“Geography is limiting to a certain extent, so when you start to check off all of those different factors, I know there’s not a lot of institutions in the footprint that match [UMass-Lowell’s] profile. So we feel pretty lucky that we found a school that fits our academic profile, has demonstrated athletic success in Division 1 and in Division 2, and that they’re ready to make the move.”
UMass-Lowell has 17 athletic teams, and will add men’s and women’s lacrosse.
Schools that move to Division 1, as UMass-Lowell is about to discover, face short-term challenges: Teams must wait four years before becoming eligible to compete for NCAA championships, although the school can designate one sport to serve just a two-year transition period; in UMass-Lowell’s case, that will be field hockey, since the River Hawks have become a Division 2 power, winning national titles in 2005 and 2010.
Waiting four years to play for championships could negatively impact recruiting, but that’s not the only issue. Elevating an athletics program to Division 1 brings a much larger financial commitment. Additional coaches and staff members will need to be hired, and the number of scholarships must increase, dramatically in some sports.
It’s a given that it will cost more to operate at the Division 1 level; Skinner said exact financial projections are still being finalized. What UMass-Lowell is counting on is that revenues will see a similar spike.
“If we want the stature that we think we deserve, we have to have a Division 1 sports program, even if it’s going to cost us some money,” said Michael Carter, chairman of UMass-Lowell’s economics department and president of its faculty senate, which endorsed the proposal. “If you want to be anything other than a regional school in a state system, if we really want to have a national reputation, we have to do this. Our chancellor is a genius when it comes to branding, and this is part of the brand. He’s made a number of bold moves, and most of them seem to be working because we’ve been growing rapidly. You can’t really stop, you have to keep pushing.”
That’s the kind of mentality Meehan has strived for since leaving Congress and returning to his alma mater. Since then, the school has purchased a downtown hotel for $15 million and turned it into an inn and conference center, and taken over the Tsongas Center, which had been operating at a loss, from the city.
Those moves have worked. Meehan is confident this one will, too.
“I suppose it would be easier to not bother with this, because there will be challenges,” Meehan said. “I think this is in line with a lot of the decisions we’ve made to move forward. We think playing in America East and Division 1 requires excellence from our athletic department. Everything we’ve done at Lowell over the last six years, we’ve asked our faculty, our deans, our staff to push it to a higher level. This is almost the final piece of it, the athletic program, and we want to push that to a higher level.
“I think the evidence is clear: Our academic rankings are higher than most people realize, and I think with a move like this, where we’re associating with other public research institutions that put a premium on academic quality, it’s going to enhance our reputation.”
Tough times and losing seasons might lie ahead, at least in the short term. As AD, Skinner has the difficult task of finding adequate scheduling for his teams almost immediately, since the move to America East takes effect in the 2013-14 school year. Now, though, he’ll be able to pick up the phone and see if an Atlantic Coast Conference school might want to host the River Hawks in basketball. Or if a Southeastern Conference power has a spot open for a nonconference baseball series.
“That’s pretty exciting stuff. Those games would be special events,” Skinner said. “When you make a change like this, you make the university a better place to be at for the students, and a better place to be from for the alums.”