Over the past decade or so, universities throughout the Upper Midwest have taken on the challenge of transitioning from the NCAA Division II ranks to Division I.

South Dakota State and North Dakota State began the process in 2004, South Dakota and North Dakota followed suit in 2008, although UND's men's hockey team has been playing at the D1 level for decades.

One of the biggest hurdles institutions face is the increased financial burden of additional scholarships, higher coaching salaries, travel costs, and facility improvement expenditures.

In Grand Forks, UND has already experienced its share of growing pains.

In April of 2016, the school dropped men's baseball and golf in order to save an estimated $720,000 annually. In all, the university announced it needed to cut $9.5 million out of its total school-wide operating budget for next year because of an order by Governor Jack Dalrymple’s office, after the state’s revenue forecast fell short. At the time, officials said that the dollar amount for athletic cuts -- $2.4 million -- wasn’t a hard number.

Those moves apparently haven''t been enough.

This week, school president Mark Kennedy sent out a letter to all UND students:

Dear Campus Community:

I want to make you aware that UND Athletics ended FY16 with a shortfall of approximately $1.4 million. This is a disappointment to me, and I am taking steps to address it.

Effective immediately, the chief financial officer for Athletics will now report directly to the Associate Vice President for Finance. This tightening of fiscal controls will benefit Athletics as well as the University.

Last week I announced Laurie Betting, Interim Vice President for Student Affairs, and Dana Harsell, Chair of University Senate, as co-chairs of a University planning process. As a companion to that process, I am asking a subgroup of the elected Intercollegiate Athletics Committee (IAC) to examine UND Athletics to make sure we have an athletics program that best fits the University of North Dakota in terms of a number of factors, including the sports we participate in, conference participation, the number of athletes that we serve, and the cost of the programs.  The IAC serves as an advisory committee to University Senate and my office, making recommendations on matters pertaining to institutional control of the athletics program; the academic and financial integrity of intercollegiate athletics; the academic and personal well-being of student-athletes; gender equity; non-discrimination and diversity; and the accountability of the athletics program to the values and mission of the University.

This action is a continuation of a conversation started by Interim President Ed Schafer, who suggested that the University take a hard look at our athletics program with an eye to ensuring we have the right number and mix of Division I athletic programs. I want to conclude that process by the end of the calendar year.

I want to be clear: I am pro-Athletics. I am proud of our student-athletes, who are successful as athletes and who perform well in the classroom. They are also engaged in the community, contributing more than 9,500 hours of service in FY16.  But I also want to be clear that we need to make sure we have Athletics program that is the right fit for the University. I appreciate the committee helping us with this important task.

The conference issue is a sensitive one for athletic department officials in Grand Forks.

In 2011, both North Dakota and South Dakota were looking for new conference homes as the Great West Conference was disbanding. The Missouri Valley Conference (football) and Summit League (all other sports, except hockey) seemed to be the most logical and cost effective fits, as both consisted of teams in relatively close proximity to Grand Forks and Vermilion. The problem was, neither had room for two additional teams.

That forced North Dakota officials to opt for membership in the Big Sky Conference, with the closest league opponent more that 800 miles away.

South Dakota was able to secure last-minute membership in both the Summit and Missouri Valley, where the longest road trip is a little more than 900 miles away.

With their inclusion in the Big Sky, UND has taken a big hit in ticket revenue, without regularly scheduled games against traditional rivals North Dakota State, South Dakota State, and USD.

The ominous tone of president Kennedy's suggests North Dakota is looking hard at a possible exit from the Big Sky, or perhaps a more extreme move, dropping some of their athletic programs back to Division II.

It will be interesting to see if the Missouri Valley and Summit are more open to welcoming UND into the fold, five years later.


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