Dena Freeman-Patton’s career path has come full circle.
About three decades after she first stepped onto Morgan State’s campus as a junior at Lake Clifton High School to attend a Lakers-Dunbar basketball game and later participated as a senior in a homecoming parade, Freeman-Patton will return to Baltimore as the first female athletic director in the Bears’ 155-year history.
Freeman-Patton, the athletic director and associate vice president at California State University, Dominguez Hills, succeeds Edward Scott, who left Jan. 31 to join Virginia as a deputy athletic director. She will begin in her new role June 1.
“I’m excited for this opportunity to work at such a great institution,” she said Tuesday night. “This was actually my first college experience as a kid. Morgan State was the first college campus I stepped on and got that college experience and understood what college life was like, which ultimately encouraged me to go to school. It’s also an opportunity to build upon the program that my predecessor, Ed Scott, laid the foundation for and to move the program forward. I’m really excited to be at a Division I institution that is Baltimore. So for me, that’s being able to come home after 25 years in the business and to do what I love for my community.”
Freeman-Patton, who will also serve as a vice president at the historically Black college and university, was introduced Tuesday afternoon by university president David K. Wilson, who pointed out that Freeman-Patton was one of eight candidates and then one of three finalists.
“She is a Baltimore native and has an understanding and heart for how the region can better support athletics,” he said Wednesday afternoon. “She is highly regarded nationally as a leader. I was impressed with the variety and quality of recommendations around the country from various industry leaders. … She is just a great fit for us. This is her home, and she is going to be a force to be reckoned with with regard to the future of college athletics as we go through this period of NCAA transformation.”
Morgan State holds fond memories for Freeman-Patton, who recalled how much she enjoyed visiting the campus.
“I just loved how the university was celebrating people, celebrating the community,” she said, adding that her mother, Doris Freeman, graduated from the school in 1969. “It was a fun atmosphere. They brought us in like we were family because obviously I wasn’t a student there at the time. To me, it was fun. It was the school in my neighborhood and the school that my mom attended.”
After playing volleyball, basketball and softball at Lake Clifton, Freeman-Patton enrolled at Liberty, where she played for the women’s basketball team and earned a bachelor’s in sports management in 1996. She then graduated from Georgia State in 1999 with a master’s in sports administration.
Freeman-Patton’s career in college athletics involved serving as academic adviser at Georgia State from 1997 to 2002, academic coordinator for the football program at North Carolina State from 2002 to 2005, and associate director of academic support and career development at Maryland from 2005 to 2007. She returned to Georgia State to become associate athletic director for student development from 2007 to 2013.
Freeman-Patton then filled deputy athletic director roles at California State University, Bakersfield from 2013 to 2019 and New Orleans from 2019 to 2021 before leading the athletics department at CSUDH in March 2021. She was named the Women Leader in College Sports Administrator of the Year in 2018.
Freeman-Patton said she had developed a comfort level at CSUDH until she learned that Scott was leaving Morgan State, sending him a text in jest that he was supposed to stay there longer.
Scott endorsed the university’s decision to hire Freeman-Patton for the vacancy. “I think highly of Dena,” he wrote via text. “I’m happy for her and happy for Morgan State.”
When she was contacted by the school’s search committee, Freeman-Patton acknowledged feeling conflicted.
“It was initially a difficult decision because I was vested here at Dominguez Hills,” she said, noting that she has known Scott for at least five years as they served together on the NCAA Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee. “If I hadn’t just gotten here a year ago, it would have been a no-brainer for me. It ultimately ended up being a no-brainer – as difficult as it is leaving student-athletes that we started something here with. I get to come back after 25 years, and to be able to impact my community and do what I love to do, to me, that’s a no-brainer.”
Freeman-Patton said Morgan State’s unofficial offer last month arrived on the two-year anniversary of the death of her father, Calvin Freeman.
“I saw it as a sign,” she said. “I saw it as God’s work and my dad’s work. Basically, this was where I needed to be.”
Wilson, the university president, said Freeman-Patton is a role model for both genders, saying, “Morgan is an institution that values leadership, and we are just pleased that a leader of Dena’s ability — who has the option to go any place in the country — has seen Morgan State University as the place where she can elevate herself and the institution to the highest level of excellence and in the process, shatter some glass and show young women that if you really want to lead in any space, that opportunity can come true.”
At Morgan State, Freeman-Patton inherits a department of 14 programs and nearly 300 athletes. During Scott’s five-year tenure, the Bears navigated an NCAA penalty period over a lack of institutional control that included improperly certifying the eligibility of 94 athletes in 10 sports and improperly providing financial aid to athletes in nine sports. The probationary phase of the penalty period, which included one-year postseason bans for football, tennis and softball, reduced scholarships in the 10 sports, and recruiting restrictions, ended Dec. 18.
Under Scott, the athletic department increased its collective GPA to a new high of 3.41, raised the graduation rate by 19%, and earned a $2.7 million donation — the largest in university history and the biggest private donation to a historically Black college and University’s athletic department — to relaunch its wrestling program.
“My plan is to make sure that we continue strides that Morgan has made academically in reaching their graduation rates and success rates and making sure that we’re meeting all the APR scores, but also to improve on some of our sports athletically and competitively,” Freeman-Patton said. “In the end for me, it’s about what happens to those student-athletes when they graduate. Did that student-athlete enjoy his or her experience? Did he or she enjoy what we provided and the support we gave him or her to reach that goal? Are they going to give back? Are they going to come back? Are they going to be engaged? That’s how you measure whether you’re doing a great job with these young people.”
Wilson said Freeman-Patton should face few problems in succeeding Scott.
“I expect that under Dena’s leadership that additional floors will be built on the foundation she is inheriting from Dr. Scott,” he said. “An institution cannot stand still. It has to continue to build. Our intent is to not go back. There is a very strong foundation in athletics here at Morgan — academically, competitively. We have not been as successful in football, but we think that day is going to come. So this is an opportunity for Dena to come in and build her legacy.”
In addition to restarting the wrestling team, Freeman-Patton will have to work with the rest of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference to retain its current group of members. On Tuesday, commissioner Sonja Stills rebutted reports that Howard was planning to move to the Colonial Athletic Association, which already successfully recruited another HBCU in Hampton.
Freeman-Patton said she did not perceive a difference between working at an HBCU compared with other Division I institutions.
“I don’t think it’s a different type of program,” she said. “I think it serves a different type of population. I think Morgan State has the same opportunities as predominantly white institutions.”
Freeman-Patton said in previous trips to Baltimore, she noticed new construction on Morgan State’s campus and pointed out the expansion to her mother. Although she has not been on campus in years, she predicted a smooth and fast transition.
“It won’t take me long,” she said. “I’ll jump in quickly. I have a great support system. I have the support of a lot of people in the city. I think I’ll jump right in and be able to get acclimated pretty quickly.”