On the surface, these four institutions of higher learning seem to have little in common. But on the playing surface they do. The Majors, Pirates, Beacons and Diplomats all participate in Division III athletics.
With its approximately 450 active and provisional members, Division III is by far the largest of the NCAA's divisions. Its size translates into a wide diversity of schools—from small liberal arts colleges in the Northeast to regional branches of major universities in the Midwest—that follow the same rules and compete for the same championships.
When you combine that diversity with the phenomenal growth Division III has experienced, it is easy to see why helping to chart the division's future is a challenging task. Since 1990 approximately 120 new members have joined the division, and projections indicate that another 60 institutions will ask to join in the coming years. The total membership is estimated to grow to approximately 480 by the 2020 academic year.
The Franklin & Marshall athletics program has a storied Division III tradition that has long been a source of Diplomat pride. Recently the College has achieved national prominence with an NCAA Championship in women's lacrosse in 2007 and a men's basketball program headed by Division III's all-time leader in victories, Glenn Robinson.
During their tenures, both of which expired at the 2009 NCAA Convention in January, they have been at the forefront of discussions about the pressing issues facing an ever-expanding Division III, issues that cut to the core of what is special about Division III sports.
Time-Honored TraditionsDivision III athletics occupies a distinctive spot in college sports. Student-athletes are just that—students first, athletes second.
The basic tenets of the Division III philosophy are prized by its athletes, coaches and administrators, who believe it represents the best of amateur athletics and provides critical learning opportunities outside the classroom.
Member institutions award no athletically related financial aid, encourage participation by maximizing the number and variety of athletic opportunities, ensure that student-athletes are fully integrated into the life of the college and emphasize sportsmanship among players, competitors and coaching staffs.
Its recent growth has caused many Division III leaders to ponder whether the growth is having an adverse effect on the division's underlying principles and what impact that growth might have on the future of the division.
Beginning in 2004, a core group of presidents under the leadership of John McCardle, then-president of Middlebury College and chair of the Presidents Council, began examining the impact of this growth on Division III and looked at implementing some reforms that would ensure the integrity of their division.
"Some things were voted in and some voted down in that reform package, but it was a turning point," Fry said. "I think it was the first time there was a broad and intense conversation about whether or not Division III was being true to its philosophy, given the way that every year legislation was chipping away at it."
This conversation has spurred Division III to add to its statement of philosophy in the areas of athlete recruitment and academic performance. In 2004 a new policy was added that ensured that athlete recruitment complied with established institutional policies applicable to the admissions process.
In 2006, two policies were adopted to ensure that the admission policies for student-athletes and the academic performance of student-athletes were consistent with that of the general student body.
Fry views these reforms and the continued examination of issues by the leaders of colleges and universities as crucial to upholding and continuing the division's core philosophy.
"Division III is something that we all believe in very deeply in terms of the ideal of amateur athletics," Fry said. "I think a number of presidents are very concerned that over time Division III is drifting more toward specialization by the student-athlete rather than being fully integrated into the life of an institution and toward lengthening the practice season and spending more time on athletics.
"We became concerned that for a number of philosophical as well as practical reasons Division III was year by year slowly and inexorably changing without any real understanding of where we were going to end up."
In response to these concerns, two groups—the Division III Working Group on Membership Issues and the Executive Committee Working Group on Membership—were formed to address the impact these changes and growth were having on Division III. Fry was a member of both groups. In fall 2007, the Working Group on Membership Issues proposed creating a new division or subdividing Division III to accommodate the anticipated divisional growth.
And the Survey SaysThe next step was to ask member institutions their opinions on restructuring and the future direction of the division. The findings of the NCAA Division III Membership Survey were published on April 9.
The survey went to 442 Division III schools and the response rate was 96 percent. Respondents included college presidents, chancellors, athletic directors and student-athletes.
The proposed restructuring was one of the focal points of the survey—and the most talked about. The members overwhelmingly did not support any structural changes. More than 82 percent voted against either a Division IV or any subdivisions to Division III.
Fry, who was a leading proponent of a restructuring, was disappointed, but not surprised, by the results.
"I thought the vote would be closer," Fry said. "I thought maybe a third of the members would be interested in a new division, which would return to the original tenets of the Division III philosophy. And even though it wouldn't have been a majority, it would have given us a critical mass to move forward. I think that uncertainty had a major impact. I don't think you can underestimate the power of the status quo. The idea of a Division IV had people upset."
