Q&A: Tonia Walker, Winston-Salem State University

August 7, 2017

This article first appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Athletic Management.

Helping an NCAA athletic program transition to a different division is a unique experience. Tonia Walker has done it twice—at the same school.

As Associate Director of Athletics and Senior Woman Administrator, Walker assisted Winston-Salem State University in moving from Division II to Division I a decade ago. She then helped position athletics back to DII in 2010. In 2014, she was promoted to Director of Athletics.

Along the way, Walker has boosted fundraising and academic success. Since taking charge of the department, giving has grown by 34 percent and ticket sales by 29 percent. From 2014 to 2016, student-athlete GPA rose from 2.80 to 2.93. Walker is also recognized nationally for her work in gender equity, winning the 2008 Women Leaders in College Sport’s Nell Jackson Award.

Currently serving as President of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) Management Council and President of its Athletic Director’s Association, Walker is also a board member on NACDA’s D2 Athletic Directors Association. Named the 2015-16 CIAA Athletic Director of the Year, Walker has led WSSU teams to 14 CIAA Championships in the past three years.

In this interview, she talks about lessons learned from changing divisions, increasing revenue at an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and how to successfully push for change as a SWA.

 

What was the thinking behind WSSU’s move from NCAA Division II to Division I, and then back again?

The first transition was based on the philosophy of the chancellor at that time, with a goal of growing the university’s enrollment. Four years later, we were under the leadership of a different chancellor with a different philosophy based on right sizing the university—making sure we could fully accommodate every enrolled student—and turning the focus more towards academics. Also, the expense of holding afloat a Division I program at our level proved very difficult.

Were there any lessons learned from these transitions?

Even though it did not work out for us, there were some successes. Were it not for the move, we would not have expanded facilities and staff, grown our budget, or increased our scholarship allotment. I truly believe that this preparation and effort is what made us successful as we went back to Division II. Prior to the transition, we had not won a championship since 2000. In 2010, the first year we were eligible to compete within Division II again, we won six conference championships. And we have won 21 since then.

I’d say the big thing we learned is that if you are going to make the move to Division I, be absolutely certain you are ready. Make sure that you have done everything possible to find success at the Division II level before moving up.

What are the challenges facing HBCU athletic directors today?

The biggest challenge is funding, both from a federal and an alumni-giving standpoint. Compared to predominant institutions, alumni at HBCU’s are fewer in number and tend to donate lower amounts. But the benefit of an HBCU is that we have learned how to do more with less and I think we’ve been successful in that.

How do you work with alumni?

We try to help alumni understand our needs. Many times, we are faced with donors who look for a lot in return, such as free tickets or gear. We work to explain that those types of perks would mean we are essentially giving your donation right back to you. We talk about how each dollar of their gift has meaning—how it will benefit the student-athletes and lead towards the growth of the athletics program.

What we do offer is recognition, and that works well. People love to see their name, and we have a donor board for those who give at a certain level that is highly visible and updated annually. We also print donors’ names in our programs, and they are given special amenities for parking. While we don’t give away tickets, donors do have the first option to buy. Outside of that, there is always a small gift associated with our lower level donors.

We also have an annual fund named the Horns Program. Prior to me stepping in, it was called the 1,000 Horns, which means that everyone involved gave $1,000 or more. I eliminated that number because I didn’t want it to be a ceiling. We have a breakfast for these donors where we invite them to bring in new members. Corporate sponsors also join us. At the breakfast we showcase what we offer at WSSU. We talk about the programs and student-athletes explain how scholarships have benefited them. Coaches and staff also share facts on their teams’ seasons and expectations for the upcoming year.

Ticket sales at WSSU have steadily risen. How have you expanded your fan base?

There are quite a few schools here in Winston-Salem, but there is nothing quite like the experience of a black college football game, or black college sports. And so I truly believe that although we may share a small percentage of our fan base with non-HBCU institutions, it’s pretty separate—not necessarily by race, but just by experience. Most of our fans are alumni, and we do a lot of planning around the game day experience. The band is a big part of that element, as well as tailgating.

You have a unique situation with your home football stadium. How do you make this work?

We play at the only football stadium in the country that is surrounded by a NASCAR sanctioned track. But we have also been deemed the third best football venue in Division II. The city owns the facility, the track, and the surrounding land, and we are looking into purchasing it. We currently lease the fieldhouse attached to the stadium, which is where our offices are held.

Racing has the stadium from April until August. Then, from August to April, we have it for football and other activities. We work together to solve any overlap or conflict. For example, we have our graduation in April at the same time that racing has access to the stadium. So we moved our graduation to Friday in order to avoid conflict with their Saturday racing schedule.

