When Mary Ellen Gillespie became UW-Green Bay’s first female athletic director — and one of just 28 women of 346 ADs in Division I — she downplayed the significance of gender and focused on fit.
Responding to questions from members of the news media, Gillespie would tell them she was the best person for the job, plain and simple. She just wasn’t comfortable talking about the gender aspect of her hire, she said Thursday (Nov. 6) during her After Thoughts address before a packed Grand Foyer at the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts.
“But I had some women colleagues who were in the AD chair say, ‘Mary Ellen, take a step back,’ ” Gillespie said. “ ‘You have an obligation and a responsibility to help women. … So own it, be proud of it, don’t be afraid to talk about it’ — one, in tribute to the women who paved the way before me, but also (for) the women who are coming up behind me.”
It was a shift in approach perhaps befitting Gillespie’s journey to the chair, which took her from saying “it’s never going to happen because I’m a woman” to accepting the top job at UW-Green Bay in fall of 2013. Along the way, she had to build experience, harness a competitive nature, assemble a great team of people who would be in her corner, and learn to be her own advocate.
“These folks got my name out to other people because I learned to advocate for myself,” Gillespie said. “I always tell young people, if you don’t advocate for yourself, nobody else will.”
Gillespie’s journey took her from the State University of New York at Plattsburgh to the University of Iowa and then the North American Intrafraternity Conference, based in Indianapolis. She served as director of development for Purdue University’s schools of Nursing and Health Sciences before her most recent gig as associate athletics director for external relations at Bowling Green State University. She took a somewhat unconventional path to the chair, she says — but solid experience in student life, academics, fundraising and working with the community help her understand the entire institution of which athletics is a part.
“I look very different on paper from a traditional athletic director,” Gillespie said. “But I know how an institution works. And you have to work with the entire institution if you want a strong athletic department.”
Since coming to UW-Green Bay, Gillespie has faced her share of challenges — in 11 months, for example, Athletics has replaced 21 individuals in a staff of 56. But there also have been successes, such as one-quarter of the University’s Division I teams — four of 16 — winning Horizon League titles last season. And while Gillespie said much of her first year was akin to “drinking water out of a fire hydrant” (now a more manageable “fire hose,” she notes), it’s all been worth it. UW-Green Bay’s 247 student athletes make it so.
“(It’s about) 18-to -22 year-olds — changing lives and building leaders,” she said. “And that is why I do what I do.”