The exponential growth of black women in athletic director roles has been clear in recent years. The SEC hired its first in 2020 with Candice Lee at Vanderbilt, and Nina King was appointed head of Duke in May 2021.
Drexel’s hiring of Maisha Kelly in June is the latest example. Kelly is the first black woman to hold a position as athletic director at one of the Division I colleges in Philadelphia. She accepted the position after serving as Senior Associate Director of Athletics and Senior Administrator at Bucknell University.
“It’s intense,” Kelly said of her new role at Drexel. “It’s something special. I am certainly aware of the landscape of intercollegiate athletics and have thought about it.
Kelly, who earned a Masters of Education in Sports and Recreation Administration from Temple University, might be the perfect fit for Drexel. She is confident and prepared, speaking freely about her plans for the athletic program, with detailed explanations of how these will be implemented.
More than anything, she is steeped in the Philly culture. Kelly grew up in West Mount Airy and did her undergraduate education at St. Joseph’s and Temple College. Her pride as a local has manifested in subtle ways since taking on Drexel’s job for the first time. Kelly’s first meal with male basketball coach Drexel Zach Spiker was at Dallesandro’s, outside at a table, for pandemic safety concerns.
“You can’t get more from Philly than this,” Spiker said.
In the Drexel’s Athletics building, there is a long hallway directly across from Kelly’s open office door, which only closes if she’s in a meeting. Athletes pass throughout the day and it is not uncommon for many to give a quick hand sign or other greeting as they pass.
“I could tell from the start the girls were horny [that Kelly was appointed]Drexel women’s basketball head coach Amy Mallon said. “You sometimes see a female leader in DI sports, especially on the administrative side, and we all know there aren’t a lot of those roles. She will be a role model for our young student-athletes.
No black woman had ever held a DA position at a Power Five school just five years ago. A study by the Global Sport Institute showed that only 11 black women were hired as AD between 2010-2019, out of 248 AD job changes during this period.
Kelly found those numbers frowning, even knowing the climb women of color must climb to climb to the top of the rankings.
“Hearing someone else say that is a real point of pride,” Kelly said. “I know that my path has been shaped by others who were the first. Doing this here in my hometown is extremely special. I don’t take for granted what this means for the future.
A special meaning of hiring someone like Kelly is that many student-athletes who push for growth and change may believe they have an advocate who understands their struggles. The Drexel men’s basketball team, for example, often has open conversations about how to help against social injustices. Those talks led to a team protest throughout last season.
Kelly’s track record shows that she’s ready to have these uncomfortable conversations with student-athletes. At Bucknell, she started the Bucknell Athletics Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, and she led more conversations in important gender equity initiatives.
“You can feel his passion,” Mallon said. “She’s very genuine with her approach.”
Throughout her career, Kelly has not forgotten where she came from. She held positions at Rutgers, Vanderbilt, NCAA headquarters before Bucknell. But there is no place like home. Kelly has two young children and her husband, Kevin, now works in track and field at Temple.
Having an established history in Philly was a positive factor as Kelly virtually interviewed the Drexel post and came for a campus tour. His passion was obvious to everyone.
“Now Drexel has a leader who is a Philadéphe and isn’t afraid of it,” Kelly said. “I would shout it from William Penn’s Hat if they let me go up there.”
After the official announcement, Kelly wasted no time in getting started. She spent two hours calling all of Drexel’s head coaches. A good relationship with the coaches will be a priority for Kelly.
“I remember exactly where I was when I got that phone call,” Spiker said. “I remember hearing the voice of someone who was excited to do something special. You could tell.
Much has changed at Drexel since Kelly University. She was in St. Joe’s when Drexel was something of an afterthought locally. Even though Drexel became a DI school in 1973, the Dragons’ track and field program lacked the prestige of the Big Five programs.
“Drexel isn’t the Drexel he was when I was growing up and even when I was in my undergraduate and graduate years,” Kelly said. “This university has transformed University City.
Indeed, Drexel was the only school in Philadelphia to participate in the NCAA basketball tournament last season. The Dragons also accomplished the feat in men’s and women’s basketball.
“In a year where people were looking for something to regroup, athletics Drexel did his best. [Philly] institutions, ”Kelly said.
Kelly now has the opportunity to move the program forward. She was at Temple and St. Joe’s during their successful athletic periods, so she is well aware of the details that go into building a promising athletic program in Philly.
“We’re going to focus on Drexel,” Kelly said. “We are one of the five institutions in Philadelphia. We will celebrate this and shape our department with this identity. We’re going to focus on things that continue to shape our identity to be a successful Philadelphia institution. “