Helping our student athletes succeed: A conversation with Karen Paisley

Karen Paisley

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

Karen Paisley wears many hats at the University of Utah: Associate dean for Academic Affairs in the College of Health, professor in Parks, Recreation and Tourism, and faculty representative to Athletics. It’s that last job Karen talks about in this episode—how she came to be the faculty rep for Athletics and how our university is supporting student athletes, especially those who have had their fall seasons postponed due to the pandemic. Recorded on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast where you get to meet some of the wonderful people that are helping the U achieve great things. My name is Ruth Watkins, I'm the president of the university and my guest today is Karen Paisley. Karen is the associate dean for Academic Affairs in the College of Health. She's also a professor in Parks, Recreation and Tourism, and today she's representing her role as our faculty representative to Athletics. Karen, warmest welcome to you.

Karen Paisley: Thank you for having me.

President Watkins: Tell us a little bit about what it means to be the faculty rep to Athletics.

Karen Paisley: Fair enough. The faculty rep or the FAR as we tend to call them, is a position that's required by the NCAA of all member institutions, and it's a faculty member who in theory has been on campus long enough to know enough folks to be able to make connections and get work done. It's a position that reports directly to the president or their designee, and in the Pac-12, it's almost always the president. And the idea is that that individual is outside of Athletics and has access to university administration so that if there are any concerns there's an opportunity to respond pretty immediately.

It's basically supposed to be a two-way bridge between academics and Athletics so that we can do mutual education both ways. For me it's a 0.5 job, it's half of my job here at the university. And probably the primary responsibility is to monitor the integrity of student-athletes' academic experiences, which basically means do they have an opportunity to really be a student while they're here at the U?

President Watkins: Well, you and I talk quite often, and I certainly know the important role that you play in keeping our student athletes successful and helping promote their work as students, as well as athletes. How about your own interest in sports? Have you always been a person interested in sports? Tell us a little bit about your history?

Karen Paisley: What's really funny is I think I actually landed in this position because I was a skeptic, which might sound like a bad thing to say. I was never a student-athlete. When I first started here as a junior faculty member, I wasn't very nice to student-athletes in terms of understanding their travel and those things. I thought they had it easy, that they got everything handed to them. And through this role I have really learned how challenging their daily experiences are and gained a really healthy respect for that. And also, a healthy respect that they're doing this in service of the university and I never quite understood that until I'd gotten to know what their day-to-day lives look like.

Most student-athletes are not on full scholarships, which I think is a really important thing for people to know. I always thought they were, and I think that made me a little more dismissive. I think I landed here because I am a bit skeptical, I ask a lot of questions. And for me it's really a justice issue in terms of when you have a group of students who are doing this much service for the institution, how do we support them then to be successful? And recognizing that student-athletes are probably the most diverse group of students on campus and they come in sometimes differentially prepared. If we're going to ask that of them, how do we support their academic success so when they leave here, they have a degree and they have a meaningful future out in front of them?

President Watkins: Karen, this has been a very tough week for the Pac-12. The conference announced Tuesday [Aug. 11, 2020] that fall sports will be postponed until spring—a difficult but necessary decision to promote health and well-being in our student-athletes. We're so disappointed and I know this must be the most difficult for our student-athletes. Tell us about how you and others are helping support them during this time.

Karen Paisley: Yeah, obviously we are all crushed, student-athletes, the Athletics staff, fans, especially during a pandemic when we could really use the community and the distraction to rally around. That said, I'm really proud to be part of a conference that made a data-driven decision to protect our student-athletes before a crisis.

So, what does happen now, all of the resources in the Athletics department are mobilized to support folks through this transition, academic support, psychology and wellness, nutrition. All scholarships are protected. Any student-athlete who's on a scholarship will keep their scholarship this year regardless of what happens.

No one will lose a season of eligibility at this point and we're pushing to be able to extend their clocks, which is the amount of time they have to use that eligibility so that they have time to use the season later, that's currently with the NCAA. Or we'll support folks in their graduation and moving on to the next phase of life, whatever that may be. My hope is that young people will take this time to avail themselves of campus and the resources that are there. Maybe they'll study abroad, maybe they can do an internship or some job shadowing. Maybe they'll get involved with university clubs and events, or just in general partake of campus life, recognizing that campus life is a bit different right now too.

