Margaret spent 34 years at Northwestern, starting as a graduate student in 1979. She’s been married to her husband, Bill, for 47 years, and she is the proud mother of Jamie, 31, and grandmother to Kenzie, 3 Here’s an interview that covers her job as the lead advisor and director of student-athletes and her staff over the years. Margaret says some of her best days at NU were when she was the honorary captain of the 2012 NU vs. Illinois home football team, and as one of the influencers involved with the Faculty Guest Coach Program. Margaret said relations improve a great deal on campus when the faculty see how hard athletes work on the field while still holding their “feet to the fire” academically.
MO: How did you end up at Northwestern?
MA: After teaching elementary school in Glen Ridge, NJ, for eight years, Bill was transferred by Merrill Lynch Investment Banking to Chicago, and I decided to go back to school and pursue my doctorate in educational psychology. I began my studies in March, 1979.
MO: What was a day-in-the-life for you like? What types of jobs have you done over the years and on a mass scale, meaning you had to make sure all your kids weren’t forgetting something like registering for classes that would keep them eligible?
MA: Although my daily tasks evolved over the years as I moved into more administrative duties, at every point in my career, the days were full of surprises. That’s what working with people is all about and my job certainly delivered. There were always reports needing done for NUDAR administration, NU committees and administration, the Big Ten, and the NCAA, but all that was imminently interruptible when a student or a coach walked in the door. The people and their questions always took priority and most of that was totally unpredictable.
I spent a great deal of time on email and phone calls with various faculty and staff across the campus. Conversations involved anything from concussions and the academic implications, a struggling student, traveling teams missing class—including the band and cheerleaders for tournaments, missing exams and arrangements for traveling exams, and missing final exams for NCAA competition. Visits with recruits and their families for all our teams was one of the most important tasks; coaches relied on me and my staff to deliver high-quality, honest academic presentations to assist them in their recruitment. Some of these were large group productions, but as often as possible, we met individually.
MO: In recent year’s I’ve seen so many athletic departments grow exponentially from the size of their practice facilities to the numbers now on staff. What type of growth did you witness in terms of staff numbers and numbers of athletes the program served?
MA: To be completely honest, for most of my tenure in NUDAR, our office of academic support for the student-athletes was woefully understaffed. When I began as director in 1988, I had two full-time advisors, one part-time advisor and one very part-time career advisor. That eventually turned into three full-time advisors, but unfortunately, apart from adding a 10-month intern, that’s where we remained for 20 years. At the same time, the numbers of student-athletes continued to grow every year, especially when we added additional sports. Over the years the student-athlete population that we served certainly grew by over 200.
As far as the services we were able to provide, by every measure of success, including surveys of our students and coaches, we got high marks. And oddly enough, I believe that part of the problem was that we kept shooting ourselves in the foot: year after year NU won the awards for the top graduation rates in the country—if not first, then always second. It was very frustrating as it seemed as if the only way we could prove that we needed more staff was to let students fail! Finally, Jim Phillips arrived and immediately recognized that we were understaffed. By the time I retired, he and Janna Blais had added three full-time advisors.
MO: What areas of academic support did you see biggest improvements? Sort of a then verses now? Were their cultural changes that were institutionalized?
Probably three areas of biggest improvement: (1) focus on the freshmen (2) student development programing; and (3) closer coordination with campus advisors and faculty.
(1) Unlike many other institutions, we have always taken the approach that student-athletes are to take responsibility for their own academic lives and we are there to support them when their athletic commitments put them into unusual situations. Over the years, we increasingly focused most closely on the freshman year, requiring every first year student-athlete to meet at least weekly with their academic advisor. There were also required study skills hours for the freshmen—time they spent at the NU library where we had a staff of graduate student tutors available for consultations. We found that the investment in intensive care of the first-years paid off handsomely as they found themselves quickly learning how to become focused and excellent students while gaining the academic/athletic balancing skills required of all elite student-athletes.
(2) We significantly upgraded our student-athlete development programming under the leadership of Betsi Burns. She put in place a program of peer mentoring, community service, leadership and team academic competition that remains to this day—although what she accomplished part-time (she had a full advising load), has now been expanded to five full-time NUDAR staff members, with a complementary growth in services, of course.
(3) Through my association with administrators, deans and advisors on campus, and increased Academic Services involvement on various campus committees, we were able to put in place systems that strengthened the communication and advising lines between the campus and our office. These systems are now firmly institutionalized and the result is student-athletes who feel closer to the NU student body in so many ways.
