Pumped-Up Governance: Lessons From the NCAA's Restructuring

By and / Feb 1, 2015 (Skip O'Donnell/Getty Images)
I think today’s vote is very important for the future of Division I. It keeps us all together, all of our institutions, working together on behalf of student- athletes.

Think it’s hard for your board to work effectively? Try doing so while under constant scrutiny from the public and media—and even Congress. That’s exactly what the NCAA, college sports’ governing body, faced as it restructured its governance model. The story of how its volunteer leaders did it has lessons that all association boards should heed.

A governance overhaul is a massive undertaking for any association. From the initial listening period to seeking input from all key stakeholders to shaping a recommendation and then implementing the final plan, it’s a process that requires large amounts of time, legwork, and patience. But, if done correctly, it can pump new life into an organization.

That’s what the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) was looking to do when its leadership team brought in our firm, Ideas for Action, LLC, more than two years ago to examine its governance structure. The NCAA is a behemoth of an organization composed of 1,200 member schools broken into three divisions (each with its own board of directors), and those divisions are made up of regional athletic conferences (represented by even more boards of directors). Additional stakeholders include athletic directors, coaches, faculty, and 460,000 student-athletes.

The need for change was apparent. The NCAA was facing an urgent problem at its highest level—Division I—which had one membership, governance, and legislative rule-making system trying to accommodate all the different perspectives of its diverse member schools. Tensions ran high enough that the largest schools began to consider the possibility of breaking away to form their own organization. At the same time, the NCAA was dealing with outside pressures, such as schools switching conferences to chase money, lawsuits over students’ likenesses being used in video games, and the ongoing debates over concussion protocols and whether student-athletes should be paid.

While the NCAA’s goal to remake itself into an efficient and effective governing body for college athletics may seem too large for most associations to relate to, a closer look at the project reveals lessons relevant to associations and boards of any shape and size.


The starting point was to take the temperature of the membership to see if there was sufficient interest in having this conversation about staying together. For the first six months of 2013, we listened to more than 200 stakeholders—university presidents, athletics directors, faculty, student-athletes, and conference commissioners and staff. Many associations do this regularly, but for the NCAA it was enlightening in many ways, helping it to recognize itself as a membership organization, open dialogue, and create an imperative for change.

Although there were some differences, we heard many consistent messages across subdivisions and stakeholder groups, and on the largest issues we found universal agreement. Although no one was satisfied with the current system, and stakeholders often did not reach “across the aisle,” the level of agreement about basic issues was surprising. There was a sense of urgency to finally tackle the big issues that would lead to fundamental change.

Members also expressed a need to ensure transparency and not rush the process. They wanted to get it right this time, as previous structural changes had not been successful. As a result of this dialogue, momentum for change began to emerge, trust was strengthened, and people began to envision what might be possible.

In the Huddle

Following the initial listening period, the NCAA Division I leadership created an eight-member Presidential Steering Committee to help drive the overhaul. Also involved was an 18-person board composed solely of university presidents, a senior NCAA staff team, and leaders from various councils within the organization.

One major milestone was a Division I Governance Dialogue, held in conjunction with the NCAA annual convention in January 2014. The steering committee created a draft governance proposal showing a dramatically simplified organizational structure, which it presented to the group of 900 participants, as well as members of the media who attended the open event.

We used live polling and small- and full-group conversations to create a partnership between the membership and the member leaders around these key elements. This kind of discussion was imperative to the project’s overall success: We wanted to ensure that the process was transparent and that we had input from the key stakeholders and various cultures within the organization.

A critical issue that came out of the two-day discussion was who would be represented in the new governance structure. The NCAA isn’t a monoculture. It involves the cultures of collegiate athletics in general and all the diverse sports they include, from football to women’s gymnastics; the culture of higher education, which has many subcultures of its own; and the cultures of entertainment and business.

Likewise, associations in industries that are changing or are under scrutiny need to pay special attention to multiple cultures. Every industry and profession has its own subcultures—for example, think about large grocery chains compared with mom-and-pop stores—and they need to understand one another and share some common goals.

The elements in play were typical of any association:

  • Who should be part of the dialogue? Who are the decision makers, and how do decisions get made?
  • What should the board makeup be? Should it continue to be limited to university presidents, or should other stakeholders, like athletics directors, faculty, and student-athletes, be included?
  • How might other rule-making bodies feed up to the board function, and what would be their roles?
  • Should the NCAA’s heavy dependence on weighted voting (which gave more power to the larger universities) continue, and, if so, how should the new groups of voters be weighted?

After the January meeting, the steering committee continued refining the recommendations for structural change and vetting it with stakeholders. In August 2014, the Division I Board of Directors approved a redesigned structure.

New voices on the board included an athletics director, a faculty member, a female athletics administrator, and a student-athlete, as well as a council of practitioners empowered by the board to handle primary rule-making and legislative decisions about sports-specific issues like recruiting, amateurism, and health and safety. In addition, the five conferences with the most resources (Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and Southeastern Conference) were provided authority to adopt legislation for themselves that the remaining conferences can opt into. The authority is limited to certain specified areas addressing legitimate student-athlete needs regarding education and participation in intercollegiate athletics.

Wake Forest University President Nathan Hatch summed up the impact of the board’s action in August. “I think today’s vote is very important for the future of Division I. It keeps us all together, all of our institutions, working together on behalf of student-athletes,” said Hatch, who serves as Division I board chair and chair of the Steering Committee on Governance. “I think it’s wonderful that Division I stays intact and moves forward.”

The student-athletes who will cast the first votes on NCAA legislation, and those who will serve on the new council, were likewise pleased with the outcome.

“This is a huge step in the right direction for student-athletes to have both a voice and a vote,” said Devon Tabata, a soccer student-athlete at Duquesne University and vice chair of the Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. “Being a part of legislative discussions and dialogue at the council level allows us to report back to national SAAC directly, allowing for better communication between national, conference, and school SAACs.”

A New Season

In early January, the new Division I Board of Directors and new council convened for the first time. The NCAA’s mission—to be an integral part of higher education and to focus on the development of student-athletes—has guided the restructuring process so far and will continue to guide the new leaders against the backdrop of increasing external scrutiny and pressures.

The new volunteer leadership team plans to focus on creating an advocacy agenda that allows them to proactively set policy that is beneficial to student-athletes, before those policies are set for them. The NCAA has gained fresh perspective on what it means to be a membership organization, and its leaders understand the importance of staying focused on mission as they approach every decision and action they make. That’s something all association boards can aspire to.

Jean S. Frankel

Jean S. Frankel is president at Ideas for Action, LLC. More »

Nancy Alexander

Nancy Alexander is senior partner at Ideas for Action, LLC. More »