President Olian joins independent college sports body pushing to advance NCAA reforms

Cat Murphy, Associate News Editor

Quinnipiac University President Judy Olian was named on Feb. 22 to The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, an independent leadership group that seeks to develop and promote reform within the NCAA.

Formed in 1989 amid a series of high-profile collegiate athletic scandals, the Knight Commission strives to spearhead NCAA policy initiatives that “strengthen the educational mission of college sports,” according to the commission’s website.

“The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics was founded on an unwavering commitment to the well-being of student-athletes,” Olian wrote in a March 6 press release. “I’m honored to serve with my fellow commissioners in this pivotal time of transformation in the governance of college sports.”

The commission comprises current and former college administrators, former college athletes and other collegiate athletics experts.

Olian was appointed alongside former college athletes Kimberly Harmon, head football physician at the University of Washington and professor at the University of Washington Medical School, and Amy Huchthausen, former commissioner of the NCAA’s America East Conference.

The commission also appointed Pamela Bernard, vice president and general counsel of Duke University, co-chair of the body.

Quinnipiac University President Judy Olian was among the four newest appointees to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, an independent body seeking to reform NCAA policies. (Peyton McKenzie)

“The appointment of these four highly accomplished leaders from higher education and college athletics who bring a variety of expertise is both welcomed and needed,” said Arne Duncan, Knight Commission co-chair and former U.S. secretary of education, in a Feb. 22 press release.

The commission has been a key sponsor of the NCAA’s efforts to raise the graduation rate among Division I student athletes. Formed when the six-year student-athlete graduation rate sat at just 52%, the commission’s calls for academic reforms helped boost the federal graduation rate among Division I student athletes to nearly 70% by 2022, according to the NCAA.

Although the commission has no official authority over the NCAA, the group has influenced several major policy changes since its inception more than three decades ago, including the NCAA’s adoption of an academic threshold for postseason eligibility in 2011.

The academic threshold provision, which the Knight Commission first recommended in its 2001 report, requires that at least 50% of a team’s players are on track to graduate to qualify for postseason competition.

However, the federal graduation rate calculation does not consider transfer students or athletes who leave an institution in good academic standing prior to graduation. The NCAA, which utilizes a more inclusive calculation to measure graduation rates among student athletes, calculated a 90% graduation success rate among Division I student athletes in 2022.

Using the NCAA’s adjusted calculation, the six-year graduation rate among Quinnipiac student athletes across all sports was an average 93% during the 2021-2022 academic year, according to the NCAA.

The Knight Commission is currently pushing to further expand the rights of student athletes to profit from the use of their name, image and likeness.

However, the increasing popularity in collegiate athletics of NIL sponsorships has raised questions about gender equity.

Molly Yanity, chair of journalism at Quinnipiac, spoke in a PBS NewsHour interview on March 18 about Olivia Dunne, a Louisiana State University gymnast whose $2.5 million social media presence has on several occasions threatened her safety.

“This is the entertainment business,” Yanity said. “Universities are going to figure out how to protect their athletes when it comes to things like this.”

Drawing the contrast between the monetization of NIL in men’s and women’s sports, Yanity noted that female athletes like Dunne often profit more from their conformity to conventional beauty standards than from their athletic abilities.

“We can look at this as, on one hand, a great thing: she is monetizing this,” Yanity said. “But on the other hand, there are going to be a lot of female athletes that can’t capitalize on this.”

The commission’s current initiatives also include several efforts to restructure the NCAA Division I financial model to prioritize transparency, independent oversight and gender equity.

The Knight Commission notes on its website that Olian, who previously served as the dean of the UCLA Anderson School of Management, has a background in financial management. 

In addition to her Knight Commission appointment, Olian has served as the vice president of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the conference in which Quinnipiac’s 21 Division I athletics teams compete, since February 2022.

However, Olian is poised to succeed the Rev. James J. Maher, president of Niagara University and current MAAC president, as president of the conference on July 1, 2023.

“I am a staunch believer in the value of collegiate athletics,” Olian said in a February 2022 press release about her appointment to the vice presidency. “These student athletes become role models to the rest of the student community and a point of pride to the institution.”

CORRECTION 3/23: A previous version of this article said John Morgan, associate vice president for public relations, declined to comment further on role on the Knight Commission.