What are the details of your fundraisers for scholarships?

We have targeted February as scholarship month and have implemented two very successful fundraisers. One is specifically for female athletes and is called “She’s Got it Covered.” It is a classy hat affair where we invite alumni, friends, community leaders, and sponsors to a brunch and they all wear their classiest hats. It’s become almost a competition for the women, and it’s an event people in the city really look forward to. When I am out in the community, someone will often say, “I’ve already got my hat for next year!”

It takes place around National Women and Girls in Sports Day and it’s grown from 300 to 500 people in three years. Tickets are $100 per person and the proceeds go back to scholarships for our women student-athletes. This past winter, in lieu of a speaker, we had a panel of female former student-athletes and athletic leaders from across the country. They discussed the difference Title IX made in each of their lives.

“Bond. Score. Win!” is a fundraiser for male student-athlete scholarships. It has the same concept, but there are no hats, gloves, or bowties. It’s really about the speaker. We started at a high magnitude with Steven A. Smith, so everyone keeps an eye out for the announcement of the next speaker. This past year it was Earl the Pearl Monroe who is an alumni and one of the greatest NBA players of all time.

What strategies have you implemented to help athletes in the classroom?

It begins with our recruiting process. When talking to recruits, we emphasize how academics comes first. Once they are here, we have dedicated advisors to assist with registration, time management skills, and grade monitoring. Study hall is mandatory for freshmen and first-year transfers as well as those who fall below a 2.8 GPA.

If student-athletes don’t go to study hall, or aren’t attending class, we have a process for dealing with this. The first strike is a warning letter from me explaining the program’s expectations. For a second offense, the student-athlete meets with his or her coach and me. We ask why study hall was missed and reiterate the expectations. The third time, the athlete is held out of practice until they have another meeting with us. If there is a fourth offense, we meet with them and tell them that this will be part of their final review at the end of the season, and while we aren’t dropping them from the team, it could potentially mean a reduction in scholarship dollars.

You were one of eight participants selected for the 2005-06 NCAA Fellows Leadership Development program. What did you learn from the experience?

The biggest take-away was that networking is key. When you network, you build relationships that can help establish partnerships and garner ideas. It also gives you people to bounce ideas off of and talk to in a time of need. Through the program I established friends that I will have for life—people I continue to call on. Since then, when I am with colleagues, I am always working the room, because I know that any one of them could be a benefit at some point.

What is the key to being effective in the role of Senior Woman Administrator?

It’s about relationships and trust, both internally and across campus. You have to do what you say you are going to do, have constant contact, keep things confidential when you’re required to do so, show concern outside of the job, and build a sense of team. That’s what sets you up to provide support when it’s necessary.

You also have to be able to keep your ear to the ground and know what’s going on because, typically, you’re the second person in command. You’re the buffer between the staff and the athletics director. Many problems and concerns end up on your desk. You have to make good judgment calls on behalf of the university so that your athletic director is not blindsided by anything.

What has gone into creating gender equity at WSSU?

When it comes to hiring coaches, one of our goals is having a diverse applicant pool. We want to hire the best possible candidate, but ensure that women are part of the pool. I’m proud to say that all of our women’s sports are headed by female coaches.

It’s also essential to monitor that men’s and women’s programs are receiving the same treatment. This includes scholarships, travel expectations, and the overall experience. I won’t hesitate to say, “We wouldn’t do that for football, so we aren’t going to do it for volleyball either.”

Did you ever face adversity in speaking up for gender equity?

Absolutely, but that didn’t mean I dropped the discussion. Certainly, I would express myself at the table. Then, I would discuss the issue behind closed doors with the director of athletics, laying out my reasoning. If I were not heard at that point, I would probably ask the Title IX coordinator to help me.

Are there still challenges in furthering gender equity in college athletics today?

Most definitely, and it’s shown in the numbers. For example, only one percent of minority females serve as directors of athletics. We need to make our voices heard. To do this, you have to know the facts about equity and be able to articulate them when needed. You also have to push back when something doesn’t feel right. It takes uncomfortable conversations, undertaken out of tough love and doing what’s right. We have to continue to advocate for gender equity and inclusiveness on all of our campuses.

Do you have any advice for women looking to become athletic directors?

First, share your goals. Those of us who are sitting in the seats can’t help you if we don’t know what you are trying to accomplish. Second, professional development is key. Become a part of Women Leaders in College Sports and create a network of women who can assist you. Continue taking advantage of experiences even when you aren’t paid for them, and create opportunities for yourself in the job you have now. Also, remember that someone is always watching. You are going to garner respect by the work you do in the role you’re currently in.

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