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Why is UNA going against its community by pursuing Division I?
Why did the University of North Alabama board of trustees ignore its students, staff and faculty by voting 6-3 this week to pursue a move from Division II to Division I? Because on the surface, this feels like another ill-prepared university chasing the allure of Division I.
Too many wind up chasing their tail instead.
“My main concerns are timing given the current economic situation, our lack of preparation, and we lack community support at this time,” said Ethan Humphres, UNA staff senate president. “That being said, we’re going to make the best of this situation.”
The Florence Times Daily reported that UNA students, staff and faculty voted against Division I, with 58 percent of student respondents disagreeing with the move.
The SGA president asked the board to consider the impact on students. Board member Libby Jordan called the university subcommittee that examined Division I a “sham” because several members lacked objectivity.
Jon Solomon is a columnist for The Birmingham News. Join him for live web chats on college sports on Wednesdays at 2 p.m.
UNA says the vote doesn’t mean Division I is a forgone conclusion. Benchmarks have been set. But that’s where this is headed.
There’s a reason UNA must pay a $1.42 million application fee rather than the old $20,000 amount. The NCAA grew so concerned about rash decisions to reclassify that it jacked up the fee and required schools to have a Division I conference offer.
There are plenty of non-financial reasons to reclassify, but most decisions get heavily influenced by male ego, said Dan Fulks, who studies the economics of college sports and produces the NCAA’s annual financial report.
“It’s a matter of with whom one wants to hang out,” Fulks said. “The (UNA) trustees would surely rather hang out with Auburn and Bama than their current DII friends.”
UNA has said as much, preferring to be more like Jacksonville State than West Alabama. Losing six Arkansas schools from the Gulf South Conference, where UNA plays, undoubtedly creates a legitimate scheduling dilemma.
But so too does placing greater financial stress on students, many of whom attend UNA for affordability. UNA’s Division I vote came on the same day it passed a 10-percent tuition hike.
Student fees are currently $14 a semester. UNA says that will increase by no more than $8 per credit hour through 2017-18, meaning a student taking 15 credits could ultimately pay $120 per semester.
What happens after 2017-18? Student fees have become a significant way for to fund athletics and they rarely plateau. Between 2005 and 2009, student fees increased by 18 percent at 222 Division I public schools, according to USA Today.
UNA says it needs a $7.5 million budget to compete in Division I, up from $4 million. It plans to cap total operation expenditures in athletics at a reasonable 4 percent of the university’s education and general fund budget.
Left unspoken is the inevitable need for capital expenditures. The nature of Division I is that UNA will someday look at its new higher-class neighbors and want more of what they have.
UNA’s projected $7.5 million athletic budget would be in the bottom 25 percent among current Football Championship Subdivision schools. The average spent in that group was $8.6 million in 2009-10, according to the latest NCAA financial study released this week.
Those future UNA neighbors received on average $6.6 million in subsidies from their university and student fees, accounting for 75 percent of their athletic revenue. Deficits rung up by FCS athletics departments have increased 68 percent since 2004.
That’s the nature of Division I, too. One out of every three dollars spent on Division I athletics today is subsidized.
UNA says one of six primary funding sources will be new private donations of $500,000 annually. God bless Terry Bowden if he consistently pulls that off with his family’s famous name – assuming he even stays in Florence long-term.
In UNA’s future FCS neighborhood, the average school received $274,000 in athletic contributions in 2009-10. Jacksonville State, an established FCS program eyeing a move to the Football Bowl Subdivision, had $192,560 in donations.
But most importantly, there’s this great unknown of a school steeped in Division II history moving to Division I: What statement does it make about your university?
Will the shift bring the community together or tear it apart? Does Division I enhance the school’s mission or circumvent it? Is the university truly prepared to meet higher NCAA expectations, whether it’s complying with rules, meeting academic standards or producing wins on the field?
Triumphs carry greater weight in Division I. So do missteps.
UNA had better be prepared for all of it.
By Jon Solomon, The Birmingham News