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Written by Patrick Leary
September 23, 2019
Image credit: Yosef Chaim Kalinko
At her introductory press conference in 2016, Director of Athletics Shaney Fink called Division I athletics “a laboratory for student development.”
“We work and we make sure that we are developing future leaders,” she said at the time. “We’re going to develop those future leaders right here within our athletics department, but they’re going to serve as a model for our entire student body, for our entire community, for our alumni and everywhere we go.”
Three years into her tenure at Seattle University, Fink still echoes those words when she speaks about the role of athletics in the university’s ecosystem. That development aspect, which she says touches all corners of the campus community, is part of why Fink has high goals for athletics as the university marks a decade since returning to Division I.
“I genuinely believe that athletics is the vehicle to achieve the university’s initiatives,” says Fink. “There’s no better pathway. It’s the communication out and the touch point in.”
Fink, a former Division I volleyball player at the University of California, Berkeley, spent her entire pre-Seattle U career at the University of San Diego. She started as an assistant volunteer volleyball coach in 1999, but quickly transitioned to roles within the athletic administration, where she rose to senior associate athletics director.
“When I was an assistant volunteer volleyball coach, I told the athletic director I wanted to be an AD,” she says. “I don’t know that I really knew what that meant, but I knew I wanted to set myself up for whatever opportunities may be down the path.”
That opportunity ultimately led her to Seattle U, where Fink says she recognized the emphasis on authentic leadership right away. Her ascent through the ranks at San Diego mirrors her ambitions for the role of Division I athletics here.
“Athletics tells the story about the mission of the university,” she says.
It wasn’t always like that, especially when Seattle University spent the better part of three decades, beginning in 1980, out of the NCAA’s top division. Provost Shane P. Martin, PhD, says that while the move from D-I may have secured Seattle U some short-term financial stability, it sacrificed a “whole generation of students and alumni” who didn’t experience D-I athletics.
“We have an opportunity to reset that,” he says.
As the university’s academic leader, Martin finds himself advocating the importance of athletics to the occasional skeptic. For him, it’s an additional way Seattle U competes with peer institutions already viewed as academic and mission-based equals.
“Division I is where we belong,” says Martin. “It’s another form of excellence and that’s ultimately what we’re committed to.”
During her tenure as director, Fink has seen an uptick in pride around sports on campus thanks to the success of the student-athletes and the way athletics are more integrated as part of the overall college experience.
“It’s been about building trust,” Fink says. “It feels like, across campus, there’s more confidence in what we’re doing.”
Fink has a staunch ally and confidante within five miles in University of Washington Athletic Director Jennifer Cohen, who also became a first-time athletic director in 2016.
“It’s wonderful to see the athletic success at Seattle U,” Cohen says. “Seattle is a great college sports town and it’s unique to have two Division I programs in the same city.”
According to a 2018 report from Higher Education Publications, Inc., just one in five NCAA athletic directors is female and only 39 Division I athletic departments, or 12 percent, are led by women. In the face of that disparity, Fink appreciates that both of the city’s Division I programs have female leaders.
“It’s so Washington and I love that about Seattle,” Fink says. “Jen is great and has been a great resource and a very fun, worthy competitor.”
Despite the schools’ on-field rivalry, Cohen says she and Fink support and advise each other as they navigate the challenges of their roles.
“We have a special relationship in that we really understand the complexities and pressures of our roles and we also both share a passion for building a championship culture centered around the student-athlete experience,” Cohen says.
One of the beneficiaries of that experience is women’s soccer player Jessie Ray, ’20, a senior forward from Portland, Ore., who gave the keynote speech at the 2019 Red Tie Celebration, which raised more than $700,000 for Seattle U Athletics. Ray, a cell and molecular biology major, says her athletic career allowed her to travel to interesting places and bond with her teammates, but also prepared her to perform better academically.
“Within our respective sports, student-athletes are constantly confronted by a variety of pressure situations that will result in success or failure,” says Ray. “The takeaway is an additional set of skills for dealing with stress, which helps us manage challenges in the classroom as well.”
While some may challenge the relevancy or necessity of athletics in higher education—where academics and personal growth are paramount—Fink stresses the undeniable value add of sports as they pertain to Seattle U’s mission of cultivating leaders and “educating the whole person.”
“You’re going to be academically challenged, you’re going to be involved in the community and you’re going to come out a different person than you were,” she says. “The student-athlete experience mirrors the broader Seattle U student experience. We do things that are distinctly Seattle, that are distinctly Jesuit Catholic and do them better than anybody else.”
Looking ahead, Fink identifies securing an on-campus events center as a major priority for the department, along with continuing to improve the student-athlete experience and alumni relations. And of course, Fink plans to form and deepen on-campus partnerships to further embed Division I athletics into the university’s culture.
“My plan is for the integration to become so intertwined that you can’t imagine Seattle U without athletics, that you can’t pull them apart.”
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