The University of New Orleans' (UNO) transition from the LSU System to the University of Louisiana (UL) System is underway, and already several major challenges confront the Lakefront campus. In addition to changing its governing structure, UNO is without a permanent leader — and its future in Division I of NCAA athletics is in jeopardy. Officials in the UL System have named a search committee to vet candidates for the position of UNO president, and that committee is rightly focused on picking the best person to lead UNO in the future. Meanwhile, the university's athletic programs need immediate attention — and help — from the UL System.
For decades, UNO proudly took its place among the best academic institutions in Louisiana while also fielding nationally competitive teams in basketball, baseball and other sports. In its early years, UNO competed in the "small college" sector of the NCAA, then in 1975 moved into the NCAA's more prestigious — and more fitting, given UNO's size and home in New Orleans — Division I. Unfortunately, budget constraints in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (along with pressure from the LSU System office) forced previous UNO administrators to cut institutional support for athletics and to seek reclassification of UNO athletics in the NCAA's Division II. We think that move was a serious mistake, one that was made in haste without adequate input from the larger UNO community and without a full study of all its ramifications. We urge reconsideration.
In purely budgetary terms, moving down to Division II could be a virtual wash. And academically, it could impose a greater burden on student athletes. While it's true that it costs less (on the surface) to play in Division II, the practical realities of competing against other Division II schools will add some costs to UNO's athletic department. Consider, for example, that no other four-year college or university in the UL System — UNO's new home — competes in Division II. In fact, no other college or university in Louisiana competes in Division II. Worse yet, UNO's closest rival in the Division II Gulf South Conference would be more than 300 miles away — as opposed to potential in-state Division I rivals in the UL System. Moreover, most if not all of UNO's likely opponents in Division II are located more than 500 miles away. That kind of travel will force student athletes to miss more classes than competing against much closer rivals in Division I. The push for Division I thus is not just about prestige and competition; Division I would be better for student athletes as well.
According to a study commissioned by concerned UNO alumni and presented to UL System President Randy Moffett in July, the net cost of staying in Division I compared to Division II would be less than $100,000. Sponsors of that study — all of whom support keeping UNO in Division I — include former UNO and NBA basketball coach Tim Floyd, LSU head baseball coach Paul Mainieri (a UNO alum), former UNO athletic director Ron Maestri, and former New Orleans Saints executive Jim Miller, who also has served as UNO's athletic director. These folks know college athletics as well as anyone. Their opinions should matter. Moreover, all other schools in the UL System, including some with enrollments and budgets similar to that of UNO, compete in Division I. All those schools also provide institutional support for their athletic programs, whereas UNO eliminated such support in 2009. If the other UL institutions can afford Division I, why can't UNO?
Some will no doubt argue it's too late to reverse the decision to move to Division II. That's simply not true. The move is not scheduled to become official — or complete — until the 2012-13 academic year. What's more, UNO has received a "non-compliance waiver" from the NCAA through 2012-13, so there's no "risk" in reconsidering the decision at this time.
Local and state leaders have urged the UL System and UNO officials to suspend the reclassification process until an independent review of that decision has been conducted. We agree with that approach. We urge UL System officials to commission an immediate, independent analysis of UNO's athletic classification. UNO's new chancellor and all of its students, faculty and alumni deserve nothing less.