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NMSU's Athletics Director shares diversity in leadership through nationwide outreach

For New Mexico State University Athletics Director McKinley Boston, leadership doesn't stop at the doors of the athletics department. A major focus for Boston during his seven and a half year tenure at NMSU has been diversity in leadership. The athletics department's commitment to diversity is one of the five values in its strategic plan, created in 2005 as one of Boston's first steps upon arriving at the university.

NMSU athletics director McKinley Boston shares his expertise around the country, mentoring minorities in both the athletics field and business sectors. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

McKinley Boston poses as a member of the NFL's New York Giants football team.

"Diversity is a value that helps define what is important, and commitment to diversity creates opportunities for people who are not in the mainstream," Boston says. "Diversity fosters an environment of inclusion, where diversity and gender equity are celebrated and recognized as an integral part of our journey to excellence as an athletics department."

Boston has also shared his expertise around the country, mentoring minorities in both the athletics field and business sectors. Most recently, he attended the 2012 Black Coaches and Administrators Association Convention in Orlando, Fla. While there, Boston conducted mock interviews and offered advice for writing philosophy statements to aspiring young African-American administrators.

"The Black Coaches and Administrators Association Convention is an opportunity for me to give back," Boston says. "A few years ago I created a mock interview setting, which allows assistant coaches and assistant administrators in our field to practice interviewing for jobs with immediate feedback from a panel of their peers. On the other hand, developing a philosophy statement helps them realize that sport isn't the end game, but that sport is a way to achieve successful sports programs, successful branding and to help provide a sense of pride within their respective universities."

The Black Coaches and Administrators Association is a nonprofit organization whose primary purpose is "to foster the growth, leadership and development of ethnic minorities at all levels of sports both nationally and internationally." It currently is focused on athletics in North America, including professional leagues, college sports and high school athletics. The organization offers scholarships and actively promotes the hiring of ethnic minority coaches in professional and college sports.

Today, NMSU is the only university in the nation with an African-American athletics director, head football coach, head men's basketball coach and head track and field coach.

When Boston was a freshman at the University of Minnesota, African-Americans made up only about two percent of the student body population of some 50,000 students. He quickly learned to value people as individuals and not for a person's image or class, while living in the dorms on campus.

"My experiences at Minnesota got me past race," Boston says. "When you are engaged in the living and learning environment like the dorms you forget the race aspect and begin to look at people as just people."

Boston went on to be a first team All-Big Ten selection, a member of the NFL's New York Giants and of the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League.

While he learned a lot about leadership on the football field, Boston credits much of his success as a leader to Chester Pierce, who mentored him while Boston was a visiting scholar at Harvard. Pierce was a tenured professor and the first African-American to play football at Harvard.

"My Division I career was just taking off as an administrator and Dr. Pierce provided me with the guidance I needed to further my career," Boston says. "What he really did for me was instill a tremendous amount of confidence, showing me how far I had come. When you are travelling down your career path alone you really need something to benchmark your accomplishments and Dr. Pierce helped me realize that."

Boston started his career in academia in 1972 as an instructor at Montclair State College and as assistant football coach, and was later director of student services. He went on to become athletics director at the University of Rhode Island and athletics director at Kean College.

He returned to the University of Minnesota to serve as vice president for student development and athletics director. Boston was the first African-American athletics director in the Big Ten Conference.

A leader within the NCAA, Boston has served on the Men's Basketball Selection Committee, the NCAA Management Council and the Committee on Athletic Certification. He currently serves on the NCAA Leadership Council, an advisory committee to the NCAA president's board of directors. Boston has been recognized for his efforts, receiving a certificate from the National Academy on Leadership and Effectiveness in Washington, D.C.

Boston's experiences have helped him better manage diversity and the challenges it brings.

"I think the number-one challenge in dealing with diversity is helping people understand why others think the way they do about certain value-related issues," he says. "When people are out of their comfort zone they tend to act a certain way because they are trying to project what they know and what they feel is normal. But I think it's important to guide people to accepting others values and ideas to broaden a more diverse society.

"Here at New Mexico State there are still a number of first-generation students," Boston says. "Most models of retention, especially when it relates to diverse students, are how quickly you can make them feel comfortable in their environment. I remember the first time I went to an NCAA convention with about 3,000 people and there were three black Division I athletic directors at the time in this room and it took us five minutes for the three of us to end up together. And why? Because we were in our comfort zone."

Boston understands that acclimation period of becoming comfortable in one's environment. He explains that students too eventually find their comfort zones as they begin to build confidence.

"Students of color tend to share the same watering hole because of comfort," Boston says. "People who are proponents of diversity want them to engage other people, but it takes them awhile to become comfortable in a new environment and hang around each other while building their own safety net. Then eventually as a sophomore and junior you're more in your comfort zone and you have found a major. Helping people acclimate and acculturate in that first year is a very important step in developing well-rounded individuals and is something that we have tried to do here at New Mexico State."

Boston sees diversity as a way for people to engage their lives with people of different backgrounds and cultures. That's increasingly important, he adds.

"The world is changing," Boston says. "We know that the minorities will be the majorities in 20 years and we all need to learn and adjust to leading a different life in the future."