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March 28, 2022

UCI Podcast: Celebrating Paula Smith’s unique path on the 50th anniversary of Titl IX

The director of intercollegiate athletics discusses her journey, the label of ‘pioneer,’ what has changed and what still needs to change for women in sports

Paula Smith’s life has been shaped by sports. When she was a child, her father’s Air Force career moved their family all over, featuring a few stints in foreign countries. Playing sports helped Smith overcome language barriers and make new friends. Sports contributed to her physical and mental well-being in her adolescence, when she was a four-sport athlete, playing high school basketball and volleyball, enjoying fast-pitch softball in community leagues, and competing at a high level in bowling. Eventually, her love of sports and a learned business savvy combined to create a nearly 30-year career as an administrator in collegiate athletics.

In this episode of the UCI Podcast, UCI’s director of intercollegiate athletics talks sports with communications officer Cara Capuano, whose life was similarly influenced – she spent over two decades as television and radio sports broadcaster.

Among the topics they’ll discuss: Title IX, a groundbreaking federal civil rights law passed on June 23, 1972, that prohibits gender discrimination in educational programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance. Approaching its 50-year anniversary, the historic legislation has positively impacted the lives of women and provided a pathway in their continued pursuit of achieving gender equity in all facets of life, including collegiate athletics.

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UCI Podcast/Cara Capuano:

From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Cara Capuano. You’re listening to the UCI Podcast.

March is Women’s History Month. Who better to help us celebrate than a woman who has made history over the course of her career? UCI’s director of intercollegiate athletics since June of 2019, Paula Smith. Paula, thank you for joining us.

Paula Smith:

You’re welcome. And thank you for having me, Cara. I really appreciate it. I’m so excited about today and this conversation we’re gonna have.


As am I. You have over 30 years of experience in college athletic administration. You’ve worn a lot of different hats along the way. What factors led you down this career path?


Well, thinking about that, I would say parents… have to start there. My mom and dad were born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, and my dad wanted a different life for his family. And so, he joined the service and joined the military in the Air Force. And that created an opportunity for us to travel as a family around the United States and also live in Germany. And so, I had the chance to play sports by getting to know and make friends. And so, sports really just became part of the everyday life for my family, and it was how we immersed ourselves in a community and getting out, and to knowing people. And so, I’ve played some sort of sport all of my life.

I don’t know that at the time I was thinking of a career in intercollegiate athletics – or a career in sports at all. Really my family was just about education and opportunities come from education. And so, I knew that I was going to go to college. That was about it. For me, it was a business background that I think I started with. And then I took a job at the New Mexico State athletics department. They had a job open. I liked sports enough. I’m like, “if I’m going to have to work to pay for college, why not work in the athletics department? It’s just something, you know, something you like.” And I was hired, and I ended up working for the athletic director for four years.

My business law professor – knock on wood. He was amazing. He was in the position called faculty athletic rep, and really, it’s the individual that reports to the president or chancellor of an institution and has oversight over athletics – and just in on the academic sides of things and just to make sure things operated appropriately. But I had him for business law class and he was talking to me about sports. And at the time the NCAA just started a pathway for women and minorities in sport. They created an internship opportunity of which they gave monies to conference offices to start this internship program. And he spoke to me about this new opportunity, and I was intrigued, and he suggested I apply for the internship at the Big West Conference. And I decided, “What the heck? Might as well.” So, I did. And that really is the transition of how I’ve converted from being a business/business-minded – I’m going that direction – mind you, I’m doing business, in Division I intercollegiate athletics, but in a sports-minded field, it really came from that – and I got the Big West Conference internship. And again, it was for minorities and women in sport just to try to bolster the numbers. And so, I started at the Big West Conference as an internship to learn about the business. And that’s it.


Excellent. And how long were you with the Big West Conference?


I was with the Big West Conference for 11 years. And I started as the intern under Dennis Farrell at the time. First year I got there, it was the Pacific Coast Athletic Association, and then it converted over to the Big West Conference. And so, I did compliance and then I became the director of compliance. And really from there, I just continued to progress. It was a small enough office that I was fortunate because a lot of my colleagues who got in the business at the same time worked for larger conferences – SEC, Big Ten, you know, Pac-12 – but their offices were larger. And so, they were – in my opinion, I would say pigeonholed a little bit because they did compliance – and the message was a little bit “stay in your lane,” right? And that’s all you got to do. In the Big West, we were eight people total in the conference office. And at that time, they had football in addition to all the other sports that were going on. So, you had to do parts of championships. You had a seat at – I was fortunate to have a seat at the table as an intern – because we were small enough that everybody had to be all in the work to get done for the membership. So, I was able to progress in my career from director of compliance to assistant commissioner of compliance, and then it was assistant commissioner of compliance and championships. And so, I really had an opportunity to do a lot of different things, go to meetings, be in front of our board of directors at conference meetings. My orientation was just a little bit different coming from a smaller conference background and that really afforded me an opportunity to see the see intercollegiate athletics in a different way and have a great support system from the commissioners of the conference at the time. Jim Haney was the first and then Dennis Farrell became the commissioner of the conference. And so, I had their support in terms of growth in the business.


