Upping our game

BrownTogether has already helped elevate Brown’s Division of Athletics and Recreation. M. Grace Calhoun ’92, the division’s new vice president, is determined to keep the momentum going.

M. Grace Calhoun ’92 is no stranger to Brown. A former Brown Bear, she fondly remembers her years on the varsity track and field team as a student. Now, she’s back on College Hill and determined to bring Brown Athletics to the next level.

Calhoun has built a career as a national leader in collegiate athletics, with experience in administration at multiple schools at the conference level and in key leadership roles with the NCAA. Most recently, as the T. Gibbs Kane, Jr. W’69 Director of Athletics and Recreation at the University of Pennsylvania, she increased varsity sport competitiveness, innovative programming, campus collaborations, and awareness of recreation as a cornerstone of community wellness.

In April 2021, Calhoun returned to her alma mater to take on the newly elevated position of vice president for athletics and recreation. Her ambitions for Brown aren’t just big: they’re indomitable.

What interested you about returning to Brown and taking the vice president position?

There were three things that jumped to the top of the list as my family and I considered such a move. The first was President Christina H. Paxson and her leadership team. I felt it would be incredibly invigorating to partner with such an inspired leadership team, working collaboratively to move the University forward. The second was feeling like my background and my strongest skills were aligned with the needs of Brown’s Division of Athletics and Recreation right now. As an alumna, the chance to have an impact on your alma mater feels extra special. The third thing was the quality of life in Rhode Island. I love Providence and the surrounding communities.


You have created a strategic plan for the future of the division. What is the philosophy behind that plan?

We certainly want to benchmark, and we want to be aware of best practices. But, what leads to a transformational plan is figuring out an institution's niche and what the university can be uniquely good at. Brown’s campus climate sets it apart from other schools. It’s honestly one of the most empowering, student-centric experiences you can find. But, we haven’t embodied or embraced that within athletics. The biggest change we can make immediately is to start being distinctly Brown again, and to be very proud of it.

members of the Brown's women's soccer team hugging and celebrating on the fieldHow can we harness Brown’s distinctive character to improve athletics and recreation?

We’ve talked about our values and what should guide us as we look at our teams and our programming. We created an acronym around our values: IGNITE. 

The I is for indomitable, which is the namesake of the fantastic bear statue at the center of the athletic quad. When we talk about being indomitable, we talk about being inspired and driven to win. 

G is for a growth mindset. We learn through exploration and are committed to continuous improvement. 

With the N, we’re talking about nonconformity: the fact that the curriculum and every part of the Brown experience is distinctive. We’re comfortable doing things in different ways, and these differences present strengths we can leverage. 

The second I stands for integrity, meaning we will always maintain the highest ethical standards. 

T is for teamwork, which is a critical component to a highly individualized academic experience.

And, finally, the E is for empowerment. We want to give student-athletes the opportunity to pursue self-discovery in a very safe co-curricular space. 

That acronym IGNITE, then, guided the development of our vision statement.

What has changed over the years in collegiate athletics that must be considered when creating a strategic plan?

There are many fundamental things that have not changed. The Ivy League model is grounded in sponsoring athletics at a variety of levels, from intercollegiate to club to intramural, in a very co-curricular way that promotes learning outside the classroom. That part has never changed. We’re not driven by media contracts or revenue from sporting events. We make decisions in an educationally sound way.

What has changed is that Ivy League academic profiles continue to get better with each passing year and so do our athletic profiles. The student-athletes who come to Brown are some of the best in the country. You don’t get to be that good without engaging with your sport for 12 months a year. All of the off-season conditioning and skill instruction, the commitment to strength and conditioning, nutrition, mental preparedness, and other facets of sports performance that have evolved so rapidly in the last few years.

“ We help our coaches understand that we have curious students and that’s something we want to foster in athletics. It’s a reflection of the Open Curriculum, and I think it inspires more leadership, more accountability, and more drive to achieve high goals. ”

What is the division’s plan for increasing competitiveness at the varsity level?

