The University of St. Thomas announced on Friday, October 4th that is has received an invitation to join the Division I Summit League.
Although this is an important step forward in their search for a new conference, they require a waiver from the NCAA to transition directly to Division I.
This saga began last May, when the University of St. Thomas was involuntarily removed from the MIAC. This was the result of extensive conversations among the presidents of the 13 MIAC schools.
According to the MIAC press release, “while no formal vote was held, all 13 MIAC presidents agreed to a transition that will end St. Thomas’ membership in the conference by the spring of 2021”.
The cited reason for this decision was athletic competitive parity.
“If you have a larger institution you have more student athletes to choose from. You’re able to utilize enrollment in different ways. And typically, enrollment brings more funding. So I think that was another catalyst as well,” MIAC commissioner Dan McKane said.
Although St. Thomas wanted to remain in the conference, other presidents were steadfast in their desire for change.
An FAQ published by St. Thomas states, “other MIAC presidents communicated their intentions to leave the conference if St. Thomas remained. There was consensus that the conference would cease to exist in its current form if St. Thomas remained”.
“It became clear that there was no path forward that preserved the MIAC in its current form. In the end, all 13 MIAC presidents agreed to a transition plan where St. Thomas would leave the conference within two years,” Gustavus President Rebecca Bergman said.
Bergman serves as the Chairperson of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Presidents’ Council that ultimately came to this decision.
“Throughout the discussions concerning the future of the MIAC, I was sensitive to how my role as chairperson impacted the decision-making process, while at the same time making sure that in representing the College,
I put the student athlete experience at the center in considering how to best move forward,” President Bergman said.
After this decision was made, St. Thomas assembled an advisory committee to examine options for new conferences.
Ultimately, the St. Thomas Board of Trustees submitted an application to join the Division I Summit League.
Upon receiving this application, the Presidents of the Summit League Institution unanimously voted to extend a formal invitation to the Tommies to join the league.
The Summit League is comprised of the University of Denver, University of Nebraska Omaha, University of North Dakota, North Dakota State University, Oral Roberts University, University of South Dakota, South Dakota State University, Western Illinois University and University of Missouri – Kansas City (joining 2021).
The NCAA currently has a rule that states that Division III schools can only reclassify to Division II and then later to Division I.
Under the current protocol, a move from DIII to DI takes about 12 years.
In an effort to expedite this process, St. Thomas has submitted a request for a waiver that would allow them to join the Summit League beginning in 2021.
“NCAA members are currently evaluating whether or not there needs to be a process by which a Division III school could move to Division I directly,” NCAA spokesperson Meghan Durham said.
If the NCAA denies the request for a waiver, St. Thomas will continue evaluating other options in Division II and III.
The Summit League does not sponsor competition in football or hockey, so St. Thomas will actively pursue affiliate memberships in other Division I conferences.
St. Thomas Athletic Director Paul Esten told the Star Tribune that St. Thomas is pursuing the Pioneer League, a non-scholarship Division I conference, for football as well as the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
In hockey, Esten has mentioned the Women’s WCHA and a group of seven men’s teams scheduled to leave the WCHA after the 2020-21 season as potential landing spots.
“To this point, everything has been what I would consider informal conversations. But I would anticipate that ramping up. There’s a lot of intrigue from our league about what they would look like as a member of the WCHA,” Esten said.
This change marks the first membership change in the MIAC since St. Ben’s joined in 1985, marking the fourth-longest streak in all of college athletics.
“Gustavus has long appreciated its rivalry with St. Thomas on the athletic field, and we have always considered them a respected and worthy opponent. Our focus will be to forge ahead and continue to give our coaches and student athletes the resources and support they need to have a meaningful Division III athletic opportunity that will supplement their world class educational experience,” Bergman said.
Although this situation has attracted extensive news coverage, the experience of Gustavus student athletes will not change dramatically.
“I would ask the students, parents and fans to join me in celebrating the short-term and long-term future of the MIAC, the amazing Golden Gusties, and, most of all, the student athletes throughout our Conference who compete at a high level and model both good sportsmanship and high academic accomplishment,” Bergman said.