When Dr. Vivian Fuller testified in 1992 at a congressional subcommittee hearing on gender inequities in intercollegiate athletics, she specifically addressed the lack of women in athletic administration.
“Women should not be limited to traditional positions in such as assistant or associate director of athletics. … In particular, when director of athletics positions become vacant, institutions should consider hiring a woman for the job,” she said in her prepared statement.
Fuller’s words have proved prophetic. At the time, she was in one of those “traditional” roles as associate director of Intercollegiate Athletics at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. But she went on to crack glass ceilings at several schools. She was athletics director at Maryland-Eastern Shore, Tennessee State and Northeastern Illinois universities.
Last month came another Fuller first: The 56-year-old daughter of a North Carolina sharecropper became the first woman athletics director at Jackson State University in Mississippi. Earlier this year, another gender barrier was broken when Dr. Carolyn Meyers became the institution’s first female president.
Their leadership comes at a critical time. As part of the Southwestern Athletic Conference in NCAA Division I ranks, Jackson State’s football program is ineligible for the SWAC championship game because of players’ low academic performance based on the NCAA Academic Progress Rate scores. The program faces possible expulsion from the NCAA if the scores do not improve.
The Academic Progress Rate is a four-year average based on the institution’s overall student-athlete eligibility, graduation and retention rates.
Fuller says she is attacking the situation head-on. “We’re going to look at improving student-athlete welfare through monitoring, advising and mentoring. We want to make sure they graduate and become good citizens who give back to their community.”
One of Fuller’s strategies for helping student-athletes is “getting really involved with alumni.” To that end, just days after being appointed, she developed a relationship with a recently established group, the JSU Alumni Players Association.
One of its founding members, Eric Stringfellow, says, “Dr. Fuller has really embraced our organization. She has her own ideas, but she is also asking for help.”
Stringfellow was a member of the search committee that narrowed the field of candidates to three. “She exuded a lot of energy, and she exuded a lot of confidence. The fact is, she won me over,” he says, adding that he appreciates her emphasis on academics. A local journalist and honor graduate of JSU, Stringfellow played quarterback and wide receiver from 1978 to 1981 and is now chairman of the mass communication department at nearby Tougaloo College.
Meyers echoes the emphasis on academics when offering her views on Fuller’s appointment. “Dr. Fuller possesses full academic and athletic credentials and experiences. These are consistent with the JSU athletic history and focus on athletes being scholars too,” Meyers says. The state board of higher education recently approved Fuller’s $150,000 salary, which is $50,000 more than her predecessor was paid.
Jackson State is one of the nation’s largest historically Black institutions, with undergraduate and graduate enrollment of 8,783.
Although the football program has received the most attention because of its low APR, and baseball also was cited — JSU can be proud of its other programs. According to its sports information office, 16 of Jackson State’s 18 athletic programs scored at or above the national average. The women’s golf and tennis teams both received perfect APR scores of 1,000, and two JSU teams were nationally recognized for being in the top 10 percent in APR scores and achievement.
Although Fuller says she will initiate specific changes after meeting with more members of the campus community, particularly students, she does hint at possible changes and some immediate appointments. “Internally, we have to look at new personnel — assistant AD for compliance and director for academic enhancement. Externally, we need to focus on community outreach and alumni support.”
Among her first actions will be “developing a five-year strategic plan, a road map to operations, what we want to accomplish and who we are.” She also plans to put forth a stadium plan as the university takes control of Veterans Memorial Stadium, where they have played for years. The state legislature recently turned over ownership of the facility to Jackson State until a new campus stadium is built.
After graduating from another HBCU, Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, Fuller pursued graduate degrees in physical education and athletic administration focusing on gender equality and Title IX compliance. She earned a master’s at the University of Idaho and a Ph.D. from Iowa State University.
According to the “Women in Intercollegiate Sport” study, the percentage of female athletic directors across all divisions is actually declining. It fell from 21.3 percent in 2008 to 19.1 percent in 2010, down in numbers from 224 to 201.
“The glass ceiling is real,” Meyers says, acknowledging that there has been progress. “However, breakthroughs such as the appointment of Dr. Fuller enable others to follow her examples of preparation, hard and meaningful work experiences, and commitment. It is all about talent, and she is extremely talented.”
Fuller’s impressive background is not without controversy. After championing women’s participation in intercollegiate athletics and serving on the NCAA gender equity task force, Fuller found herself in a legal battle with a former employer. In 1999, she sued Tennessee State University, alleging that she was fired for complaining about inadequate support for female athletes. She also asserted TSU discriminated against her as a woman.
For the past eight years Fuller was out of athletics administration, serving as dean of Sojourner-Douglass College in Cambridge, Md.
Fuller is interested in seeing more young women pursue careers in the field. Her advice: “Develop a plan, don’t lose focus and find a mentor.” What if she is the mentor they select? “If they call me, I will answer every call.”