Campus examines Division I competition: Preliminary discussion of switching athletic conferences under way

Campus officials are preliminarily discussing a possible move to a Division I athletic conference that would include several other UC campuses. Bob Franks, interim vice chancellor for student affairs, sat down with Dateline to describe initial conversations and discuss implications of the proposed change.

To what extent has the campus been exploring a possible move of its athletic programs from Division II to Division I of the NCAA?

Over the past several months, we have had an informal dialogue with the commissioner of the Division I Big West Conference to explore future opportunities that might be available to UC Davis in that conference. Chancellor Vanderhoef has been invited by the conference's board chair to meet with its Board of Directors (the presidents/chancellors of the conference's members) in July to explore this possibility.

Why would the university be interested in such a move, particularly when it enjoys such success (as evidenced by multiple Sears Cups) at the Division II level?

First, it is important to understand that we are not considering a move to Division I to simply move to that level. We are exploring a move to an existing conference that we believe might offer us significant advantages over our present circumstances. Second, we are exploring our options in light of a changing environment for intercollegiate athletics - with changes inside and outside the campus and within the NCAA.

What are some of those external changes?

In the past few years Divisions I, II, and III of the NCAA have made significant changes to their separate bylaws affecting academic-eligibility standards for student-athletes, financial-aid requirements, facility requirements, number of sports sponsored, Title IX compliance issues, progress-to-degree requirements, and others.

An argument can be made that with these changes Division I has become more compatible with UC Davis values and traditions, and Division II has become less so.

At the same time, many of the schools with which we once enjoyed spirited competition have either dropped one or more of their sports or have moved to Division I, where the rules provide strong disincentives for them to compete with us.

What are some of the internal changes that might suggest the campus should consider a move to Division I?

We have matured as a campus and as a program so that by many measurements we don't fit well in Division II. Some schools with which we engage in athletic competition have little in common with our academic interests. Division II includes primarily much smaller institutions with an average enrollment of under 4,000 students, while we enroll well over 20,000 undergraduates alone. We have added sports and, in our current Division II conference (the California Collegiate Athletic Association), we can compete in only 11 of our 25 sports. Hence, we must currently compete in two divisions (with two teams competing at the Division I level) and five different conferences. The Big West offers 17 sports.

The opportunity to meet with the Big West board gives us a chance to explore whether another situation would better fit our academic profile, philosophy, goals and current circumstances, and provide an enhanced athletic experience for our student-athletes.

UC Davis places a strong emphasis on academics - on student-athletes. Would a move to Division I encourage a reordering of that priority?

No. And this is a critically important point. We would not even consider a move just for the sake of "going D-I." Remember that we are exploring a move to a known entity, the Big West Conference. We know the member schools of this conference and can observe how they put their values into practice. We engage in this exploration from a set of "first principles."

As I have listened to our community over the years, the message is clear that the very first principle must be preserving the notion of student-athlete. Our program emphasis will continue to revolve around the welfare of the student-athlete first.

The athletic experience can be a wonderfully enriching part of a student's education, but athletics must remain secondary. So, for example, academic standards for admission and continued matriculation of students who are athletes will not be different from those for students who are not athletes.

Further, it is essential that the coaches remain formally connected to the university's academic mission by continuing in academic job titles that require them to teach courses in the Physical Education program. We will continue to insist that the intercollegiate athletic program be delivered by student-athletes and lecturer-coaches.

In short, the primary focus for our student-athletes has been, and will continue to be, on academics first whether we remain in Division II or move to Division I.

Would a switch to Division I place too much pressure on coaches to win?

Coaches are competitive by nature. This is true whether we are talking Division III, II or I, and it is true about each and every coach at UC Davis.

From where I sit, the danger lies not in the division we're in but in the program's core values. Do you have to win to be regarded as successful? We have enjoyed tremendous winning in the past decade across a broad array of sports. But we still do not, and will not, hire or dismiss coaches solely on the basis of the win/loss record.

However (and this is another critically important point), closely related to this notion of the relative importance of winning is how we fund the program. At UC Davis, we do not rely heavily on ticket sales or "gate" to sustain our program. The students carry the lion's share of that funding responsibility. And that funding base is certain, win or lose. If that model is changed, if to financially sustain the program our coaches have to win, we're in trouble. Whatever the mechanics of funding, the base must be secure, and winning and losing alone must remain irrelevant to program survival.

Do UC Davis coaches and current student-athletes favor a move to Division I?

We are just beginning to ask that question, and the results will not be in for months. We have had virtually no opportunity yet to discuss this as a community in an informed way.

Has the faculty been consulted about such a move?

Again, we are just beginning to ask the question.