Often when people get those opportunities in conference offices, they never leave. You decided to come back to the campus. What motivated that change?


What motivated that change for me was I loved the conference… I loved the conference office staff that I worked with. I, again, was fortunate because we were all close-knit and it was wonderful to work with, but why you’re in sport and in the culmination of sports and working championships and seeing how hard student-athletes work to get to that point – being in the celebratory time and hosting a championship is amazing, but the end product of how you got there and the competition that’s going on in the field of play, no matter what sport it was, it’s on the student-athletes and their efforts and hard work. And that element you missed in a conference office. Great collaboration with your coworkers, but you rarely saw anybody else. There was really rarely anybody else coming into the office. We had outside meetings, whether it was corporate partners or the membership, but that’s it – it was just very quiet.

And I thought it, what an interesting opportunity it would be to go on a college campus and actually work with student-athletes and and be with them on a day-to-day basis and work in higher education. And that’s been my platform. I love sports. I love watching sports. I love professional sports, but I don’t have an aspiration in working in professional sports. I really like higher education and I like intercollegiate athletics in higher education because of the impact that you can make on student lives. And so that was an intrigue for me and Dan Guerrero, who was the athletic director here, convinced me that, you know, I’m talented enough that he would see me working other jobs. Even though that wasn’t my discipline and orientation, that I would work to learn it and understand it. And so, he gave me an opportunity to come to Irvine and work in academics, so completely out of compliance and championships and on the side of student services.

And that sort of was my new trajectory in my career. And so, I worked with student-athletes and that, for me, was a space of the joy, like every single day. The hard work that student-athletes put in academically and athletically and how you’re building in their professional development for the next 40 years and building who they are and who they’re gonna become and having some influence in that was exciting. And so, I thought I would miss the conference office, but the wholeness of being on a campus and working with the student-athletes is tremendous. And I wouldn’t go back. I wouldn’t do it any other way. I valued the opportunity – the 11 years in the conference office – but being on a campus is so rewarding.


Well, it’s clearly where it’s at for you. I mean, the passion with which you speak about your opportunity to mold and guide and advise young lives is – it’s palpable in the space. Now you’re one of 40 female Division I athletic directors nationally. At this stage in the NCAA’s history, you’re still considered a “pioneer” to be a female Division I athletic director. How does that make you feel when that term is applied?


It’s a little bit mixed for me. One, it’s mixed because, I would hope in 50 years of Title IX that we would not be in a space that we’re still talking about pioneers and that it would be in a space of “this is normal and an expectation.” So that’s a little disappointing that there’s still a piece to have to say they’re pioneers. But on the positive side of it, I like the fact that I’m attached to being part of the pioneer and that my presence in this role overtly tells a young female that they can be. You know, it’s the living vision of an opportunity that exists that someone can see and really touch, you know, and take from that, even if I don’t impact them directly. The fact that I’m a female, the fact that I’m a minority really expands to, again, that image that anything’s possible.

And so, being in a pioneer space that gives that part of the positive piece that you can influence lives still – I appreciate that. But I would rather be in a space now that, that it’s we’re not pioneering anymore. We are in and valued for what women’s voices are in leading businesses and organizations, and sort of the value that we have in that, and it being rewarded and understood. Part of a diverse team has all of these elements. And you should be looking to do that because that will mean the course of your business will be successful in that you have varying opinions at the table, and you make the best decisions.


Representation in leadership is huge. And to put some numbers around it, we mentioned 40 female Division I athletic directors. That seems pretty big, but when you compare it to 358 colleges and universities that are presently classified as Division I for NCAA competition, that means only 11% of NCAA D1 schools have female athletic directors. What needs to change to increase the number of women that we see in these major athletic administration roles?


One, I would just say, let’s go direct to it and get rid of the old boys’ club. You know, if I could say that. Honestly, that, you know, you have to be able to hire someone who isn’t like you and reach out to the opposite or the underrepresented group. It’s an important piece to shift that mindset – that’s the first thing that you really gotta do. Then, I think you have to be intentional in terms of your recruitment and recruit nationally. You have to advertise nationally. You have to have open searches, right? You have to be in all of these spaces to get to a point where people are looking at how they hire and not just hiring their friends. Again, giving opportunities for others to demonstrate their talent and their interest. And you might find something else that is a better solution or a better product, a better collaborator – a great addition to your team, assuming that you have an open recruitment, and you give fair opportunities for people to garner that reward.

