It took vision and hard work, but also a planets-are-aligning set of circumstances for the University of Massachusetts-Lowell to schedule a Thursday morning news conference at Tsongas Center, where school officials will announce that its athletic teams, starting this fall, will compete in Division 1 as a member of the America East Conference.
A driven, respected chancellor — former US congressman Marty Meehan — last spring established a strategic planning committee for athletics, which made the recommendation of bumping the River Hawks from Division 2 (they’ve been in the Northeast-10 Conference since 2000) to Division 1 in all sports. Except for men’s hockey, that is. UMass-Lowell has been a member of Division 1’s Hockey East since 1984.
The desire to join the more prestigious and visible Division 1 is one thing; nowadays a home is required. Opportunity presented itself, unexpectedly and nearly simultaneously, when Boston University decided to leave America East for the Patriot League, which it will do on July 1. Suddenly, a school that felt qualified and ready for the leap to Division 1 athletics had an interested conference — headquartered in nearby Cambridge, no less — seeking replacement options.
Less than a year after exploring the feasibility of Division 1 sports, UMass-Lowell is accepting a membership invitation from a conference that reunites it with rivals the River Hawks already play in hockey, and gives them everything that was on their dare-to-dream list.
“People have recognized what’s happened on campus the last five years and they’re thinking this is what’s next. In terms of elevating the institution, we want to stay on that path,” said Dana Skinner, the longtime athletic director at UMass-Lowell. “At many universities, Division 1 athletics is the front porch of the institution. Whether that’s right, wrong, fair, or unfair, it’s the way people view an institution. Their first image of an institution, in a lot of ways, is what happens with their intercollegiate athletic program. That’s the world we live in, and we want to take full advantage and make sure our best foot is forward.
“This is a new era, obviously, for athletics, but for the institution and the region it’s very important. Division 1 athletics can position our university, regionally and nationally, in a way that I’m not sure we could otherwise. It’s one of those transformational moments.”
UMass-Lowell will become the second school in the University of Massachusetts system to compete in Division 1, joining UMass-Amherst. Instead of animosity or opposition, University of Massachusetts president Robert Caret said the reaction to the move has been all positive.
“I did not get any pushback, from on campus or off. Usually I would get letters about a move such as this. I did not get any,” Caret said. “It’s big. When you join a conference and a peer group, they’re looking at your athletics initially, but they really look at academics. They don’t want to be associated with a campus that might hurt their reputation, so it speaks very highly how they view UMass-Lowell. I think it will be great for the campus, the region, the alumni.”
What jumped out at the planning committee, Meehan and Skinner said, was that the schools UMass-Lowell most closely resembled — based on enrollment, academic profile, and standing as a major, public research university — had one thing in common: Their athletic programs all participated in Division 1. A number of them are America East members.
“If you look at UMass-Lowell’s peers — Georgia State University, San Diego State University, University of Maine, Maryland-Baltimore County, University of New Hampshire, University of Rhode Island, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Virginia Commonwealth University — they’re all Division 1,” Meehan said. “When we looked at our peers, and looked at the direction we’re headed academically, this just made sense.”
Much of the credit for the move goes to Meehan, a 1978 UMass-Lowell graduate who became chancellor in 2007. Under his watch, the school’s endowment has grown from $37 million to $55 million, enrollment has increased by 40 percent, the average SAT score is up 56 points, and research expenditures have jumped 66 percent.
Others have noticed. US News & World Report has named UMass-Lowell one of the top 100 public universities in the country for 2013.
“Their institutional profile and the trajectory of the school overall is first and foremost the most appealing attribute about the institution,” said Amy Huchthausen, commissioner of the America East Conference. “Our league is realistic in terms of where we stand in the grand scheme of things from Division 1 athletics. We don’t have the money that some of the bigger conferences do to throw around and maybe leverage to try and attract certain schools. We get kind of who we are.Continued...