Feb. 1, 2011
"The time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."
~Taken from President Barack Obama's Inaugural Address - January 20, 2009~
These words were spoken at a critical juncture in the history of our great country as President Barack Obama was inducted into office. The significance of the moment was not lost on anyone involved, as for the first time in history an African-American individual was elected to have arguably the most influential voice in the free world. The Big Ten Conference has long been at the forefront in the fight for equality and respect for diversity. With the creation of the Advisory Commission in 1972, the Big Ten provided the platform for African-American student-athletes to promote the same climate of change that is driving our nation today.
The Special Advisory Commission, as it was formerly called, was created under the leadership of former Commissioner Wayne Duke as a direct result of reports that described the racial unrest and academic shortcomings that surrounded African-American student-athletes at the time. The group, comprised of former African-American student-athletes, was charged with identifying the injustices of their peers on campus and working with the faculty and administrators in the conference to find plausible solutions.
As John Behee of Tri-State College noted in an essay entitled Race Militancy and Affirmative Action in the Big Ten Conference, "Until 1972 there was no collective, coordinated effort by a major athletic conference in the United States to identify common grievances of their minority athletes and move to resolve them. Each university was expected to handle its own problems."
Although much has changed since the initial meeting in the spring of 1972, the topic of race and diversity is still one of the top priorities for those in the field of intercollegiate athletics. As the NCAA and Big Ten Conference continue to promote diversity and inclusion initiatives as part of its core values, the Advisory Commission continues to adapt as well. Andrea Williams, the Big Ten's Associate Commissioner for Basketball Operations, has worked with this group during her stints wit the conference.
"When the Advisory Commission first started, the topic of diversity usually always referred to race," commented Williams. "In today's world of sports, however, diversity means so much more when you take into account factors like sexual orientation, for example. That level of diversity allows this group to address a wide-range of issues."
The current Advisory Commission has identified many topics for discussion and review with Big Ten administrators. Some of these issues include communication of available programs to student-athletes, academic/degree programs, campus/city police relations, student-athlete financial aid and graduation rates. These and other areas continue to remain as priorities to examine for the group. Each year, the members of the Advisory Commission also take part in their annual campus visits to gain a level of insight into current institutional athletic practices and issues. During these visits, members touch base with those involved in the Diversity Internship Program at each of the Big Ten institutions, and are also responsible for administering a survey that is intended to address prevalent issues and concerns that African-American student-athletes are facing.
Robert Vowels, once an Associate Commissioner with the Big Ten and now the NCAA Vice President of Student-Athlete Affairs, spent an extended period of time working with the Advisory Commission. As he says, the group has had an important role in the history of the conference.
"We discussed some tough issues; they had a voice and the member schools listened attentively during conference meetings," remarked Vowels. "When any advisory group is formed, it starts at the top and [Commissioner] Delany was instrumental in continuing the Advisory Commission because he feels that addressing minority and women issues is important. He understands that diversity and inclusion has always been an important part of the Big Ten Conference, society and a major part of intercollegiate athletics."
A focus for the conference is to partner the Advisory Commission and Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) in an effort to bridge the gap between current and former student-athletes. Further, providing an opportunity to meet in person allows for expanded discussion between the two groups. When together, these two committees discuss the different issues faced by student-athletes on campus. The subject matters range from time management demands, to on-campus relations with law enforcement, to graduation rates, and much more. The Advisory Commission and SAAC, based on their meeting timetable of every other year, are scheduled to meet in April of this year (2011).
The Big Ten has always prided itself on being the academic and athletic bellwether for conferences across the country. The creation of the Advisory Commission was one of the moments that gave credence to that statement, and according to Vowels, the Advisory Commission has left an indelible mark on one of the nation's premier conferences.
"The significance of the group for me remains their voice as it relates to the conference's overall mission," he said. "In order to bring about change, various issues need to be discussed although change may not be the immediate result. The Big Ten Conference was a pioneer in providing intercollegiate athletic opportunities to minority student-athletes when those opportunities were limited because of segregation."
Current members of the group are: Illinois' Eric Rouse, Indiana's Jermaine Chaney (Chair 2010-12), Iowa's Robert L. Smith, Michigan's Joyce Wilson, Michigan State's Herb Washington, Minnesota's Omar Douglas, Northwestern's Hugh Williams, Ohio State's Karen Alsbrooks, Penn State's Rahsaad Carlton, Purdue's Ralph Taylor, and Wisconsin's Von Mansfield