I think a lot of it is, again, highlighting where we are in every space, whether it’s officiating and officiating on football – well, being at the Super Bowl. And if you’re a female and officiating in that realm… if you are a female and you are coaching – whether it’s an assistant coach or a head coach – that is in what you think is a traditional male sport – that we highlight that women are in those spaces, they’re playing on men’s teams… place kickers – I don’t really care which realm that is. I think we need to highlight that that is there and then demonstrate that people are successful at it, and that you can have comfort in hiring the best talent, no matter what it is, no matter who it is, no matter their background.


I have the chills right now. Thank you for everything that you just said. UCI has certainly been at the forefront of initiating that kind of change, when you consider back in 1977, Linda Dempsay assumed the role that you hold now – and at that time she became the nation’s first female athletic director at a Division I school. That’s 45 years ago – and I know you know so much about the history of your department. What factors influenced that decision by UCI back then?


I think for UCI, it’s the same as it is today. Like, it’s a young institution who knew really early what they wanted to do for their community and for the world, which is build better lives. And I don’t think they’ve changed that. We’re messaging it maybe a little different, but I always seemed to feel like Irvine was in that space about being bold, right? And making a difference. And when you’re in that space and you have both intercollegiate athletics programs – just at the tail end, for me, was men’s athletics and women’s athletics. And they finally got to a place of making it a joint venture and opportunity. At that stage, you had women who were running the women’s side of the business. And so, when you make a combined office, there’s no valid reason not to see someone else who’s capable of running a total program. But I do feel like Irvine has started this institution with the intention to be bold and to make a difference. And you can see that by the nature of their research and everything that they’ve done thus far. So, I’m not surprised. I think I’m just not surprised that Irvine was, what I would say would be the leader in making that decision to tab Linda as the athletic director. It just seemed as natural to do it then as it is now.


Linda Dempsay’s hiring came five years after the passing of Title IX in 1972. Of course, Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs that receive federal financial assistance. That law covers participation in athletics. So, that greatly increased access for women. How would you describe – as we think about 50 years of space now – the trajectory of Title IX?


I would first start by the initial years, again, a rollercoaster. I guess I would describe it in that way because it was addition by subtraction, which was not as it was intended to be. And so, to come into compliance with Title IX, the underrepresented sex at any institution usually lost something. It was, “I can achieve being compliant by taking away.” And so, for me, initially it was that rollercoaster because a lot of men’s programs, you know, were being dropped as a measure of being compliant with Title IX, as opposed to adding opportunities. And so, the trajectory I see now in Title IX is that I think we are mostly over taking from men’s programs – or the underrepresented sex – to adding opportunities. The work is being done to create, fundraise, generate revenue or work with the campus to add support and funding so that you can add women’s opportunities as opposed to taking away from men’s.

So, I see a more positive trajectory now than it had when it got started. And I think at this point in time, if you see any dropping of sports programs, it’s usually related to true economics. Now, whether or not I can afford the 18 – or 30 – sports programs that I have under my umbrella – and the cost of doing business. But at least for Title IX, in terms of providing opportunities for participation in sport and all that goes along with it – access to coaches, access to quality support services, facilities, how they travel, per diem that they receive, scholarship dollars, uniforms – like, all of those things, I feel like we’re in a space now that people understand that this is a law and you better do it the right way than having someone else come into your house to tell you that you need to do it a different way. Integrity wise, and following through that, we have people who understand that now and are willing to put their efforts towards it, as opposed to taking away from men. So, I’m happy. I’m pleased to see that that’s the direction and the trajectory that we’re going now.


The direction is definitely forward, but often with forward progress, there’s like a “two steps back.” That happens a lot – and I think about what happened last year at the Big Dance, what happened in San Antonio at the Women’s National Basketball Championship, where it was clearly pointed out that there were inequities in the resources that were provided to teams. The NCAA did its best to correct those errors, but why do we see still see that as we get ready to celebrate 50 years of Title IX?


In my view, I think part of it is this idea that on men’s sports that – publicly – like the pressure to play the sport, the scrutiny of the sport, the donors and supporters behind it is in a space that says that you have to provide X and a level of X, but that for some reason is not a view of where the women’s side of sport is. And I don’t actually understand that, but that is what I think is a vision that women don’t need as much; that women, you know, they’re not as interested in weightlifting or, you know, they do it, but it’s not, it’s just not needed. And so, it’s an oversight and a clear misstep in terms of how hard female athletes work, and work out, and are playing the same sport and are under the same microscope and are, you know, scrutinized in terms of being in that fishbowl and being on campus and being present in that space.

