For four decades, Paula Bonner MS’78 has been a presence on UW–Madison’s campus. She arrived as a graduate student, oversaw the development of the women’s varsity sports program, and then led the Wisconsin Alumni Association® (WAA) for 17 years, guiding it through merger with the UW Foundation. She’s been inducted into the UW’s Athletic Hall of Fame, been cited as a national leader in alumni relations, and ridden down State Street in nearly 30 Homecoming parades.
At the end of June, she stepped down from WAA’s presidency, and she’ll retire on October 31, after the opening of Alumni Park. As she prepares to wrap up her career as the UW’s most enthusiastic graduate, she spoke with Badger Insider magazine and offered insight from her past, present, and future.
You studied physical education as an undergrad, but you taught for only one year. How come?
When I graduated [from the University of North Carolina–Greensboro], all I could think about was athletics and getting more opportunities for girls to participate in sports. These where the early days of Title IX, well before the era of more unlimited horizons for women’s
careers. It was 1975, and I had the pleasure of teaching in Barnwell, South Carolina. But after about seven months of the nine-month school year, I knew I was ready to not do that again. Eighth-graders are delightful and malleable in terms of values and aspirations, but they’re also — well, I wasn’t cut out for being a disciplinarian.
You came to Madison for graduate school. What was it like?
It was an interesting time on campus — ’75, ’76 — and it was a very vibrant time for gender issues and equity. I, being from South Carolina, came up to Wisconsin and thought I’d died and gone to heaven because it was so progressive, and I felt like there was a real place for women. I just took to the city and campus and state like a duck to water. I felt like I’d come home.
What did you study?
My graduate program was an independently designed one, so I took some physical-education courses, but I also took a lot of higher-ed administration courses in the School of Education. My thesis was on the application of values to the decision-making process. I did a study of a number of the leading women in athletics administrative positions around the country, and I [surveyed them with] different questions that were about leadership in women’s athletics.
And you also worked in the athletics department?
With my graduate assistantship, I was a 50 percent administrative assistant in athletics, working with (then) Kit Saunders [Nordeen MS’66, PhD’77]. So, I got right into athletics administration and management, helping to run tournaments and all kinds of things. When I finished my master’s thesis in August of ’78, Kit and Otto Breitenbach [’48, MS’55] said, “We’d love to have you stay on full time as assistant athletics director,” and I said, “Well, I’d love to do that! That would be perfect!” Then in ’82 there was some restructuring of the Athletics Department, and Kit had new responsibilities, and I was essentially the women’s athletics director. And then I had 13 years helping to build the women’s athletics program.
Was the UW a welcoming environment for women’s sports?
At the start of Title IX, the UW had converted 12 women’s club sports into intercollegiate teams … The faculty and the staff on the UW–Madison Athletic Board were involved in Title IX and equity issues on campus, and that was a great network to work with. [They convinced the athletics department that] Title IX exists, and we need to move along here. Let’s work on the budget and the staffing and all of that kind of thing. … I didn’t know it then, but it gave me an understanding of faculty governance and how to use informal power and influence along with official, formal power. Because mostly I was using the informal kind of stuff to make things happen.
You did that for 13 years. What brought you to WAA?
In 1989, WAA’s longtime director, Arlie Mucks [’47], had announced his retirement at the end of the year, and the executive committee of the board was then looking at who should be the executive director. With Donna Shalala’s encouragement, they were going to name Gayle Langer [’83], who had been the associate executive director. And Gayle wanted to be able to go ahead and hire an assistant executive director. Gayle talked to me about whether I was interested, and I wasn’t sure.