Anderson Hall has evolved from a tiny corner with four small offices (1987) into a major wing of a new building with seven offices, a large computer lab, lounge and quiet meeting/study room. The department will be moving into larger quarters in the new Walter Athletics Center on the lakeside.
MO: Who at Northwestern were the biggest drivers of change in terms of better academic and cultural support at NU?
MA: It’s hard to select individuals since institutionally, NU has always taken the academic/athletic partnership very seriously. The Presidential Directive on Athletics and Recreation, first penned, I believe, by President Robert Strotz, is a one-of-a-kind document that explicates the philosophy that underlies everything we do at NU with our athletics program. It is audited and updated regularly, and monitored by the Faculty Committee on Athletics and Recreation (CAR). It pulls together university administration, faculty, athletics, the student body and student-athletes—basically the entire university on its mission of maintaining and improving the inextricable link between academics and athletics. In other words, we are all in this together and to name all the people who were the biggest drivers is tough since there have been so many big and small drivers over the years.
That being said, I can point to a few, even at the risk of leaving out so many. Bob Gundlach stands out as someone who has tirelessly worked over the last 25 plus years to fold student-athletes appropriately into the student community, academically, socially, and culturally. In his roles, first as the chair of CAR, and then (and currently) as NU’s Faculty Representative to the NCAA and Big Ten (with a brief stint as Interim Director of Athletics), his mark on the excellent coordination between the academic side and the athletics side is likely unparalleled on any other campus. In addition, the entire CAR, currently chaired by Ken Seeskin, has been a rock of integrity over the years, giving the Presidential Directive on Recreation and Athletics real teeth. Other significant supporters of maintaining the integrity of what we have built at NU were former president Henry Bienen, his assistant Gene Lowe (who continues to be integrally involved), and of course, our current president, Morton Schapiro and Vice-President and Director of Athletics, Jim Phillips. I cannot possibly express the importance of Morty and Jim to the support and growth of the office of Academic Services over the last eight years. Their partnership has been a true game changer.
MO: And how were these individuals, including you, able to emphasize the need for support without allowing the student population think that athletes had live easier?
MA: There were of course many initiatives reaching across the divide between athletics and academics, to educate both faculty and students about the lives and “special needs” of student-athletes. The goal was always the same: student-athletes are just like all other NU students. They happen to possess special talents, as again, do most NU students, but their talents require them to spend a perhaps extraordinary amount of time practicing and performing those talents as is the case for music and theatre students. My absolute favorite—and I believe most effective educational program we ever instituted—was the Faculty Guest Coach Program. Although this was primarily a football program, over the years, we also employed it in men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, and soccer. It’s a part of my legacy of which I am very proud as I firmly believe it had deep and lasting effects on the relationship between NU faculty and our support programs for student-athletes.
MO: Describe how the program works.
Late every summer, I would gather names of “favorite” faculty members from the football seniors. I would add those names to my list, generated over the year through my contacts with various faculty and then would issue invitations to be the guest coach (and bring a friend) for one of the home football games. Briefly, the day would begin with breakfast at the team hotel where we sat and visited with Pat Fitzgerald at his table while the players and coaches ate their breakfast and visited with one another around the hotel dining room. We would then attend the team meetings at the hotel prior to seeing the team off in their buses. We re-assembled back at my office (right next to the stadium), where we would then proceed to the recruiting meeting for all the football families visiting that day. I was the major presenter at those meetings and thus the faculty members were exposed to my full explanation of how we approach and handle academics for all of our football student-athletes (which of course, extends to all our student-athletes).
Even though this was only an hour or so prior to the game, Pat Fitzgerald always made an appearance—and always emphasized that he was looking for young men who are serious about school. As he would say to them, he knew they had great football players there, but if they weren’t also focused students who were committed to excellence in their academics, then likely, NU was not the right place for them.
I was never certain who came away from those meetings more surprised and enlightened, the parents and sons who told me that they were stunned by the presentation since at most schools, academics are never even mentioned at game-day recruiting visits, or the faculty who had absolutely no idea of what went on in the “secret” world of student-athlete recruiting and academic support.
Following that meeting, I would give the faculty a full tour of all the athletic facilities surrounding Ryan Field, talking all the time about all the programs we have for the student-athletes. Then just prior to heading out to watch the game, Morty Schapiro and Jim Phillips would stop by to greet the faculty and thank them for coming. After watching the game from the sidelines for the first and last quarters (another never-to-be-forgotten experience), and the stands for the rest, plus a box lunch in Anderson Hall at halftime (sometimes with visits from other teams’ head coaches), the faculty would be sent on their way after the game with a small gift from the football program (a polo shirt), and a head full of newly-acquired inside information about NU student-athletes, coaches, administrators and the role athletics plays in the NU culture.
