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Academic and Student Life Committee discusses changes in college athletics landscape, research initiatives

The Committee discussed advancements in research related to technology and mental health

After the open session, the Committee moved into a closed session meeting in which they discussed Faculty Personnel Actions.
After the open session, the Committee moved into a closed session meeting in which they discussed Faculty Personnel Actions.

The Board of Visitors’ Academic and Student Life Committee discussed changes to college athletics, including recent changes to the Atlantic Coast Conference and Name, Image and Likeness deals — which allow student athletes to benefit financially — at their meeting Thursday. The Committee also heard from four University researchers about the research aspect of University President Jim Ryan’s 2030 Plan. 

Athletic Director Carla Williams reported on the recent allowance of NIL deals for student athletes and realignment of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and their possible implications for the University’s student athletes.

In June 2021, the NCAA announced that student athletes would be allowed to benefit from their name, image and likeness, as long as the opportunity does not relate to compensation for participation or pertain to recruitment. The University created the Cav Futures Foundation nonprofit January of this year to assist student athletes looking to enter the marketplace.

Members addressed a recent proposal made by the NCAA head Charlie Baker Tuesday that would allow all Division I institutions to directly pay student athletes for NIL use. The proposal also outlines a new subdivision among Division 1 athletics that would give more financial autonomy to programs who donate millions into an educational trust fund for student athletes.

Ryan said he discussed the document with ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips and believes most leaders remain unclear on the proposal’s full implications. Williams said she was similarly caught off guard but sees the ideas as an important step towards preserving competition between schools in the era of NIL.

“I think that that's probably one of the reasons President Baker did what he did was to spark conversations about it, because the current system is not sustainable,” Williams said. “And so we do need to have some very hard conversations about moving forward.”

Amidst the ACC’s consideration of NIL policy, the ACC Board of Directors, chaired by Ryan, voted in September to formally admit the University of California-Berkeley, Southern Methodist University and Stanford University to the ACC after the dissolution of the Pac-12 Conference and SMU’s move away from the American Athletic Conference. 

Williams noted the largest challenges that will come with this change are integration, scheduling and travel when the two California schools and SMU become full members this coming fall. The travel burden will fall mainly on Stanford and UC Berkeley, but Williams noted that Virginia Athletics will have to find new ways to support their student athletes when they do travel to these schools. 

“I feel like we do a really, really good job in supporting our student athletes, we probably could do a better job of supporting student athletes who wouldn't be deemed at risk or require a little bit more support,” Williams said. “So we probably need to do a better job there and we'll have to be really, really mindful of those students when we start to travel out west in 2024.”

Williams additionally discussed mental health support for student athletes, noting that over half of the University’s total athletes — close to 800 — are actively seeking mental health counseling.

Ian Baucom, executive vice president and provost, introduced “The Path to Research Preeminence” as an element of the 2030 Plan, the University’s plan to become the top public university. Initiatives include the expansion of research infrastructure, upgrades to the Alderman Library, the launch of the Karsh Institute of Democracy and funding for interdisciplinary research and initiatives. 

Research investments have been made in four priority research fields known as “Grand Challenges” — Democracy, Environmental Resilience and Sustainability, Precision Medicine/Health, The Brain and Neuroscience and Digital Technology and Society. Thursday’s meeting focused on research done in the latter two of these areas, towards each of which the University has committed to investing $50 million. 

Neurology Prof. Kevin Pelphrey and Education Prof. Micah Mazurek reported on autism research done under the Brain and Neuroscience umbrella.

Mazurek discussed the increasing prevalence of autism in children, and the challenges facing early intervention and treatment. He discussed the Supporting Transformative Autism Research initiative, which focuses on creating an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach to research and has already involved work with faculty from 17 different departments. 

“These initial investments have already begun to achieve remarkable success and return on investment,” Mazurek said. “We have supported over 90 studies to date ranging from neuroscience to applied practice, and we're starting to learn things that can help us develop solutions for families where they live in their communities.”

Pelphrey noted that the initial investment has supported the University's research as one of the nine Autism Centers of Excellence in the United States. The University has been collaborating with these other universities to study autism in girls. 

Bethany Teachman, psychology professor and director of Clinical Training in the College, and Nancy Deustch, education professor and director of Youth-Nex, the University’s center focused on promoting effective youth development at the School of Education and Human Development, reported on current and future work related to the Digital Technology and Society initiative, which studies the connection between digital technology and youth mental health. Deutsch identified the need for this research, as the relation between technology use and mental health has not been thoroughly studied. 

“Despite the eyebrow raising statistics about the prevalence of teens' technology use, there is very little truly rigorous research that identifies where and when digital technology is harmful and where and when it can be used to support well-being,” Deutsch said. 

Teachman explained that those suffering from mental health issues often lack access to treatments — whether medication, therapy or other treatment plans — which are proven by research to be successful. 

The initiative aims to research prevention and intervention approaches for a variety of mental health issues. Teachman discussed one of the collaborative studies that has already been completed, in which University students who had attempted suicide gave researchers access to their text history leading up to the attempt. 

Digital programs that have been implemented through this initiative include the MindTrails teen program for anxious youth, and a program specific to the U.Va. community called Hoos Think Calmly. 

Ryan asked speakers from both areas to discuss the most promising areas of their research. Deutsch highlighted the value of technology in connecting and building community, as well as the ability of digital programs to increase access to mental health support. Pelphrey noted that the research has already helped to reduce the average age of diagnosis and treatment of autism. 

During the meeting, the Committee voted on three action items, approving the Nina and Ken Botsford Bicentennial Professorship in Neurodegenerative Diseases, which will support a faculty member working in the field of neurodegenerative diseases, allowing the School of Medicine to attract scientists studying and treating Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and related diseases. 

Also approved was the Arts & Sciences Research Professorship in Democracy and Equity, donated by Class of 1985 alumna Lisa A. Smith. Smith used the University Research Professorship in Democracy and Equity Matching Fund to fund this research professorship in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. 

The Distinguished Professorship in Emergency Medicine was renamed as the Robert E. O’Connor Distinguished Professorship in Emergency Medicine. Dr. O’Connor worked as department chair from 2007 to 2023, and the decision to rename was made to honor his academic and community service as well as add prestige to the endowment and assist with the recruitment process. 

After the open session, the Committee moved into a closed session meeting in which they discussed Faculty Personnel Actions. The Committee will convene again in March. 


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