Scott Rosner, academic director and professor of professional practice on the Sport Management programme at Columbia University, discusses how an emphasis on inclusion has helped the school guide its students through the turbulent events of 2020 so far.
Student anxiety in our Columbia Sports Management programme was understandably high throughout the spring due to Covid-19, but reached an entirely different level during the nationwide protests against racial injustice fuelled by the murder of George Floyd. Like the city in which we are based, our programme is a melting pot of different races and other intersectional identities. Black students comprise approximately 15 per cent of our population. The tenets of over-communication, availability, transparency and empathy guided our response. I spoke with every Black student and a number of our other students (many on multiple occasions) to check in on their well-being and to solicit their ideas on potential programmatic changes.
I similarly connected with every Black member of our faculty and staff. None of these conversations was easy, many were hard and all were emotional. A lengthy, heartfelt letter to our community was crafted – though I did call on my own network of Black friends and colleagues to serve as a sounding board as I wrote it. (Though their feedback as to its content and sentiment was de Minimis, all praised me for reaching out before sending it. It is a good reminder of the importance and value of having a diversity of perspectives on your internal Board of Directors – and in your organisation.)
A first step was explaining to our stakeholders the various initiatives, programmes and activities that the Sports Management programme already had underway regarding the topics of race and racism. We purposely had not done much in the way of public relations around these activities, as I am of the mind that great deeds are done not for optics but because they are worthy investments in and of themselves. So what were we already doing?
A significant part of our efforts focused on the Columbia University School of Professional Studies HBCU Fellowship programme, a four year-old concept that provides full tuition, housing, a modest stipend and tailored programming – a total value of over $100,000 – to two dozen recent graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities every year. Our programme has had four HBCU Fellowship students thus far. We want far more, so we undertook additional recruiting efforts at the NFL Careers in Football event in Atlanta in 2019, delivering presentations to all 200+ attendees as well as the MEAC conference and approximately 50 institutional representatives. Our plan for 2020-21 is to add the SWAC conference and its institutional representatives. These efforts yielded all-time highs in both applicants and acceptances from HBCUs.
We work on projects with major properties. In conjunction with the National Football League, we have conducted substantial independent research and delivered reports on the ongoing social justice efforts of the NFL in two separate courses during the past two academic years. Both reports were delivered and discussed with the highest levels of league leadership. We are also involved in a project with the NYC Department of Education, East Harlem Schools, and New York Rangers, conducting all of the data entry and analysis of survey work around the creation and implementation of a street hockey curriculum in NYC physical education classes. Inside the classroom, we have five members of our faculty and staff who are Black, but we could be more diverse. We added a course on Athlete Activism and Social Justice in 2018. We ensure that there is a diverse set of panelists at all sessions of our annual conference and all events hosted by the Sports Management programme.
Finally, we had already planned for the creation of a public service requirement (to be part of a core course) as of January 2022, pending state approval. This would require all Sports Management programme students to perform between 20-40 hours of community service with a sports-focused non-profit organization. The programme is in the process of creating relationships with a variety of these organisations across New York City. The public service requirement will be integrated with faculty-led educational sessions. So we were quietly doing a lot of different things, but it never felt like quite enough. We should have been better.
Since the nationwide protests against systemic racial injustices that resulted from the killing of George Floyd, we have undertaken a number of different measures in an effort to make a change in our corner of the world. We began by having difficult conversations within our Columbia Sports Management community. Four-plus hours of town halls were held in which there was anger, tears, apprehension, expressions of ignorance, teaching and learning, among other things. Our international students gained an immense amount of knowledge, as most had little concept of the extent to which systematic racism exists in America. A new student club, the Black Sports Management Union, was formed with the full support of the Sports Management programme. A host of potential changes were discussed in these town halls and many ultimately will be implemented.
Our changes moving forward impact students from the very beginning of their Columbia experience and continue throughout. We are adding sessions on bias training to our own Sports Management orientation programming and creating an annual ‘book club’ with required reading on a topic involving race and sports with a corresponding speaker event. The book for 2020 is Sport Matters: Leadership, Power, and the Quest for Respect in Sports, with author Kenneth Shropshire leading the conversation. An assignment based on the book will be a part of our core introductory course requirements in the Fall 2020 semester. We are introducing an annual two-day Race and Sports workshop, which also will be a part of a core course requirement.
We will also infuse more conversation on the topics of diversity and inclusion throughout the curriculum. Where appropriate, these topics will be included as part of the course modules and include more speakers from underrepresented groups. We are altering our peer mentoring programme by putting each dyad into larger 6 person groups that are interracial/international and more broadly representative of the student population in general. We have also requested that our school leadership advocate for broader changes across the entirety of Columbia University.
Externally, the programme is going to increase the involvement of our students, faculty and staff in working with students at a public high school in Manhattan. Next steps are being planned. The Sports Management programme is also planning to create a series of weekend programming for New York City students from disadvantaged areas on careers in the sports industry.
The goal is to promote awareness of the industry in an effort to diversity the pipeline of future entrants. We will increase our collaboration with groups focused on networking opportunities aimed at minorities in sports with various Black organisations, non-profits, and related groups. Finally, unlike our previous approach, we will provide continuous updates on matters of race during our regularly scheduled Sports Management student meetings. It’s still not about the optics but we owe it to our stakeholders to keep them informed. I welcome the opportunity to share further insights on any of these efforts with readers at other programmes or organisations that might be interested in taking them under consideration.