A Fish Out of Water

I could be seen as the fish out of water on this trip. Although Athletics resides within the same portfolio we tend to be seen an outlier, both geographically and operationally, to our partners in Student Affairs. I don’t think I could tell you about Kolb’s theory of experiential learning any more than the other 5 could likely describe the provincial and national requirements for athlete eligibility. The broader mission of the Vice Provost Students’ portfolio gives us common purpose, to engage and empower students and provide a community for them outside the classroom, but our industries are different and we don’t always speak the same language.

“If you’re not moving forwards, you’re moving backwards.”

From our conversations on the road and at our destination institutions it’s clear that Athletics and Student Affairs face many common challenges. Tightening budgets, access to facility and human capital and a student demographic whose motivations, values and communication patterns are transforming at a unprecedented rate, to name a few. In our meeting with Student Affairs at Northwestern, Julie Payne-Kirchmeier remarked that programs and services are like water, needing to move forward otherwise becoming stagnant. The 6 of us understand that our fields will have to continue to evolve in order to meet the needs of our students and stay relevant within the identity of Ryerson as an institution. After a week (and almost 5,000km), I can also say that we embrace this challenge and the opportunity it will afford us to innovate the work being done in our areas.

“The pleasure in rooting for Goliath is that you can expect to win. The pleasure of rooting for David is that, while you don’t know what to expect, you stand at least a chance of being inspired.” – Michael Lewis

In the early 2000’s the Oakland Athletics ushered in analytics for player assessment. There are still traditionalists today who view this method of analysis a failure, as Oakland has failed to win a World Series since. However, its no coincidence that every MLB franchise now employs specialists in sabremetrics. As well, the Sloan Conference for statistical analysis is now a premier conference in sport, attended by delegates from around the world and from every level and league. Whether they’ve won or not, Oakland started the dialogue and you can’t discuss sport analytics without beginning with them. Can you imagine the anxiety that front office felt, being criticized (even mocked) at every instance? But can you also imagine the energy they brought to work everyday knowing they had the chance to change their sport forever. It had to be inspiring.

So now I’m on this RV, with 5 colleagues from different areas of the University, going to a conference that doesn’t entirely resonate with the work that comes across my desk. Yet I don’t feel like a fish out of water at all. Where we work is immaterial because at the heart of the matter we feel the same challenges and see the same opportunity. I like to think we feel the same energy that Oakland felt as they worked to change baseball. We’re trying to change Student Affairs and University Athletics at our own institutions and across the country. Like David, the potential reward in charting new ground is all the inspiration we need to stay late, have tough conversations and look outside our own lenses to face problems in our work.

All 6 of us felt this project hover over our heads the last year, vacillating between excitement and anxiety depending on the day. We all felt the same pressures to ensure our travel was safe, that our itinerary created measureable value for assessment and that we were best representing the interests of Ryerson. What we also felt equally was the support and encouragement of our leadership. John Austin, Stephanie White, Ivan Joseph and Heather Lane-Vetere listened to our idea, asked the right questions and encouraged us the entire way. They saw the value in taking a piece of the Ryerson community across the country and even directly to two remarkable incoming students. Aside from the online engagement, sponsorship opportunities, institutional and departmental connections that were created in the #RoadtoCACUSS, like Oakland, they saw that at a minimum we could spark a dialogue. I absolutely felt I belonged on this trip and I’m especially grateful for my leadership in Athletics to have given me the chance, even though I’m sure they still don’t understand what a CACUSS is.

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