Friday, May 22, 2015

One-on-one with Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris

An exclusive interview with the new boss of the Ancient Eight.

One-on-one with Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris

You all know that I spend a lot of time covering Penn and the Ivy League for the blog, and also sometimes for the Inquirer. This post will be of much interest to the Quakers fans among you, but I'd encourage the rest of you to read on. The discussion below affects the rest of the college sports landscape too.

The Ivy League has only ever had two full time executives. For the first 25 years of its existence, Jeffrey Orleans held the title. But on July 1 of this year, he stepped down. Robin Harris, who spent the last seven years as a lawyer in Indianapolis and nine years prior to that working for the NCAA, took over the position.

This afternoon, I talked to Harris about her goals for the conference and her experience working for the governing body of college sports.

Q. You worked at the NCAA before coming to the Ivy League. Talk about what you did there.

A. I was associate chief of staff supporting the Division I governance structure in all issues that came up. So I was support for the board of directors, composed entirely of college presidents, including over the course of my tenure, two Ivy League Presidents: Harold Shapiro from Princeton, and then when he retired, Jim Wright from Dartmouth took his place.

All of the FBS conferences get one seat on the board and then the FCS conferences rotate seats. So the Ivy League had a seat for four years and will have one again in two years.

There are 11 FBS presidents and seven FCS presidents.

(Note: Here is the current list of board members.)

And then I supported hte management council of 49 people representing all three subdivisions of Division I and representing every conference. They handled all the legislative and policy issues relating to Division I. If it affected Division I while I was in that role, I handled it.

I was also the staff person to the director for the commitees on infractions and assisted on some major infractions. Alabama football had one, Washington football had one, there were others. I did that from 1993 to 1998, and 1997 to 2002 I was in Division I governance. There was an overlap of about five months.

Q. What is the view of the Ivy League among the other conferences in Division I? Is there a difference between the FCS and FBS conferences?

A. That's a really good question because I think it varies depending on the circumstance. What impressed me about hte leagues' position is that we can bring issues to light that need to be considered, and serve as somewhat of a conscience at time. In terms of not just academic issues, but amateurism issues and what we are about in Division I athletics.

The league actually had a respected voice, I think in part because it was used judiciously. There are issues that don't affect the Ivy League, so let's not speak on those issues. So when the league does take a strong poisition, they listen. They don't always follow, but they do listen. And that was really impressive to me.

The league's voice among the FCS and non-football-playing conferences obviously would be stronger in terms of having more in common with those two subdivisions, but yes, I definitely observed situations where league  representatives could persuade some votes among the FBS conferences.

Q. What are your goals for the league?

A. My primary goal is to be in a position to communicate the goals and objective and position of the Ivy League. Whether that's among other commissioners, the NCAAs, or our institutions. I also want to make sure we do a good job telling our success stories.

Obviously we have academic success stories, but our students have academic and athletic successes and we should highlgiht that. We should be embracing the value that athletics bring to our campuses both in terms of what it brings to the individual students participating in athletics and what it brings to the campus as a whole.

Q. I want to ask you about that last sentence. I think it's fair to say that there isn't as much interest in athletics at some campuses in the league as there is at others. How do you plan to change that?

A. There's no question that winning breeds fans, so we need to be successful to grow a fan base. But I don't think fan attendance measures the value that athletics bring. We have a lot of events, such as cross-country or fencing, that don't have a lot of fans but bring a lot of value to competitors. There's value in time management, preparing for a challenge, meeting it, succeeding. What do you do when you fail, how do you bounce back from adversity? We truly are training the world's leaders given our student base.

Beyond that, we're also providing an outlet for campuses that are so academically focused. There's no question about how it helps students' well-being. They're benefitting from using facilities that are used for intercollegiate athletics.

Q. What is your view of the balance between the league office and the school presidents? 

A. The presidents clearly set the direction of the league and the policies. That's who I report to, eight presidents, and they are clearly the ones at the top of the pyramid.

With that said, they have delegated to me and my office to be able to help carry out the day-to-day administration of the league consistent with their policies and principles. As I look at it I work with the athletic directors and their staffs to help carry out their day-to-day operations and championships to the extent they need help. All of that, of course, consistent with the values of the presidents.

And I think that's an appropriate balance - it's one of the areas that attracted me to this position, the fact that twice a year eight Ivy League presidents are geting together to discuss athletic issues.

Q. Following up about the league office's role, what do you want to do in terms of television contracts for the league?

A. I think we have good potential there. That is an area I want to look at. We have a lacrosse tournament this coming spring and we've had interest, and we'd like to have at least the finals televised. That's something we're working on right now. Long-term, I'd like to look at other opportunties for television exposure and other opportunites to promote what we're about.

Q. I want to ask about the league not participating in the FCS football playoffs. I've heard a range of views about it within the league and I'm wondering what yours is.

A. That is an issue I'm still gathering information on and that's an issue where the presidents have clearly set a guidance in the past. So we have guidance that we're not going to participate in the FCS football championships and that's where we are, and I don't see that changing any time soon.

Q. What's your view of whether the league should have a postseason basketball tournament?

A. That is also a subject that gets discussed a lot. The issue of postseason tournaments, league tournaments, is something that comes up in a number of different sports. We've just now added the lacrosse tournament for this spring,which really is our first championship. We have baseball that has two teams, and softball has two teams, but lacrosse is the first to go beyond that into a traditional championship playoff format of four teams.

There are a nunmber of sports that are interested, and as we go forward, and given the economy, we are going to have to see how lacrosse does.

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Soft Pretzel Logic is Philly.com's college sports blog, with a primary focus on the University of Pennsylvania. You'll also see coverage of the Big 5, other major college sports events in the region, and the annual Penn Relays track and field meet.

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