Unlike the many Yale students and faculty who sought warmer weather during spring break last year, Thomas Near — then the first-year head of Saybrook College — went north to Providence, Rhode Island to support the Yale men’s basketball team as it made its first March Madness trip in 54 years. A devoted basketball fan, Near has been a fixture in the John J. Lee Amphitheater since he came to Yale in 2006.
Now, University President Peter Salovey has appointed Near to serve as the new faculty athletics representative to the National College Athletics Association. The University NCAA representative, among other things, coordinates with the association and is authorized to make contact with its membership services staff, to sign off on various NCAA documents and to monitor violations within the athletics department. Near is stepping into the role most recently held by Penelope Laurans, former head of Jonathan Edwards College and former special assistant to the president, who served as the NCAA representative for the last 26 years.
“In Tom Near I believe I have appointed someone who can build on Penny’s legacy. He has already dived into these new obligations with creativity and a desire for real understanding. I know he will be a terrific partner to Tom Beckett and me in the coming years,” Salovey said.
Describing Laurans as “seasoned and brilliant,” Salovey said he is confident that Near will build on her work as NCAA representative.
Near — an ichthyology professor in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department — previously served on the Faculty Committee of Athletics, as well as a faculty liaison to the men’s basketball team at the request of head coach James Jones.
“I hope to maintain high integrity and the focus we place on academic rigor,” he said. “Ultimately, I hope athletics can bring in a broader aspect of the Yale community and the greater New Haven community.”
Laurans described Near as a “perfect match” for the role, citing his teaching relationship with many undergraduates and service as a head of college. She added that it is important that the NCAA representative have a relationship with the University president and dean of Yale College, among other administrators, while also keeping a “watchful eye” on institutional integrity and the health of athletes.
The role, Laurans said, constantly evolves and includes many informal responsibilities.
“Translating that into practice means to me something more,” Laurans said. “It means being interested in the role of athletics in a college within a major research institution, engaging with faculty and administrators in the many philosophical questions about this that always arise, enjoying students and liking going to games and getting to know coaches.”
Near, for his part, praised Laurans’ “sophisticated knowledge” of every facet of athletics and her strict upholding of Yale’s high academic standards while coordinating with the admissions office.
Citing the Peabody Museum of Natural History — an institution where he currently serves as a curator — as an example of a unifying body between New Haven and Yale, Near said he wanted to see increased enthusiasm among city residents and Yale community members surrounding Yale athletics.
“[Near] is someone who understands Yale’s mission, teaches many undergraduates, is the head of a residential college, knows many students in that role and cares about the appropriate integration of varsity athletics into a student’s life in Yale College,” Laurans said.
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Near, a former associate curator at the Peabody, currently serves as a curator at that same institution.