And the result? Faculty members who now fully understood that we weren’t try to hide anything. That we recruited only those students who were committed to excellent academics along with their athletics—and that the head football coach was 100% behind it. (I would explain that all our coaches were equally committed.)
As a result, I found that two things happened. Those faculty members would often let me know if something happened that they knew shouldn’t be happening—e.g., a student-athlete telling them that they would be missing class or a test—but the faculty member had not been notified by me; or a student-athlete saying “my coach is going to call you” (which the faculty members had learned is strictly forbidden at NU); or something as simple as a concern about how a student was doing and suggesting to me that perhaps we needed to corral him or her and get the story. In other words, the lines of communication between faculty and my office expanded exponentially—and there is nothing but good that could come of that as long as we all strictly adhered to the policies clearly stated in the Presidential Directive.
The second benefit was the spreading of the word. What one faculty member learns often gets shared, and I would often receive a call or an email from a colleague who would say they got my name from one of my guest coaches. And what brings a particularly big smile to my face, an interest on the part of the faculty in what their student-athletes are doing resulting in questions to the students about how their game went, or condolences or congratulations. And nothing brings a bigger smile to the faces of my students than a faculty member who cares and understands—but still holds their feet to the fire academically.
MO: Several former athletes have said that they would not have made it through NU without you and/or Mary Beth. In what ways have you supported students beyond making sure they signed up for class and were passing?
MA: It is always lovely to be acknowledged as being helpful—and yes, I have heard the same sentiments from former students, as have others of the advisors on my staff, including Mary Beth, of course. As important as taking the right classes and passing them is, that is a very small part of what we do. Class advising is a joint undertaking between athletic and school advisors—and of course at NU, we never talk about passing, we talk about excelling! We have fantastic coaches who are constantly in competition for the highest team grade point averages, so at our place, unlike most other schools, it’s all about getting the highest grades. Rarely do we have to even think about eligibility since we are normally so far ahead of those requirements. In fact, we expect everyone to graduate in four years (at most other schools, it’s a five-year plan), and then if students earn and are offered a fifth year, we expect them to be in graduate school.
As freshmen, they meet with their advisors at least once weekly and those meetings are to talk about school, yes, but also about whatever they wish. Our goal is not to solve every problem, but it is to listen and discern next steps, from just listening to referring them to coaches, trainers, CAPS, church. The network of assistance at NU is tightly woven and strong, and we all work together to make certain each student finds the place to get the right help.
Do students ever come flying into our offices in tears? Oh yes.
MO: I did. More than once.
MA [laughing]: Yes, you did. And often, all it takes is some calm listening, reassurance and formulating a plan. Frequently, the student comes up with the plan alone and the only thing needed was someone to be there. Other times they walk in with anguish in their eyes because they are leaving on a trip and the paper is not done and there’s an exam when they get back, and so forth. Again, simply looking at the problem from a different perspective along with advice about how to approach a faculty member with a reasonable special request is all that might be needed.
I think those situations and many more like them are the ones that lead students to say “I never would have made it without you.” They always knew that we were there for them and that we wouldn’t let them go until a plan was in place.
Being a student at college and away from home is challenging; being a student-athlete at college and away from home is doubly so. Each student-athlete has made a commitment to serve two masters—academics and athletics, and figuring out that complicated set of expectations often requires a helping hand—the university and the athletics department is full of people there for them, but the athletic academic advisors, who probably met them when they came to visit NU before freshman year, seem often to be the first go-to people.
MO: How is Northwestern’s approach to the student-athlete experience different than other institutions who often claim that they’re not giving student-athletes preferential treatment?
MA: I think that often that “preferential treatment” at other institutions is so subtle that those student-athletes don’t even realize how differently they are being treated. It’s the “advice” they get to take certain courses, to have a certain roommate in a certain residence hall, to major in certain disciplines, to expect to take five years to graduate. That’s not true everywhere of course, and it has changed somewhat over the years. But all of those practices—and far more—still exist to far too great an extent.
AT NU, we’ve had Academic All-Americans and winners of NCAA Post-Graduate Scholarships—like you—and other prestigious athletic and academic awards are out there for everyone to look up. We have a rich history of such awards and we are so proud of each and every one of those students.
