Striving to protect its Division I lacrosse tradition while keeping the rest of its athletic program in Division III, Johns Hopkins is collaborating with seven other schools in an intense lobbying effort planned for an NCAA convention this weekend in Nashville, Tenn.
Proposal 65, part of a Division III reform package, would eliminate a 20-year waiver that allows Johns Hopkins to offer athletic scholarships to men and women to compete in Division I lacrosse. The rule revision would take effect in 2008.
The proposal is set to come up for a vote Monday, toward the end of the convention, in what is expected to be a close ballot. Hopkins and the other schools have introduced a counterproposal that would preserve the waiver in the various sports affected, which range from hockey to water polo.
Over the past four months, officials of the eight schools - Johns Hopkins, Clarkson, St. Lawrence, Oneonta, Colorado College, Hartwick, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Rutgers-Newark - have sent out brochures and made countless phone calls to the rest of the Division III members, which do not offer athletic scholarships.
"It's one of the strongest lobbying efforts I've seen in my 15 years here," Salisbury athletic director Michael Vienna said. "When you consider a proposal that just affects eight institutions, they're doing a great job of getting their point across."
The schools state in a brochure: "The only significant difference between us and other Division III members is a history and tradition of prominence in a particular sport, generally a sport that has a relatively low national visibility but that is important locally or regionally."
Hopkins has competed in lacrosse throughout its 127-year history, winning 42 national titles, including seven NCAA Division I titles. Also, the campus houses the sport's hall of fame.
Since the reform package was introduced last summer, Johns Hopkins president William R. Brody has made it clear that the school would continue to give athletic scholarships for lacrosse. "Our options are to move every sport to Division I," he said recently.
If Proposal 65 passes, Hopkins likely would try to get the NCAA membership to reconsider the matter in the future. Before then, it would make Division I the next stop, allying itself with schools more compatible with itself than ones in Division III. Hopkins probably would look to the Patriot League or Colonial Athletic Association for membership for most of its teams.
Though Hopkins officials have been hoping to keep the majority of their 28 varsity teams at Division III in the Centennial Conference, and stress they haven't yet made contact with a Division I league, the backup plan is in place.
"We can't not prepare for the worst," said athletic director Tom Calder. "I think we've been gathering research that would affect the decision we would make, should we lose."
The roots of the Division III reform package are in a survey conducted last spring by a task force looking into the future of Division III athletics.
The package includes measures that would reduce teams' schedules and eliminate redshirt designations that allow athletes to sit out a year while retaining eligibility. Of roughly 335 schools that completed the survey, 60 percent supported or strongly supported the elimination of the waiver.
This is the third challenge to the waiver since 1983, when it was given to the eight schools.
Dennis Collins, commissioner of the North Coast Atlantic Conference since 1984, said he helped broker a 1991 deal that forced Division I Dayton to promote its football program from Division III, while preserving the waiver that allowed Johns Hopkins to play lacrosse at the Division I level.
"I thought the offensive nature of the multi-division classification was corrected at the meeting in 1991," Collins said. "We don't understand why this is coming up again."
But at the same time, Collins said the schools in his Ohio-based conference - with Oberlin and Kenyon as notable examples - were split on the issue, just as the matter appears to divide the entire Division III membership.
In Nashville, the debate will center on what members perceive matters most to their Division III identity: Is it a core philosophy that prohibiting athletic scholarships keeps the focus on academics and the overall college experience? Or is it institutional autonomy and the continuation of a tradition such as Hopkins' in lacrosse - as long as that doesn't create a disadvantage for Division III opponents?
The head of the Presidents Council, which put together the reform package, recognizes that none of the eight schools represents the ills of big-time athletics.
"The issue is athletic scholarships. Let's debate that issue," said John McCardell, outgoing president of Middlebury College in Vermont. "The evidence is the waiver. It's a general acknowledgement that what they're doing is at variance from what is the Division III philosophy."