The University of Kentucky (UK) has an athletic department that is well known for success on a competitive level. But beyond the fanfare of its 11 national championships in four different sports is an overarching commitment to representing the university – and Kentucky itself – with dignity, and ensuring that it stays connected to the academic mission of the university.
“In so many ways, this is the front porch to the university and the commonwealth,” Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart says. “Like any major brand, it is our responsibility to act with integrity, making decisions that are for the good of this institution and our student-athletes here.”
Barnhart has led the Kentucky Wildcats since 2002, having previously served in a similar capacity with Oregon State University from 1998 to 2002. His experience running major collegiate athletic programs at the NCAA Division I level has shown him how athletic programs can act as a major part of the educational experience, even during an era when it is more difficult than ever for student-athletes to balance their competitive commitments with the academic and social demands of today’s world.
“Balancing that dynamic as an 18- to 22-year-old is very difficult,” Barnhart says. “I believe that we are chasing a culture that is difficult to catch, because the rules of society and technology change so fast and can become detrimental to relationships. We concentrate on making sure our coaches have everyday relationships with our kids and know what is going on in their lives. That day-to-day relationship is where the real teaching begins.”
There can be no denying the success the University of Kentucky has experienced on the field of play. It is a founding member of the Southeastern Conference, and its men’s soccer team competes in Conference USA. The university has won eight men's basketball NCAA titles (most recently in 2012), as well as winning national titles in football and women's cross-country and rifle, not to mention a cheerleading squad that has won 19 national titles.
With all the competitive success, it is easy for the public eye to wander from the fact that the vast majority of Kentucky Wildcats will never earn a dime as professional athletes. Therefore, the athletic department puts as much emphasis on academic success as it does on wins.
“We have almost 500 student-athletes, and most of our kids know they won’t play professionally,” Barnhart says. “When I got here, the athletic department’s graduation rate was around 40 percent, and now we are in the 60 percent range. We have made progress, but we want to be better.”
Helping that effort is the university’s Center for Academic and Tutorial Services (CATS), an academic support program for student-athletes. CATS is conveniently located in 20,000 square feet of space within Memorial Coliseum and near the central academic campus.
Student-athletes are assigned tutors proactively so they don’t fall behind. They have access to a computer lab, a 60-seat study area and 25 private tutor rooms. Student-athletes can complete required quiet study hours at any time during the facility’s operating hours, and they can make arrangements to use CATS resources during non-working hours.
“Our challenge is to be better and make sure our young people are walking out of our programs as engineers, or doctors,” Barnhart says. “Much like the student population as a whole, it can be hard for us to convince young people that their studies are something they must pay attention to. But we maintain our connection to the campus and make sure our student-athletes are respectful of their professors and do not take their learning opportunities for granted.”
Another piece of the puzzle is working service-learning into the equation. This makes perfect sense for an athletic department, where teams are defined by their ability to put team goals ahead of individual goals.
“Great teams and great people think about what is good for others, but our culture today tends to reflect on individuals,” Barnhart says.
During 2011-12, Kentucky’s student-athletes recorded more than 4,000 hours of community service. The University of Kentucky athletic department supports organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, Hope Lodge, Ronald McDonald House, UK Children's Hospital and the Salvation Army. Kentucky student-athletes have done everything from bringing food to local youths and running a shoe drive to participating in reading programs and serving internationally in Ethiopia.
Because it is a big-time college program, the UK athletic program is heavily scrutinized from a financial perspective. But the athletic department’s goal is to operate transparently from a fiscal point of view, and to be self-sustaining. Although it has an operating budget of more than $90 million, that represents 3.5 percent of the university’s total budget. Annually, about 25 percent of the athletic department’s budget is spent on campus. Plus, the athletic department has provided close to $15 million to the university’s general scholarship fund over the last 10 years.
“We have to make sure our student-athlete experience is at the level that it should be, but we must also share what we can across campus,” Barnhart says. “It is a tough time financially for higher education institutions, and the University of Kentucky is not immune to that.”
The University of Kentucky athletic department has invested in becoming an elite program. It has implemented cutting-edge, state-of-the-art technology to help with competitive considerations such as scouting and the mechanics of how athletes perform. And though more investments are planned, the department never forgets that its mission must maintain a focus that values A’s as much as it values W’s.
“Academically, we’d like to see our athletes’ overall GPA above 3.0 consistently, and right now we achieve that roughly every third semester.” Barnhart says. “We will reach for that, and we will continue to contribute to the university by generating excitement so people can rally around the Kentucky flag.”