Senior Associate Athletic Director for Internal Operations and Senior Woman Administrator
by John Smith - Jan. 21, 2021
Think Ferris State Athletics, and the notion may take you to competitive action in
an arena, stadium, course or field. For Sara Higley, the senior associate athletic
director for internal operations and senior woman administrator, there is plenty of
time spent, thought offered and work undertaken in the office and conference room.
Her intentions were clear as Higley, a native of the Stanwood area completed her Bachelor of Science degree in Sports Management and Communications at the University of Michigan in 2005.
“I was a student employee with Michigan’s athletic department for two years, while I worked to complete my degree, with my formative career role coming from Leisure Intelligence Group, an Ann Arbor-based consulting firm,” Higley said. “Since I wanted to get closer to home, I then worked for a year as a freelance sportswriter for The Pioneer and other publications. My first opportunity with the Ferris Athletics staff came through a part-time compliance position that interim Athletics Director Keri Becker offered me in 2010, which was funded by a stipend,” Higley said. “I advanced to an interim position, which led to my next role as the department’s first full-time compliance coordinator in 2012.”
Those early years in administrative roles included Sara’s work with individual athletic programs to place a greater focus on degree completion by their student-athletes.
“We remain very focused on retention for these student-athletes, with no window for failure,” Higley said. “There was a time where we were not as successful in that regard, but efforts have increased, with the desired results developed, in terms of doing what is necessary to assure academic and personal success for the members of our 17 athletic teams.”
Higley continued her learning while gaining additional responsibilities in Athletics, which culminated in the completion of her Master of Business Administration degree from Ferris in 2015. As part of her recently announced roles as senior associate AD and senior woman administrator, Sara said she now oversees departmental Title IX considerations, with support from the university’s Title IX office.
“We have done a great deal of self-study and even addressed an Office of Civil Rights complaint that had been brought,” Higley said. “It is important to review policies and procedures, with an eye on making improvements. Gender equity considerations, as they relate to facilities and other aspects of our department, are an important aspect of my duties. As Ferris’ NCAA Diversity/Inclusion officer, I welcome the support and collaboration with Kaitlin Zies and her peers in the university’s Title IX office.”
As members of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, where Ferris and its peers compete at the NCAA Division II level and NCAA Division I hockey, through the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, Higley oversees responsibilities for the department’s comprehensive compliance with all regulations and requirements.
“Our athletes come to Ferris from many states, and we have a number of athletes from other countries,” Higley said. “We have to consider and appreciate aspects of diversity, and there are, in some cases, matters of disability that need to be addressed. Since I joined the staff, we have had a cycling of coaches in nearly every sport. In my role, we have sought to promote the department’s focus on recruiting athletes who are capable competitors, who can enjoy similar success in the classroom. By assisting our junior coaches and members of the staff on each team, we have been able to impress upon them the importance of meeting both these requirements, to the satisfaction of the department and the university’s administration.”
Higley said the Ferris’ Academic Support Center is a key contributor to the success of student-athletes who are challenged by the demands of balancing athletic competition and academic achievement.
“Certainly there are students, who might be varsity athletes or are simply new to the demands of collegiate learning, that require assistance to find their niche, and rhythm academically,” Higley said. “We have enjoyed the collaborative efforts of Academic Support Center Director Karen Royster-James and her team, in the development of routines and promoting an emphasis on academics, to support accomplishment in the classroom or laboratory.”
Other duties under Higley’s purview include administrative oversight of the women’s basketball and soccer programs, the men’s and women’s golf teams, along with the strength and conditioning programs for the entire Athletics Department. Sara is also department liaison for the Athletic Advisory Committee, which comprises athletes, faculty, staff and administrators, chair of the Ferris Compliance Committee and advisor to the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
“I do wear a lot of hats,” Higley said. “One key consideration is building camaraderie among the students in our 17 athletic programs. Through the SAAC, we work to support athletes to grow as young adults and explore areas that match their passions. Regardless of their gender or range of athletic abilities, we strive to bring our athletes to an understanding of what it means to represent the university while striving for excellence as a team member and an individual competitor. There is a great reward watching them represent the Bulldogs in their sport, with just as much worth found in seeing them through to commencement and receiving their degree.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily idled plans for a Center for Athletics Performance, training space, and room for teams to enjoy improved facilities for competition or to meet as a team, away from the field of play.
“We have lofty goals for Ferris’ teams, so we might achieve success throughout the Athletic Department, at levels we currently enjoy in our hallmark programs,” Higley said. “Timelines for some of these developments are a bit uncertain due to unknowns brought on by the pandemic. Regardless, our administration will continue to consider and discuss how we might advance these plans to improve our physical plant while communicating and promoting these concepts to the university and our supporters.”
Testing regimens to assure health and safety were established after months of consultation and study find Ferris athletes now returning to competition or practice, which Higley said means added observation and activity for their department.
“This is a business that presents roles we must accept, with plenty of outside requests for assistance and all kinds of suggestions, from our university administration and athletic partners,” Higley said. “It is important to be prepared to communicate well and give whatever is necessary to achieve, on the court and in the classroom. While the demands can be great, the rewards are certainly significant and most satisfying. It is easy to accept what my job demands, when I reflect on our wonderful athletes and teams, with all they achieve and the joy and attention they bring to this university and our supporters.”
Photo credit: Angela McCane
John Smith is the communications specialist in the News Services and Social Media
department of University Advancement and Marketing.
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