Thornton Center Update
“Someday you won’t be quite as fast. Someday you won’t be able to throw quite so far. My job is to help you prepare for that someday.”
That’s the message Donna Thomas imparts to student-athletes who use services offered at the Thornton Center.
The Thornton Center, a unit of Academic Affairs, is charged with providing academic support to student-athletes and helping them stay on track while maintaining their rigorous sport schedules.
NCAA rules require colleges and universities to provide academic support services to student-athletes. At UT, these services fall within the academic structure of the university rather than in the athletics department. So, while the Thornton Center is funded by the athletics department and private donations, its director reports to the provost.
Thomas has directed the Thornton Center since January 2011 and overseen several changes, including the creation of a summer bridge program for incoming freshmen and a new program that helps students prepare for the GRE.
“Both of these programs help students build a solid foundation for undergraduate study and beyond,” said Thomas, who will turn over the reins of the center to a new director when she returns to a leadership position in the athletics department in July.
Need for Extra Services
UT has 483 athletes enrolled during the spring semester; on average, each year, there are about 550 student-athletes at UT.
“There are a lot of requirements for student-athletes that don’t exist for other students. Our job is to make sure that student-athletes make academic progress and stay eligible to play their sports,” Thomas said. “We know that when they are meeting NCAA degree progression and eligibility requirements, they will be able to earn their degrees.”
Each athletics team has an academic counselor assigned to help students monitor their degree progression. These counselors work closely with campus advising units to ensure that students’ course selections are reasonable—given travel and competition schedules—and efficient moving along that degree progression pathway.
Thornton Center counselors depend upon faculty feedback regarding potential problems with travel schedules and student progress. Faculty response to the Thornton Center’s GradesFirst requests for information has been very helpful, Thomas said. GradesFirst is a web-based student performance monitoring system that facilitates communication between faculty, academic advisors, peer tutors, university support services, and students.
“We rely on that feedback more than faculty members know,” she said.
The Thornton Center offers math and writing labs and structured study halls, where students find academic support readily available.
Bridging the Gap
A big part of Thomas’s job at the Thornton Center has been networking with faculty across campus.
“Academics have seen the Thornton Center as ‘athletics,’ while people in athletics have seen it as ‘academics,’” she said. “Frankly, we are both, and part of what I’ve been trying to do is bridge the gap.
“Our charge is to understand both entities and to help our student-athletes be successful in the classroom so that they have the opportunity to be successful in their athletic endeavors.”
Thomas said that she’s received great support from the faculty and is confident that they will continue to work well with the next Thornton Center director.
“Faculty members have never given me any impression they feel student-athletes are different from their other students,” she said, adding that most faculty members just want their students to be in class and pay attention. “Faculty have the same expectations for all students, whether they are student-athletes or not.”
Thomas is also in frequent contact with the coaching staffs.
“We don’t have a coach who doesn’t want his or her student-athletes to graduate,” she said. “They know that the young men and women wearing the Tennessee uniforms have the opportunity to earn a degree that, in the long run, will be extraordinarily beneficial to them.”
The Thornton Center’s work is paying off:
- Overall, the current average GPA for student-athletes is 2.94.
- For the fall semester, 49 percent of student-athletes had a GPA of 3.0 or higher. Twenty-four student-athletes had a 4.0.
- Every team on campus had an average GPA above 2.0.
- For men, the golf team had the highest average GPA: 3.45.
- For women, the tennis team had the highest GPA: 3.43.
- Since the Thornton Center opened in 2001, 807 student-athletes from thirty-eight states and seventeen countries and working in fifty-two different majors have graduated from UT.