However they fare in the current state-budget season, Massachusetts’ public universities must look for ways to build their individual reputations, increase alumni giving, and appeal to students outside their host communities. The recent decision by the chancellor and trustees of University of Massachusetts Lowell to move all its sports programs to the more competitive Division 1 will raise the university’s profile in a positive way. The fact that the university does not have varsity football — which requires by far the largest expenditures — will make the transition easier.
UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan has chosen a reasonable sample of schools to measure the River Hawks against: Among them are the state universities of Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. He isn’t looking toward the national powerhouses, such as Texas or Ohio State, that pour more than $100 million a year into their programs.
The average annual price tag for the sports at Meehan’s peer schools is about $22 million, according to federal data. Reaching parity would still require a significant investment for a UMass Lowell athletic program that spent $7.4 million last year playing most of its sports in Division 2, but UMass Lowell is well positioned to take the leap. Since Meehan, the former US representative, became chancellor in 2007, the endowment, enrollment, and research spending are all up significantly, and the university is attracting students with higher academic qualifications.
The university has already amassed the sports infrastructure it will need to compete at a higher level, having taken over the 6,500-seat Tsongas Center, where the university’s hockey team, which already competes in Division 1, plays. Elevating the rest of the varsity teams to Division 1 and joining the America East Conference will likely add to the school’s burgeoning profile, improving school spirit and media attention while also stimulating more alumni giving.
On many campuses, sports expenditures are viewed with skepticism by faculty members, who see resources being drawn away from academics. But the move at UMass Lowell seems to have the faculty’s support, and the athletic department, as well, seems to have its priorities straight: The graduation rates for athletes is already significantly higher than for the general student body. If UMass Lowell can move up to Division 1 without driving academics down, the River Hawks will soar to heights worthy of the school’s growing reputation.