The concerns cited most often were the possible break-up of conferences, increased travel, the potential loss of traditional rivalries and fears that it would be difficult to brand a new division or subdivision.
While the vote shows where institutions stand, there is still work ahead. "Even though they rejected the idea of a subdivision or a Division IV," Fry said, "it doesn't mean the problem is solved." The astronomical growth will continue to present practical and philosophical problems that need to be addressed.
The survey also showed there are some issues on which members did not agree. "Ironically the survey itself that shot down the notion that reorganization was necessary also provided some interesting information about the fact that we have real differences," Fry said.
There seem to be three groups emerging: one that is happy with Division III, one that feels Division III has strayed from its core philosophy and needs to return to its roots and one that thinks Division III is too restrictive and needs to loosen requirements.
One issue that shows these differing opinions is the sport-sponsorship requirement. Division III schools currently are required to offer 10 sports (five men's and five women's). That number is slated to increase to 12 sports in 2010. The survey found that 52 percent support the new 2010 standard, but 22 percent prefer the current standard and 23 percent believe the number should be higher.
Another area of much debate is red-shirting (whereby athletes are held out of competition for a year to extend their eligibility). Division III banned red-shirting in 2004, but the survey shows that 26 percent oppose the prohibition and 56 percent agree or strongly agree that the current red-shirting policy should be upheld.
The part of the survey that raised the most eyebrows was the topic of financial aid for athletes. Because the absence of athletic scholarships is perhaps the defining principle of Division III, it was unsurprising that 92 percent felt student financial-aid decisions made by the admissions and financial-aid departments should be free of influence from the athletics department.
But then came the most startling element of the report: 65 percent strongly agreed, agreed or somewhat agreed that consideration of leadership abilities in athletics (i.e., team captain) in the awarding of financial aid should be allowed, provided it is consistent with the consideration of leadership in other student activities.
"The most surprising result was the 'leadership in athletics scholarship,'" Epps said. "The only thing that really separates Division III from other divisions is that we don't give scholarships. If we start giving leadership money based on athletic achievement, there is no reason for Division III to exist. To my mind this issue would be the point of separation for schools of good conscience."
When asked why some schools are leaning that way, Epps answered quickly: "I don't really know because I don't think that way. I think there are schools that feel that if students choose to spend their extracurricular time in high school on athletics and they are voted captain, they should get credit for that in the same way as if they were a leader in the band."
Fry described himself as "stunned" by this survey result. "The fact that more than 50 percent said they were interested in exploring the idea of leadership awards is worrisome to me and shows how differently people feel about even the issues that are the bedrock of Division III," Fry said.
The Road AheadThe survey has started an important conversation that Fry and Epps believe must continue in order for the division to manage the growth and change sure to come during the next decade.
One of the most significant and encouraging achievements from the survey and resulting discussions is the increased engagement on the part of presidents and chancellors.
The survey showed that 78 percent of the respondents strongly agreed, agreed or somewhat agreed that presidents or chancellors should be more actively involved in the governance of Division III athletics at the conference level, and 77 percent said they should be involved at the national level.
Fry also was gratified to see that 90 percent of the survey responses included presidential participation. He feels presidential leadership is critical to ensuring Division III's future is consistent with its educational philosophy.
From an athletic director's point of view, Epps is in complete agreement. "The trend is that we want the presidents to be more involved," she said. " I know I do. It goes along with the philosophical idea of a Division III school. Just as the president is in charge of everything else, the president needs to be in charge of athletics.
"If a president isn't, it puts athletics outside the philosophy and the mission of the school. So those presidents who don't want to have that responsibility are demeaning athletics, whereas our president's leadership in the Presidents Council shows how integral athletics are to the college experience here at Franklin & Marshall."
On the basis of the survey results and town hall meeting discussions held in the spring and summer, the Presidents Council disseminated a series of white papers to help institutions understand some of the current issues. Topics include presidential leadership, Division III philosophy and identity, financial aid and academic considerations.
These papers will further the ongoing, important conversation about Division III and help its presidents and chancellors better understand and participate in the challenges heading their way.
"I think reorganization is inevitable if the NCAA continues to grow," Fry concludes. "Athletics is vitally important to the life of a college, especially a liberal arts residential college like Franklin & Marshall. Starting with the reforms in 2004, we are seeing more presidents take these issues seriously. I'm hopeful that athletics will get its share of a president's attention along with academics, admissions and advancement."