And so, it’s a disconnect of why you think the men’s programs are… carry a harder burden or are more intense, in that sense, and that the women don’t. And so, that’s when you have to call it out. So, you have to provide equitable opportunities. I think the difference for me is seeing from Big West or mid-major institutions to what autonomy five programs receive. And so, is there a difference between that, in terms of tiering? That might be one thing – but there’s no reason to separate between men and women for the same, doing the same work, playing the same sports and creating the same activities. And I have not… I don’t really know that I have a strong sense of why that still is other than they still haven’t placed the value in women’s sports and women’s athletics, the way it needs to be.

And some of that is always reminding and championing our own cause, which is where a Linda Dempsey and the Barbara Hedges that we’ve talked about previously are stepping out on that and creating opportunities and celebrating women and pointing out when there are disparities among sports. So, I wish I could tell you that. I would even like to maybe turn that back to you and ask if you had the same insights to why that is, because I just have not put my finger on it. I just can’t come up with a good enough reason other than it just hasn’t been important.


You’re not alone. You’re right. And, it’s one of those things where it’s probably not one reason, unfortunately. It’s probably myriad reasons and that makes it, I think, more daunting. Well, let’s spin it positively. What are some things that you would still like to achieve here in your role at UCI?


Well, first off, I do want to celebrate that the UCI student-athlete body is on par with the undergraduate population of this institution. So, academically I’m so proud of where we are with regards to our program. Our graduation success rate is one percentage point, really, is off from the campus, here or there – we’re either equal to or maybe off a percentage point. The undergraduate graduation rate for the campus is about 85 percent and that’s where our student-athlete population is when you take in transfers who come into our program and account them in because they’re getting scholarships and they’re playing on our teams. And those who transfer out also transfer at a level that they still graduate. So, we have a really high graduation rate, so, I’m proud of that.

So, what I’d like to – in my legacy, I guess, and I don’t even think about legacy – I think where I’m at is that in working every single day, your legacy will ultimately be created, but I’m more interested in the here and now – and what are we doing to improve our student-athletes’ experience?

The things that I want to work on are obviously having an opportunity for all of our students to participate on championship-caliber teams, to have an opportunity to have sustained success because, truth is, their experience is based on wins and losses as well, and what greater opportunity than to be on winning athletic programs? So, I’d like to see Irvine be in a space that the four-time national collegiate championship in men’s volleyball could be present in women’s water polo and could be present in our basketball programs. We’ve had amazing championships in some individuals, and in our past and in our history, but can we sustain that? And can I do it broadly for all of the 18 intercollegiate athletic teams that I have? I’d like to see that. And I don’t see that as a very lofty goal. I think it’s doable and it’s reasonable – and it’s reasonable to do it in the state of California in a mid-major, without overspending budgetary dollars in a way. And so that’s one thing I would like to see happen.

I’d like to make sure that all of our student-athletes have a quality experience here at the institution, which means that we are looking out for the totality of the student, not just their academics, not just their athletics, but what is their social and community connection engagement? What is their career trajectory? And am I supporting them in who they’re going to become and in graduating from the institution?

So, I want to shore up and make sure that the services and the programs that we’re providing provide for an excellent experience that bodes well for this campus. Our alums, we have prideful alums, you know, that can sing that they’re happy that Irvine is their institution. And that I run an athletics department that makes our community proud, both as tending to the student-athletes and who they are as individuals in their personal development.

And then, ultimately, really is to be that engaging community binder. You know, athletics can be front facing for the campus and the community and I’d like Irvine to be the first place, if not the viable option of where you want to spend your time and how you want to engage in the community… and it not be the two institutions that are north of the road here. And so, really trying to make Irvine that “destination of choice.” If you want a quality experience and you want to watch hard work and student-athletes compete and compete at the highest level, you just need to come to Irvine’s campus. We’re in your backyard here in Orange County and you can have that all here without going up the road. So, if I can be in a space that Irvine is in our community, in a world where this is where they want to tie their time and energy and extracurricular activities that they would have to do, Irvine’s their place to be. I’d like for Irvine to be in that space. And that’s really, that’s it for me. It’s serving our teams and student-athletes. And if I’ve done my job well, that’s what I’m happy about.


Thank you for your time today, Paula.


You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.


The UCI Podcast is a production of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs at the University of California, Irvine. Please subscribe to the UCI Podcast wherever you listen.