President Watkins: I am so grateful for the care and commitment that you and others on the team are showing toward our student-athletes and I agree completely. Athletics Director Mark Harlan talked with others of us on the Cabinet about the academic learning opportunities and ways to engage on campus that our student-athletes often don't have time for. And that this period could allow them to be interns and to do other things and also really to explore more of what the University of Utah has to offer. I also know that that's easy for me to say and difficult when you are so disappointed, and I know we all join together in looking forward to competition in the future and being able to continue to support and cheer on our student-athletes.

Beyond the support we're providing in this unusual situation, I think it would be helpful for our listeners to know a little bit more about what we do as an institution broadly to support student-athletes. You and I have both been exposed to some of what it means to be a student-athlete in terms of the time commitment, practice commitment, travel, and the many challenges really with workload that goes with being a top-tier athlete. I think if you could talk a little bit about that, that'd be great.

Karen Paisley: I feel good about the work that I do as the FAR because the Pac-12 as a conference and Utah as an institution is really committed to the well-being of student-athletes and the Pac-12 as a conference has a reputation for that. Some things that we do are really around nutrition, academic support, psychology and wellness, professional development, and those things are available to the general student body as well. Athletics just makes them available at hours that student-athletes can access those and in formats that student-athletes can access.

But things that we do that I think are really important for student-athletes [are] all student-athletes have access to health insurance for four years after their eligibility is over. We have degree-completion programs so that if someone separates from the university before they graduate, they can come back and complete their degree at the level of scholarship support they had. We have a guarantee in the Pac-12 that your scholarship cannot be canceled due to poor sports performance. If you start out doing really well and then something happens and you can't do that you would get to retain your scholarship in those spaces.

One of the things that made me most proud of the Pac-12 is that student-athletes were included in the governance process of the conference and we were the first conference to do that. They attend meetings and they're involved in voting in those conversations which is really important. The Pac-12 and the University of Utah are supportive of student-athletes' ability to monetize their name, image and likeness, basically meaning that they should have access to the same opportunities that a non-student athlete would in terms of being able to start a business or do things in that realm.

And then the other piece I think that's really important here at Utah, we have a student-athlete group that used to be the UTES Group and now it's called United Together Against Hate, which is UTAH, obviously. But it's anti-racist work and I think that's just really, really important in our current social times as well as just as it's the right thing to do. That's a few of the things that I think are really important.

President Watkins: Extraordinary examples, and both about physical, emotional, mental well-being, academic success and supports. And then in all of us taking a look at our role and our opportunity to make a difference in social justice and racism, so very powerful examples. Now, let's talk about academics just for a minute. We've been so pleased as a campus and really celebrating our upward trajectory in graduation rates and college completion.

I want to acknowledge that our student-athletes have really led the way on that journey. We've celebrated some incredible academic achievements of our student-athletes this past year and even in spring 2020, when we all had to shift to an online learning environment for the second half of the semester. Talk about graduation success rate and the efforts that have gone into that from our campus community, and particularly those that support our student-athletes.

Karen Paisley: Right. We have the most phenomenal folks who do academic support services here at the U, and that just cannot be overstated. Chris Uchacz leads that academic team of folks of the academic advisors and the learning specialists. And they just have adopted a culture of academic success and they approach every student with whom they interact with the assumption that they will be successful. And I think that really matters in terms of whether it's the Pygmalion effect or... but when you talk to people that you will be successful and how are we going to make that happen, I think that that sets a stage.

We have seen phenomenal graduation rates even in the Pac-12, which are some of the best institutions in the country, we're right up there and that's a really gratifying place to be. But I really think that the coaches emphasize a culture of academic success and that's very important. And then it's just reiterated from the administration and then to these phenomenal people who work, I mean, most people work very hard, these people work really hard and keep very strange hours. The mama bear in me gets very protective about making sure they get sleep and they get to recreate, and they have a life. But the energy that they pour into our young people is truly phenomenal.

President Watkins: We really want our listeners to know about the academic success of our student-athletes. And we're so proud of the fact that in the Pac-12 we are not only competing very effectively in our sports we're winning on graduation rates as well. And my congratulations to you as our faculty athletics rep for making that happen and the team of people that are supporting our student-athletes. My guest today, Karen Paisley, our faculty athletics rep. Karen, what a pleasure to have you on the podcast. Thank you so much for your time.

Karen Paisley: Thank y'all.

President Watkins: And I want to thank our listeners. Listeners I hope you'll join us for the next edition of the U Rising podcast.