Fayneese Miller isn't shy about using her voice to encourage her athletes. The Hamline University president shows up to watch every team on campus a few times each season, rooting for players she knows by name, major and grade-point average.
She's been enthusiastically supporting their larger interests, too, as a member of several NCAA committees in recent years. This month, Miller's voice became even more prominent as the new chair of the Division III Presidents Council. She assumes leadership of the NCAA's largest division, with 445 members, in a complex, challenging time for college sports.
Athletic programs at all levels are grappling with financial pressures, the ongoing pandemic and issues surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion. Miller's aim is to "move the needle" to improve D-III sports for everyone, by advocating for all of its athletes with the same dedication she shows to those on Hamline's campus.
"I'm not afraid to speak up when students' interests are on the table," said Miller, in her sixth year as Hamline's president. "I have been able to make sure, with my other colleagues in Division III, that we've had a very strong voice. We've been heard.
"Our athletes at Hamline have a tremendous amount of influence, and they know it. I respect them. My goal is to make sure we do right by them."
That respect runs both ways. Hamline's women's hockey team was thrilled when Miller flew to Northfield, Vt., in 2018 to watch the Pipers play in their first Frozen Four. A year later, when they finished as the national runner-up, they brought the trophy to the president to display in her office.
Coach Natalie Darwitz said Miller is a vital role model to her athletes, as a Black woman leading a university and an influential voice in the NCAA. Yet her power is tempered by her collaborative style and interest in what others have to say.
"When the MIAC was meeting to talk about moving winter sports to January, our captains asked to talk to her," Darwitz said. "She had a meeting scheduled in two days. She listened, and she really communicated with them.
"You can see what a leader she is, how much presence she has. But she's also down to earth. And we know that at the end of the day, she's going to do what's best for us."
A lifelong sports fan, Miller competed in track, gymnastics and softball in her youth. She grew up in Virginia and earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Hampton University, moving on to graduate studies at Texas Christian University and Yale.
Miller was elected vice-chair of the D-III Presidents Council in 2019 and has held NCAA leadership positions since 2016, including current slots on the Board of Governors and the D-III strategic planning and finance committee. She was motivated to get involved, she said, to advocate for the athletes she views as essential to Hamline's student body.
"About a quarter of our students are athletes, which is the norm in D-III," she said. "These are very, very good students. I want to make sure we retain them, and that they feel supported and encouraged. And I want them to know me."
They have plenty of opportunities. Miller opens her office to students once a month; if athletes have a time conflict, she will schedule separate appointments. At the 2019 women's Frozen Four, she came to the pretournament banquet and sat with the players.
Hamline athletic director Jason Verdugo reports directly to Miller and is part of her senior leadership team as an associate vice president. He said having a strong relationship with the president is key to a healthy athletic department, and while he makes many decisions in concert with her, she doesn't micromanage.
"Not many ADs have a texting relationship or the ability to call the president directly," said Verdugo, Hamline's AD since 2012. "It creates a very good culture when you have a president invested the way she is."
According to a 2017 report by the American Council on Education, only 5% of college presidents were women of color, making Miller a rarity in higher education. As Presidents Council chair, she plans to push D-III to work toward grater diversity, equity and inclusion in all areas of athletics.
She would like to see more diversity on D-III rosters, and higher graduation rates for athletes of color. Miller also wants to increase the number of women in coaching, and get more women and people of color in athletic administration. While the NCAA has stepped up with leadership development programs, Miller said colleges haven't followed through with hiring.
Hamline's athletic department includes associate AD Beth Rittler and senior woman administrator Emily Cripe. Verdugo is Latino, and football coach Chip Taylor is African American.
"Do we still have more to do? We do," Miller said. "There is some change, but it's not enough. If you really are committed to diversifying the leadership, it can happen."
Other issues on Miller's agenda include increased funding for D-III and an expanded presence on the NCAA Board of Governors, where she is one of three D-III representatives in the 25-member group.
With so much to address, Miller expects a busy year ahead. Verdugo praised her gift for tending to a mountain of tasks, and she expects to keep welcoming students into her office and attending Pipers games, matches and meets.
Whether she's in the bleachers or an NCAA boardroom, she wants athletes to know she will continue to raise her voice for their benefit.
"I hope I'm up to the challenge," she said. "I am so encouraged by these young people, by their willingness to learn and their willingness to do. I want to do the right thing for them.''