University of St. Thomas invited to Summit League

The University of St. Thomas (UST) received an invitation to join the Summit League on Friday, Sept. 27, in the midst of Augustana’s wait for an invitation to a multi-sport Division I conference.

The University of St. Thomas — a private Roman Catholic institution in St. Paul, Minnesota that is currently an NCAA Division III school — announced pursuit of a Division I transition this May after being “involuntarily” removed from the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. The conference cited “athletic competitive parity” as the reason for the team’s removal.

The university must wait for the NCAA’s approval of a waiver that would grant it the ability to jump from DIII to DI without going through the traditional process that would take 12 years and stop  at the DII level. According to a statement issued by UST President Julie Sullivan, the university can begin competing in the Summit League in the fall of 2021 if the waiver is granted.

“The vote is the result of months of due diligence and extensive research including numerous campus visits, stakeholder meetings and data collection,” Summit League Commissioner Tom Douple said in a statement reported by the Argus Leader.

“While the league recognizes the extraordinary efforts ahead for UST to seek Division I membership, we believe this institution is the right fit for the Summit League and we will support the reclassification process.”

The Summit League currently has nine members: Denver, Fort Wayne, North Dakota, North Dakota State, Omaha, Oral Roberts, South Dakota, South Dakota State and Western Illinois. The addition of the UST would bring that number up to an even 10.

The news comes during Augustana’s wait for an invitation from a DI conference. After announcing the intent to jump to DI as part of its Vision 2030 plan last December, Augustana steering committees have conducted feasibility studies and announced their goal to secure a conference invitation by December 2020. According to a statement by Augustana athletic director Josh Morton, this goal has not changed.

“As we announced in December 2018, Augustana athletics’ goal is to secure a multi-sport conference invitation by December 2020,” Morton said. “We continue to work diligently on our athletics strategic plan, not only for reclassification to Division I, but as part of Augustana University’s 2030 Vision in which this is one of many goals. We are being extremely thorough in our work to be prepared to be a competitive member of a Division I conference.”

In 2018, UST had a total enrollment of 10,035 students and an endowment of $519 million, according to public documents published by the university. In 2017, Augustana had an endowment of $82 million and an enrollment of 2,080.

It was previously speculated that Augustana would fill the opening in the Summit League, but UST’s addition could have an impact on this idea going forward. If Augustana were to join, it would create an imbalance of 11 teams in the conference’s roster.

President Stephanie Herseth Sandlin said that UST’s leap in conferences is another example of the shift happening in higher education today.

“Do I think that the fact that the University of St. Thomas is looking to go from Division III to Division I and why they are looking to do that is relevant to the broader discussion of what’s happening in higher education today? Yes.” Herseth Sandlin said. “They are a private institution in a large metropolitan area. They have active and engaged alumni. And all of that is true of Augustana as well, just on a different scale.”

UST athletic director Phil Esten told The Star Tribune that because the Summit League does not offer football, the university will be exploring the non-scholarship Pioneer League and Missouri Valley Football Conference, which allows scholarships and includes other Summit schools like SDSU, NDSU and USD.

If UST were to join the Pioneer League — which could be a consideration in Augustana’s plan to go Division I — it would be the closest school in the conference to Augustana, with Drake University in Des Moines,  Iowa, following. The rest of the conference is located on the eastern and western sides of the United States.

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