Alumni Profile: Jean Cerra, A Trailblazer in Collegiate Women’s Athletics

Imagine being a gifted athlete with no opportunity to participate in organized competitive athletics in high school or college simply because you were female. That was the case until the passage of Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act in 1972.

Title IX removed that barrier by requiring educational institutions receiving federal funds to eliminate all vestiges of discrimination based on gender, and to provide equal opportunity in all educational programs. This monumental legislation would have its biggest and most visible impact in women’s sport.

Jean Cerra, a Mizzou Ed graduate, played a historical role in helping the University of Missouri become a national leader in the integration of men’s and women’s athletic programs as part of Title IX compliance. She earned a PhD in Educational Administration from the College of Education and a master’s and bachelor’s degree in physical education from the University of Iowa and Florida State University respectively.

“I felt strongly that true equality and opportunities for women in sport would not happen until women were fully integrated into the NCAA.”
-Jean Cerra

In 1976, she joined Mizzou Athletics as assistant director of Athletics/director of Women’s Athletics to help the university transition its women’s athletics program from the women’s physical education department into the existing men’s intercollegiate athletics department. She worked for Mizzou Athletics until 1985.

“One thing I value about my time at Mizzou was its commitment to bringing about equality for women,” says Cerra. “Most institutions at that time fought Title IX implementation every step of the way, but not Chancellor Herbert Schooling. He strongly supported the change.”

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Dr. Jean Cerra and Dean Daniel L. Clay greet one another at the May 2014 Mizzou Ed undergraduate commencement ceremony.

In 1979 when the newly hired Athletic Director Dave Hart sought to reorganize his administration, Cerra proposed that job responsibilities for men’s and women’s athletics be combined into one position instead of two separate positions, and she asked for the job.

“Dave was initially nervous about the concept, but I told him the part of my anatomy I needed to do the job existed from my neck up, and not from my neck down,” says Cerra. “To Dave’s credit, he approved the idea and I was given administrative oversight for both men’s and women’s athletics as associate director of Athletics for Internal Operations. It was a bold and courageous move on his part making Mizzou one of the country’s first Division IA schools to make that change. It became the model that would be emulated nationally.”

Cerra’s impact on a national level was just beginning. She also played a critical role in creating opportunities for women within the NCAA. Along with 10 other women, she broke with the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) to lead the charge that resulted in the NCAA starting to sponsor national championships for women, not just men.

“Going against the AIAW and its all-female members was a very unpopular position at the time, but the 11 of us felt strongly that true equality and opportunities for women in sport would not happen until women were fully integrated into the NCAA.”

After considerable debate and controversy, the NCAA voted to offer women’s championships in 1981 and the first NCAA Division I women’s championship was held in 1982. This paved the way for athletic scholarships and other competitive opportunities that are currently enjoyed by women today.

“Although she is a Title IX pioneer, her efforts have always been for equal opportunities for both genders. She had high but fair expectations of anyone in her program, made sure that everyone knew how important they were to the mission and success of the program, and you learned right away that she would accept nothing less than ‘doing it the right way’ and ‘doing the right thing.’ ”
— Kathy Turpin, former student athlete at Mizzou during Jean Cerra’s tenure as associate athletic director. Turpin later became Cerra’s associate athletic director at Barry University.

One of Cerra’s most proud accomplishments was joining those 10 other women in founding the Council of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators (CCWAA), now known as NACWAA – the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators – a booming organization that supports and mentors more than 2,500 members and is a “must” for any female in college athletics administration.

Cerra was inducted into the Mizzou Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame in 2008 as one of only two individuals to be inducted in the “Administrator” category since the hall of fame began in 1990.

A native of Tampa, Florida, Cerra returned to Florida in 1985 when she, along with her brother and a friend, launched a successful TCBY Yogurt franchise that grew into eight stores. In 1991, she joined Barry University, initially as dean and director of Athletics and then subsequently as associate vice president and vice provost, administrative roles that placed her on the president’s cabinet. During her 17-year tenure, Barry won five NCAA national championships while also improving the student-athletes’ classroom performance with more than 60 percent of Barry student-athletes earning cumulative GPAs of 3.0 or better.

While Cerra has lived the majority of her life in Florida, her commitment to MU remains strong, as manifested in her estate planning gift to Mizzou. “I owe the College of Education and the University of Missouri so much,” says Cerra. “My PhD in Educational Administration from Mizzou changed my life. It opened the door to so many wonderful leadership positions where I could really make a difference.”