Mary Jean Mulvaney, pioneering figure in college athletics, 1927-2019

Beloved athletic director led growth of women’s varsity programs, paved way for women leaders

Prof. Emerita Mary Jean Mulvaney, one of the first women to lead a coeducational athletic department in the United States, died Sept. 20 at the age of 92.

A beloved and pioneering figure in the University of Chicago’s rich athletic history, Mulvaney served the department for 24 years, retiring in 1990 as director of athletics. Joining UChicago in 1966 to chair the women’s physical education division, she assumed lead of a consolidated men’s and women’s athletic department in 1976.

A stalwart champion for UChicago Athletics, Mulvaney nurtured the growth of the women’s varsity program and presided over its move to NCAA competition in 1981. During her tenure, the University increased its women’s sports offerings from two to nine. UChicago now sponsors 20 varsity sports—10 women, 10 men—that compete within NCAA Division III.

“Mary Jean will live on in all of the Maroons that felt her generous spirit and knew her genuine kindness,” said Erin McDermott, UChicago’s director of Athletics & Recreation. “A true pioneer, she helped pave the way for women leaders in college athletics through her courage and compassion. She will always be a beacon of light for UChicago Athletics. I am grateful to have been in her presence and honored to follow in her footsteps.”

Mulvaney held the titles of associate professor and professor of physical education at UChicago.

Mulvaney was inducted into the UChicago Athletics Hall of Fame in 2003. In addition, the University honored her with the Mary Jean Mulvaney Scholar-Athlete Award, given annually since 1990 to a male and female senior with the highest GPA.

Also active on the national level, she was inducted into the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics Hall of Fame shortly after her retirement. In 2006, she received a lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators, now known as Women Leaders in College Sports.

Mulvaney was one of the driving forces behind the formation of the University Athletic Association, created in 1986 as a league comprised of private research institutions in major metropolitan areas who are committed to the NCAA Division III philosophy. Her active involvement in the UAA included roles as secretary and chair of the Athletic Administrators’ Committee, as well as member of the executive committee.

She ultimately received the UAA Founders Medal, and was recognized for her contributions in 2012 during the conference’s silver anniversary celebration.

Mulvaney also served on committees for the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, NACDA, the Division III Executive Council and NCAA Council.

A native of Omaha, Nebraska, Mulvaney earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska in 1948, and her master’s degree from Wellesley College in 1951. Prior to her tenure at UChicago, Mulvaney taught at Kansas State University, the University of Nebraska and the University of Kansas.

Funeral services will be held in Lincoln, Nebraska. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to University of Chicago Friends of Maroon Athletics. Donations may be made online here. Checks (payable to The University of Chicago) may be mailed to: University of Chicago Athletics, ATTN: Rosalie Resch, Ratner Athletics Center, 5530 S. Ellis Ave. Chicago, IL 60637.

—Adapted from a version that appeared on the UChicago Athletics website.