Making Athletics a Priority
By Brian Krisberg ’81
First Vice President, Columbia College Alumni Association
For decades, Columbia and its intercollegiate athletics program have had a
less than satisfying relationship. The University acknowledges the place of
athletics at a great research university; indeed, Columbia participates in 29
intercollegiate sports and spends millions of dollars on the department each
year. The results indicate, however, that the University simply has not demonstrated
the same commitment to quality and excellence in intercollegiate athletics that
it gives to the academic experience.
With the arrival of President Lee C. Bollinger in 2002 and Director
of Athletics M. Dianne Murphy in November 2004, the University is beginning
to address in a serious and methodical manner the issues and problems that have
caused the department to underperform for so many years. By any measure, there
is only one direction Columbia can go in intercollegiate athletics overall,
and that is up. In the past decade, Columbia has won the fewest Ivy sports championships.
In the same period, Columbia ranks last in its overall Ivy League finish ranking
measured separately across 11 men’s core sports and 12 women’s core
sports. On the women’s side, Columbia isn’t even close to seventh
None of this is meant to take away from the success achieved during
this period by individual teams such as fencing, tennis, lightweight crew and
women’s cross-country, or individual athletes such as Cristina Teuscher ’00
or Caroline Bierbaum ’06.
Why, you might wonder, has broader success in intercollegiate athletics
not been achieved? Athletics has consistently been put aside at Columbia in
favor of other priorities deemed more pressing. These priorities included the
1970s focus on “quality of life” issues (such as fixing dormitories
and dining halls), the 1980s focus on implementing coeducation and improving
alumni relations and admissions and the 1990s focus on strengthening the Core
Curriculum, renovating the College Library and Hamilton Hall and improving student
life (including construction of Alfred
Lerner Hall, the student center).
"Success in athletics is a priority for this president."
When Bollinger arrived at Columbia, he realized immediately that bold
action was needed and authorized then-Athletics Director John Reeves to replace
the head men’s football and basketball coaches. The arrival in 2003 of
Bob Shoop and Joe Jones, young, energetic assistants from major Division I programs,
was a signal to the Columbia community that success in athletics is a priority
for this president. Following Reeves’ retirement, Bollinger embarked on
a national search for his successor, further evidence that he wants the athletics
department to occupy a different place in the Columbia community going forward.
Murphy came to Columbia from the University of Denver, where she oversaw
tremendous success in men’s ice hockey, as evidenced by a national championship,
and where she led the elevation of the athletics program to Division I status.
She would not have come to Columbia without a structural change in reporting
relationships whereby she reports directly to the president (previously, the
athletics director reported to the provost). Murphy participates with upper-level
University administrators in meetings and strategy sessions that her predecessors
did not attend. Her charge is to bring fundamental change in the culture of
the athletics department.
Since Murphy’s arrival, the department has rewritten its mission and value
statements and has prepared for University trustees a confidential, detailed
strategic plan that provides a comparison, both qualitative and quantitative,
to peer institutions, and identifies areas for improvement. The priorities for
the new leadership in the department are organized around achieving excellence
in three areas: intercollegiate athletics, gender-equity and recreational athletics.
Within each of these priorities, the department has identified things it needs
to do in the areas of “people, places and programs,” as Murphy likes
In the short term, the athletics department is focusing on the retention
of student-athletes in intercollegiate programs and renovation of athletic facilities.
Retention will be achieved by improving class scheduling for student-athletes
and reducing the intense competition for Columbia’s limited facilities.
Too often Columbia’s teams are forced to practice without a full complement
of players or at very inconvenient times. Renovation will boost Columbia’s
ability to compete effectively for recruited student-athletes.
Murphy says, privately and publicly, that the athletics department
needs to be managed more like a business with accountability, targets and measured
outcomes. The coaches are participating in workshops where they work on recruiting
techniques, mentoring and leadership, and are being offered more opportunities
for professional development. The department will focus on hiring quality individuals,
keeping them in the department and raising overall morale.
For students, parents, alumni and administrators who follow Columbia’s
intercollegiate athletics programs, there is reason to believe that athletics
will be a higher priority in years to come. The new leadership has a positive
and refreshing attitude, recognizing that the current state of affairs is not
working and seeing this as an opportunity for change. Clearly, this is a long-term
proposition that will require many years and a continuing commitment on the
part of the University, especially in the area of facilities, where Columbia
lags well behind its peers. With increased resources, an environment conducive
to better results and a focused vision from the top, Columbia’s performance
in intercollegiate athletics should rise and become a source of pride to match
the experience students receive in the classroom.