UNA Board Approves Resolution to Pursue NCAA Division I Status

Jun. 13, 2011


FLORENCE, Ala. – The University of North Alabama board of trustees today approved a resolution stating the university’s intent to move to NCAA Division I status upon completion of a series of benchmark goals. UNA currently competes in the Gulf South Conference of the NCAA Division II.

The board’s approval of this resolution comes on the heels of several major advancement initiatives, including construction plans for a new science and technology center and a new academic center and student commons, as well as its groundbreaking for a new black-box theatre.

“This is an exciting time in the history of UNA – a time of growth and momentum, for academics, for student life and for athletics,” said Dr. William G. Cale Jr., UNA president. “As we move forward with the board’s decision today, I am excited about our future. We have a plan to move ahead strategically and to build upon our very successful athletics program. University concerns were heard from our faculty, staff, and students, and the resolution that was passed today includes benchmarks to address those concerns. I encourage everyone among our university family, alumni, the Shoals community and throughout the region to support this transition as we launch into a new era.”

UNA president pro tempore Steve Pierce said the board’s decision is a “visionary move for the university, coming at a time when UNA is building and growing in so many exciting ways. This decision was not made for its immediate impact. The full benefits of actions like these are rarely seen for many years. This move, I am confident, will bring to this university and this area a level of strength, of competition and of growth that will be felt generations from now, long after each of us is gone.”

Benchmarks UNA must meet for a transition include meeting the new requirements for Division I membership, capping institutional spending for athletics operations, increasing athletics funding from outside sources, and capping a phased-in student athletics fee.

The decision to move forward with Division I plans was made following several months of discussion, careful research and planning to ensure the financial feasibility of such a transition. In addition to seeking an invitation from an NCAA Division I conference, UNA will have to pay a $1.42 million application fee to the NCAA for a move to Division I.

UNA plans for a six-year transition period to Division I, beginning with the 2011-12 academic year. The transition will include a sequence for increases in funding for new athletics scholarships and operational expenses. Six primary funding sources will be utilized: new private donations of $500,000 each year as well as gradual increases in new corporate donations, game guarantees, ticket sales, NCAA academic and enhancement funds, and a student athletics fee.

As the transition period begins, the university will cap institutional funding for the athletics program to protect funds for academic programming. It will also begin a phase-in of a student athletics fee, to be implemented throughout the six-year transition period. These decisions were made by the university after listening to the concerns of the university community that too much financial burden could be placed on the backs of students and academic programming.

“The groups and individuals conveying concerns like these have been important to the decision process,” said Mark Linder, UNA athletics director. “When dealing with a decision as important as the one made today, the participation of the campus community is vital. Open communication by various constituents brought to light potential pitfalls. Now we are better prepared as we enter this time of transition because diverse viewpoints and perspectives have been presented openly and honestly.”

The UNA board also approved a $2 per credit hour athletics fee for 2011-12. The fee will apply only for the fall and spring semesters. This action retired the previous athletics fee of $12 per semester, which funded only student game incentives, such as tickets, concessions and prizes for students attending athletics events.

The discussions and plans leading to today’s board decision for a move to Division I have been fueled by the changing landscape of Division II, especially in the southeast.

Pierce said a leading factor in the board’s decision was to better align UNA with its peer institutions. “The public,” he said, “generally perceives a university as being similar to the universities it keeps company with on the athletic fields and the athletic courts. Especially as the Division II landscape is so quickly changing, particularly in this region, it’s important that we act now to better align ourselves with our real peer institutions.”

Linder said that, in the months leading up to today’s vote, “only one thing has been absolutely certain: We cannot keep things the way they are or the way they were, in whatever division we are competing. That option simply has not been in the cards, because we have fewer and fewer peer schools in Division II, and Division II schools, especially in the southeast, are becoming more and more spread out.”

A year ago, six Arkansas universities, all with football teams, announced plans to leave the Gulf South Conference this year. Currently, UNA has only five Division II universities within a 3.5-hour radius, as opposed to 21 Division I universities.

Linder added that, from a financial standpoint, even to remain at the Division II level would become increasingly expensive due to increased travel. Increased travel, he said, can also impact the academic performance of student-athletes by “requiring our student-athletes to spend more time on the road and more time outside of the classroom. In recent years, we have started paying significant guarantees to secure Division II opponents to meet NCAA scheduling requirements.”

Another leading decision, according to Pierce, was the economic benefits a Division I university will bring to the community. According to a 2008 study by the Center of Public Policy and Economic Research (COPPER), UNA employee and student spending accounted for a $161 million annual impact on the Lauderdale and Colbert county economies. An additional economic impact of $17 million is expected if UNA experiences the average 11 percent enrollment growth experienced by other universities during their transitions from Division II to Division I.

“UNA’s growth these past six years has been phenomenal – for the university and for the Shoals community. Each of us in the Shoals community is benefiting from what has happened on this campus,” Pierce said. “If this university can grow in similar ways over the next six years, just imagine where we’ll be.”