First, we like to say that coaches are our version of faculty. By recruiting and retaining the very best coaches you are not only getting the best skill-based instruction and coaching in sport, but you’re bringing in mentors who are having a profound impact on our students far beyond their sports. We’re also examining whether we are doing all the things that make for the highest-quality student-athlete experiences. We are working to ensure that they have appropriate facilities for practice and competition. Much like you want to have modern technology and the right resources for good learning in a classroom, we have teams right now that have inadequate facilities for proper training and competitive experiences. 

Beyond that, when you investigate what it really takes to have nationally competitive teams, we have to look at how we portray ourselves as a division. Why should prospective student-athletes want to choose Brown over other schools? We help our coaches understand that we have curious students and that’s something we want to foster in athletics. It’s a reflection of the Open Curriculum, and I think it inspires more leadership, more accountability, and more drive to achieve high goals.

The strategic plan also calls for holistic student development. Can you talk a bit about that concept?

The goal is to enable each student-athlete to flourish. We have a good idea of what is most transformational for our student-athletes during their time here and for life after Brown. For example, we know that sports, regardless of level, help you learn teamwork, leadership development, resilience, perseverance, and time management. What we want to do is supplement the on-the-field learning with some programming that helps students understand the theory and science behind this experiential learning. We’re establishing partnerships to give our student-athletes more insight into this life-skills development. I’m very excited about how we might be able to build this out.

Brown has updated facilities for football, lacrosse, crew, and other sports during the first six years of the BrownTogether campaign. What are the next steps in terms of facilities upgrades?

Our master facilities planning process encompassed two important elements. First, how do we ensure that the Erickson Athletic Complex is optimized? And second, how can we use this space best to support our highest priorities? What facilities don’t we have right now that we really need, and what facilities do we have that need to be modernized?

We quickly came up with five priorities for the near term on our master facilities plan. We are a northeast institution—and one of only two Ivy League schools—without indoor turf. With so many field sports at the varsity, club, and intramural levels, there’s just an inability to do training in the way we would like without indoor turf. We also only have one hardwood court for the entire campus. This is used for two varsity basketball teams, volleyball, wrestling, and gymnastics, not to mention plenty of club and intramural sports. These two needs are absolutely at the top of the list.

Beyond that, our varsity tennis teams don’t have an adequate indoor/outdoor practice or competition venue. We’d also like to see Pembroke Field get outfitted with turf and lights, so it can be used well into the evening. And finally, we just don’t have the general student-athlete gathering space, which has impacted our ability to create a sense of community across our teams. So, we’re looking to take the Olney-Margolies Athletic Center and transform that lobby into a gathering space with a student-athlete lounge and a fueling station where athletes would be able to pick up healthy, grab-and-go nutrition.


I hope that the work of improving Brown Athletics is going to generate a lot of excitement and let everyone know that we’re not just doing things the way we have been in recent years. It’s a new day.

M. Grace Calhoun ’92 vice president of Brown's Division of Athletics and Recreation
Grace Calhoun smiling while standing in front of a wall of ivy

How do you think the implementation of this strategic plan will enhance the community experience?

Community engagement is one of the five overarching priorities within the strategic plan. It starts with the student body. We want to promote long-standing traditions and start new ones. There’s something so powerful about sport because when you’re sitting together cheering for the same team, having a shared experience, it drives home that we’re part of a broader community. Also how do we better engage alumni? How do we have more of a presence in Providence and the surrounding communities? 

Truthfully, we know if we have competitive teams, people will come out. If student-athletes support other student-athletes, then you start to get a little more energy and excitement. Then, they bring some friends, and the concentric circles keep growing. Competitiveness is important, but it’s also about being around fellow community members, regardless of the outcome. We want to make sure that becomes part of the experience for all students and that it’s something they remember. 

I hope that the work of improving Brown Athletics is going to generate a lot of excitement and let everyone know that we’re not just doing things the way we have been in recent years. It’s a new day.


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