Not a week goes by that some college isn't talking about how it can use athletics to get better. Build a bigger stadium, switch conferences, land a better coach -- all with the promise of attracting better students, more alumni donations, more attention. Never mind that the track record for such moves includes plenty of deficits and disappointments; the lure remains.
In 1999, Birmingham-Southern College heard that call and moved up to Division I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Now the college is making a more unusual move -- to Division III -- having found that Division I didn't live up to its financial promise and was instead taking too large a share of the college's resources.
"This is an important statement to make for higher education," said G. David Pollick, the president of Birmingham-Southern. He said that since the college started to consider the switch -- approved last week by its board -- other presidents have been calling him, saying, "I want to know how you did this." Pollick isn't sure many will follow -- he said that he believes many colleges "are being held hostage" by supporters of sports programs "and that's a sad statement about our colleges and universities."
According to Birmingham-Southern, no college has made the switch from Division I to III since 1988 and only three institutions have made such a move in the last 25 years. NCAA officials said that they didn't track such data, but didn't have information to contradict the college's statements or the sense that there is much more movement in the opposite direction.
Faculty members, who were not happy about the move to Division I, are very pleased with the college's new direction. But students have protested and many athletes and coaches are devastated. (Current scholarships and contracts will be honored, however.)
Conventional wisdom has it that trustees and alumni never stand for any shift away from the athletics limelight. But Pollick said that it was board members who raised the issue in January, as part of a broad review of everything in the budget of the college, which like many private liberal-arts institutions is stretched financially to meet its various goals. Pollick, who is finishing his second year as president, said he "didn't come here to change athletics," but the questions trustees started asking left him thinking the move was one that the college needed to make.
About $6.6 million of the college's $42 million budget goes to athletics each year, and Pollick said that was too much. When the move is complete, Pollick predicted savings in excess of $2 million annually -- even adding more teams, which Pollick wants to do. So he said the college will end up spending significantly less on athletics while having more students participate. A statistic that particularly bothered him, he said, was about athletic scholarships: As a Division I institution, Birmingham-Southern awards 116 athletic scholarships, 44 of them full scholarships. In contrast, the college has only one full academic scholarship.
"The question we asked was whether the expenditures reflected the values of the institution, and they did not," Pollick said.
He said that with the savings from athletics, the college could save more money and also add to need-based financial aid.
As word spread on campus last month that the college was considering such a change, students organized rallies against it. They noted that the athletes add diversity to the campus and pride -- Birmingham-Southern teams have won a number of Big South conference titles. Local newspapers and sports radio shows have also been highly critical of the move. Pollick acknowledged that there had been "some very loud opposition" to the move, but said that the arguments didn't sway him or trustees. He stressed that the switch was not one of being against athletics, but of wanting to keep its role appropriate for a liberal-arts colleges.
Will Chander, director of media relations for the athletics department, said that coaches and players were "completely devastated" by the change -- and didn't see it coming. He said that many would not have enrolled at Birmingham-Southern but for its Division I status and that many were now seeking to transfer.
"It's like you are competing at the top chemistry or political science and then you are bumped down. Instead of college calculus, you're in intermediate math," Chandler said.
Birmingham-Southern plans to apply for membership in the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference, which includes such liberal arts institutions as Centre and Rhodes Colleges and Southwestern University and the University of the South.
While coaches are not happy, professors are. They adopted a resolution of support for the move, and have been speaking out in defense of the college's board and president.
Ed Lamonte, a professor of political science and one of six faculty members elected by peers to serve on a special committee to advise administrators, said that his colleagues felt "overwhelming support" for the switch. He said that professors were not consulted in 1999 about the move to Division I and were "deeply skeptical" that it was accomplishing anything. Lamonte said he remembered being told that the move would result in alumni donors providing more money not only for athletics, but for the college generally. That didn't happen.
Lamonte said that the statistic about scholarships -- athletic vs. academic -- stuck in his mind as "emblematic" of the problems with Division I. "It's not that we are against athletics, but at what level and in what relation to the institution as a whole," Lamonte said. "Philosophically, Division I appears to be inconsistent with our values."