How much would it cost to move to Division I?

Major facility enhancements are already under way, so we don't see significant additional cost in our capital budgets. On the operating budget side, however, the costs are considerable with by far the largest piece going to scholarships, or what we call athletic grants-in-aid.

To provide the funds necessary to offer full grants-in-aid in all 25 of our sports would require about $3.6 million annually. We calculate operating costs will go up minimally another $1 million. So we believe it necessary to fund an additional $4.6 million annually.

How could the university afford to switch to a higher-cost athletic program, particularly at a time of declining state funding?

The state funds the costs of instruction. Student fees fund all the other kinds of services important to students.

So, for example, they fund our Student Housing, Student Health Center, counseling program, and so on. They also, as I indicated earlier, fund by far the largest component of our intercollegiate athletic program. If we are going to take on additional cost by moving to the Big West, students will once again be asked to come up with additional funding.

We know ticket prices will go up (not for students, obviously, because their support gives them entry without a fee at the door), so gate will increase somewhat, and we believe our donors will increase their contributions. Everyone is going to have to step up to the plate.

Which schools are members of the Big West?

Its members include UC Irvine, UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbara, Long Beach State, University of the Pacific, Cal State Northridge, Cal State Fullerton, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Utah State University and the University of Idaho.

What is the process for determining if such a move is feasible and desirable?

We must wait until after the July meeting of the Big West Directors to see if we have an invitation to join. If we are invited, the institution will decide whether we make the move or not. Ultimately the chancellor will sign his name to the formal documents. But the institution will decide. We are the institution - the students, coaches, fans, faculty, staff, alumni, our friends and supporters wherever they may be.

How will we decide?

I believe there are at least seven inviolate principles we must observe as we explore this move:

1) We must offer a program that does not compromise our focus on the academic integrity of student-athletes;

2) Admissions standards must in no way be altered or amended specially for athletes;

3) There can be no "tiering" among our sports, with some emphasized and others receiving less support;

4) We cannot retreat from our Title IX progress but must continue to expand our efforts and compliance;

5) We cannot restrict our broad-based program, but must seek rather to add sports;

6) This program cannot depend for its financial survival on its record of wins and losses; and

7) Permanent core funding must come from students and the institution.

Other schools that have moved to Division I have found it very difficult to compete successfully. What suggests UC Davis would be any more successful?

Many institutions have tried to make the leap to Division I with inadequate facilities and under-funded operating budgets. Our donors need to step up to assist us in completing our new multi-use stadium, and, once that is done, we'll have the vast majority of our facilities well up to Big West standards (remember, too, that our new state-of-the-art outdoor Schaal Aquatic Center will open in Fall 2003).

But a critical piece of the successful formula is to provide permanent funding sources for our operating budget. If our student-athletes and our teacher-coaches have the tools, they will compete successfully. We have demonstrated that for years. We have fine coaches, fine students and winning traditions. If we set the table appropriately, we will compete successfully within the Big West Conference. And that competition will become our benchmark.

The university considered, and rejected, such a move about 10 years ago. What's different today that leads to a reconsideration of Division I status?

The examination a decade ago was of the question "Should we move to Division I?" and the answer was a highly qualified "yes." But the process was stopped dead in its tracks because not only were academic programs receiving state support drastically cut, but also our Student Affairs programs (the programs funded by the students themselves) were fighting for survival.

Although there are some current parallels, most notably in the state budget, the students earlier passed a series of four referenda taxing themselves to support their programs and insulate those programs from reductions in state support.

Again, though, this is not an abstract consideration of should we "go D-I" but rather an exploration of whether based on principles I've outlined we should consider joining the Big West Conference if offered admission. These are different circumstances.

In addition, our program has grown and matured, and we've made ourselves - through our successes - less than the preferred guest at the Division II party. We have put our toe in the "scholarship" water and demonstrated we can manage a grant-in-aid program. Because our current conference offers only 11 sports and we have 25, a majority of our teams are not even in the same conference.

We are on the threshold of significant facility improvements. We would prefer competition among more UC schools and schools that more closely resemble our academic profile. The rules within the NCAA's divisions have changed and, in fact, the academic requirements for Division I are now more demanding than the rules governing Division II competition.

So these are some of the reasons for exploring this issue at this point. There are many others. Some of them may well prove overwhelmingly negative. Only time will tell. But we need to begin a process of discussion within the UC Davis family to determine whether this invitation (should it be forthcoming) is something we will want to accept.

Would accepting the invitation further the goals of the institution and enhance the educational experience for our student-athletes? We are about to get our community's thoughts on this important issue.

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Amy Agronis, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,

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