclusion that includes a senior member of the athletics administration staff. Our divisional retreats and programs on this topic include all coaches, providing an opportunity for fascinating conversations. This in turn has translated into programming geared directly to student-athletes, with the direction coming from the coaches as opposed to being imposed by an outsider. As an example, our men’s and women’s lacrosse teams participated in a weekend inter-group dialogue retreat on gender.

Coaches are learning and engaging with the student affairs staff around common goals.  Their connections to the health and counseling staff have proved invaluable and we have far fewer barriers to these services than I hear about on other campuses. Members of the division work with athletics staff to provide bystander training, Title IX training and Clifton StrengthsFinder programs. Coaches and athletics staff support each other and attend programs that often bring their student-athletes to events they might not otherwise attend. Our hockey and football teams have been major contributors in events such as ”Walk a Mile In Her Shoes,” which raises awareness of sexual assault, and the White Ribbon Campaign, a movement of men and boys to end violence against women. 

Presidents must play a role in varsity athletics at all divisions. This is both an NCAA requirement and, given the inter-institutional relationships and finances, a practical necessity. However, at Bentley, while our president addresses those issues, she relies on student affairs, and me as VP, for the day-to-day management and, even more important, to ensure that a student development focus is infused in the experience for our athletes and non-athletes. The busy lives of university presidents would not allow for this day-to-day focus. Unfortunately, at some campuses, this results in athletics programs that feel more apart from the campus than an actual part of it.

Yes, the structure helps. However, while winning games is important to coaches, the great college coaches see themselves as educators first. We have much more in common than we sometimes think. Even with a structure in place, I have needed to encourage and sometimes force interactions. The results have always been positive as we have the best interests of the student-athlete and the institution in mind.

The student affairs mindset can be very helpful to athletics. The visibility, connections and outcomes of a student life-focused athletic department can further the student affairs mission on campus. It feels to me that we have built a wall, at the institutional level and more broadly (including in our national associations), between the areas with only occasional cross-over.  With the challenges that face us, we would be much better off working together.