MO: Without getting into any names, can you reflect back on some of your greatest success stories where student-athletes came to NU not well-prepared or in need of some maturing? How did they respond to the pressures and turn the ship around?
MA: Oh yes, of course I can recall such instances. Cases where the athletic skills outweighed the academic ones and although there was every indication of future success, the student wasn’t yet ready to step up to the academic challenge. Often their academic history was one of struggling and little trust in their academic ability. It is difficult to turn that around, but as we always tell them—we promise to be there with the assistance you need, but this is your life and you are the one who is going to have to work the hardest. If we find ourselves in a position where we want it more than the student does, it is time for a major attitude adjustment involving coaches and all other relevant support systems.
It was extremely rare that we encountered a student for whom NU simply wasn’t going to work. And it wasn’t always about classes as there are so many factors that go into a successful college career. When it became clear that it was a mismatch, we would all put our heads together to assist that student in finding the best place. Apparently, our system of recruiting and support works pretty well—those top Graduation Success Rates and Academic Progress Rates tell a nice story.
MO: You and your family have enjoyed the benefits of being in and around a college campus and all the people who make things happen. What type of impact has this had on your family?
MA: It was a very interesting 34-year formal connection to NU. Our home is about 35 miles northwest of Evanston—which meant, yes, I did a LOT of driving. But we did indeed try to connect with all the benefits offered by NU and Evanston as much as possible. My son, Jamie, for whom you babysat—more like kid-sat—spent the first five years of his life going back and forth to Evanston with me. He had a fabulous home day care family at Kathe Ford’s house in Evanston, and then three marvelous years at the Barbereux pre-school, also in Evanston. His early birthday parties were all at SPAC beach and when he wasn’t in daycare, he was hanging out with student-athletes around my office, or along with my husband, Bill, (who also did a lot of driving), was attending many football, men’s and women’s basketball (where Jamie was a ball boy), volleyball, field hockey, tennis. You name the sport, he was there, welcomed by coaches and student-athletes alike. The whole family is purple—and hasn’t missed a football bowl game yet, including the Rose Bowl.
MO: What are some of your favorite memories at Northwestern?
MA: A list is probably best here. My first graduating class in 1991—and each subsequent annual N-Club dinner celebrating each senior class. The run to the Rose Bowl with Gary Barnett and that whole football family—and of course the game itself. Being part of the “team” that helped Matt Hartl graduate before he died. Being on the deck with women’s swimming and diving at Big Ten and NCAA Championships. Being Brent Shiver’s academic advisor—our first (and only) deaf student-athlete, a wrestler. Celebrating our first football bowl win at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville with the football families—and the football family—and my former student-athlete, Pat Fitzgerald, as the head coach. Meeting with recruits and their families; it was so much fun to share the excitement with them about the incredible potential that NU could provide for them. Long hours, and tears, and lots of laughter with the best staff imaginable; we loved our jobs and helped each other maintain healthy lives outside of the office—whenever possible!
MO: And what’s next for you? I know you’re retired technically, but being a grandmother is something you take seriously, and you are very good about staying caught up on Facebook with all the former student-athletes you helped a great deal.
MA: Yes, I retired in June, 2013 after 25 years with NU athletics. I still feel very connected and try to get in to visit with everyone, especially academic services, as often as I can. In the fall, we attend football practice weekly—and of course have season tickets to football, along with both men’s and women’s basketball. So much fun—and it’s so lovely to be welcomed back with hugs and smiles. Makes me feel like I still work there.
Apart from the grandmother thing, which “requires” visits to Florida about every six weeks, and daily workouts to stave off the encroaching years, I am actually very busy with volunteer work. I have been volunteering with the Chicago Master Singers as their international tour coordinator (every other year trips, next one in June), and I love doing that among other duties. I also wear many hats at my church, Community Church of Barrington, where our minister is an NU grad (BLEEDS purple), and her husband, the former NU Director of Financial Aid. And of course there is always other family to visit, everywhere from Ohio to North Carolina, Virginia to South Dakota.
I didn’t realize it when I started in the athletics department as a lowly, part-time academic advisor, but I was embarking on a roller coaster that became my dream job. I had been a college athlete and had always loved sports, but if anyone had told me that I could combine my love of education with athletics—and revel in it for the rest of my career, I would have expressed just a wee bit of doubt.
MO: What was the best part of your job and service to others?
The thrill of loving what I did, the opportunity to learn so much every day, and the exquisite joy of touching so many lives has left me with beautiful—purple—memories that will truly last a lifetime.