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Women We Admire: UC Berkeley Athletic Director Sandy Barbour

From her post–football game ventures into the men’s locker room, to her 21 months dealing with tree-sitting protesters, Sandy Barbour’s eight-year tenure as athletic director at UC Berkeley has had its challenges as well as its rewards.

Barbour shared her stories with a packed house in UCOP’s Franklin Lobby One Conference Room, part of the Women We Admire series sponsored by the President’s Advisory Committee on the Status of Women (PACSW). An audio recording of her Jan. 24 talk, as well as upcoming speakers, can be found on PACSW’s Women We Admire website.

Introduced by her longtime friend and colleague EVP Nathan Brostrom as a “great representative of the University of California,” Barbour talked about the place of women in college athletics and her own journey from student-athlete to her 30-year career as a top athletics administrator at some of the best colleges in the country.

“I’ve always been picky about the places I’ve chosen to associate with,” said Barbour, who has held top positions at Northwestern, Tulane and Notre Dame in addition to Cal. “I want to be with colleges that do it right — that provide intellectual rigor as well as the opportunity to compete at the highest level.”

And do it right she has. Under her watch, Cal’s 29-sport program with 808 student-athletes has captured 15 national team championships and 67 individual titles. This includes the first Pac-10 conference title in 50 seasons for men’s basketball in 2009–10, and a four-game bowl win streak for the football team in 2005–08. Meanwhile, students in more than half of the 29 programs maintain a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher.

Barbour got her B.S. in physical education in 1981 from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she played field hockey and basketball. There, she said, the program was far more modest than Cal’s; she considered herself fortunate to have uniforms and a field to play on.

“I chose sports because I’m drawn to the competition,” Barbour said. “I love to win, but more important, I hate to lose.” She had the opportunity to go into professional sports but kept choosing college athletics for its stimulating atmosphere, where learning goes on all the time, outside the classroom as well as in.

“Part of our culture of winning makes it a huge challenge to get the athletics staff to encourage student-athletes in their careers,” she said. “We are educators first and foremost, and the B+ on the history exam is just as important as the four sacks on Saturday.”

Speaking of football, Barbour admitted it’s a primary reason she is one of only five women athletic directors (ADs) overseeing both men’s and women’s programs out of 122 Division 1A U.S. colleges in the National College Athletic Association. In fact, that number has actually decreased from 11 women since 1996, when she was appointed AD at Tulane at age 36.

“Football is a man’s world, and it drives the money on college campuses,” she added. “There is nothing else that brings 55,000 to 75,000 people together in one place on our campuses. It’s magical on some level.”

Barbour said her own story would not be complete without talking about her family, particularly her father. A career aviator in the U.S. Navy, he had no issues with having three daughters, even though he was unsuccessful at getting Sandy, his youngest, on a Little League team in 1965.

“He taught me, not in words but by his actions, not to see black and white, male and female, officers and enlisted,” she said. “He said, ‘Sandy, you can be anything you want to be.’ A lot of years later I now appreciate what it took for this man to say that.”

As a woman, Barbour believes she brings a clear vision and other special gifts to the world of athletics. Most important of these is humility, which she finds rare in an arena that features lots of chest pumping and grandstanding. But she advised the women in her audience not to make an issue of being a woman competing with men in the workplace.

“Don’t make it about being a woman,” she cautioned. “In the end, as we have success, that will be recognized. But don’t lead with that.”

The Women We Admire series was established in 2009 to bring women from throughout the UC system to UCOP to share insights about their careers, workplace challenges and work-life balance.

Mark your calendar now for the next speaker, UCSF Director of Outreach Renee Navarro, who will speak Monday, March 19, 12 to 1 p.m., also in Lobby One.

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