Transition to D-I Frequently Asked Questions

Following are some frequently asked questions related to St. Thomas’ recent announcement of its transition to Division I college athletics.

Q: Why is now the best time for St. Thomas to make this move, especially amid the backdrop of COVID-19, the current economic climate and other factors at play?
A: We are experiencing very challenging times, and these challenges remind us that St. Thomas’ mission to educate morally responsible leaders who serve the common good is more essential than ever. While it feels difficult to see past our current challenges, this decision must be made with a long-term lens, envisioning the future of St. Thomas 20, 30, 40 years from now.

St. Thomas has a long history of academic and athletic excellence and embracing change with an entrepreneurial spirit, and this move continues that trajectory. It is the latest in a line of many bold decisions to transform St. Thomas into a comprehensive university with a strong liberal arts foundation, reach a wider range of students and remain relevant amid the challenges of our world.

Q: Explain how this move fits St. Thomas’ mission to advance the common good?
A: Our mission – which is to educate students to be morally responsible leaders who advance the common good – calls us to make an impact. Reclassification to D-I allows us to broaden the impact that St. Thomas can have regionally, nationally and even globally through greater awareness and reach of our institution. Our commitment to our mission, personal attention, academic excellence and building an inclusive culture will never change. Like many other D-I institutions, we will make this transition while staying true to our commitment to academic excellence and our values. All the top 15 Catholic national universities ranked by U.S. News & World Report, for example, compete in D-I athletics conferences.

Q: How will this move impact and change the culture and values of St. Thomas?
A: People may view St. Thomas differently because we historically were seen as one of Minnesota’s many small, private institutions; now we will be one of two D-I programs in the state. But while people may view us differently, our values and commitment to investing in the “whole person” will not change. St. Thomas has always been about more than what happens on the playing field, the court or in the pool. We care deeply about what happens in the classroom and in the community. As one of our coaches stated, “The culture of St. Thomas has never been, come here and you can go pro. The four years as a student-athlete are about setting them up for success for the next 45 years and that will remain. If this culture was sacrificed, I would be very unwilling to be here.”

Specifically, for athletics, Vice President and Director of Athletics Phil Esten has publicly stated that the athletic mission is to provide conditions for success so that student-athletes can pursue and achieve comprehensive excellence – in the classroom, the community, building character, and competition. These core pillars align with our broader institutional purpose and will remain a guidepost into the future.

It is true, however, that certain aspects of our campus life will be different. Our student-athletes will travel more, for instance, and our entire student body has the opportunity to build new traditions and be a part of something new. What our students do today will truly shape the future of the university.

Q: How will you ensure that academics stay the primary focus/mission of this university?
A: It starts with our admissions and recruiting – we look for students (regardless of whether they are athletes or students at large) capable of successfully graduating from St. Thomas in four years. That means we must stay committed to recruiting and nurturing athletes who can be as successful in the classroom as they are on the proverbial field. We are proud of increases in our four-year graduation rate and remain committed to continued improvements. We hold our student-athletes to the same high academic standards that we do all students, and that will not change. In fact, currently our student-athletes graduate at higher rates at St. Thomas than our broader student population. Additionally, Division I has established several critical metrics to ensure that academics continue to be core to the student-athlete experience. Both the Academic Progress Rate (APR) and Graduation Success Rate (GSR) will be key performance indicators for success in intercollegiate athletics.

Q: How does this benefit all students, faculty and staff?
A: This is the right long-term decision for St. Thomas, and the journey starts with the people who are here today. We have an opportunity to geographically diversify our student population and broaden our national footprint and impact. For instance, data shows that D-I athletics, particularly when successful, can have positive outcomes on enrollment. Attracting diverse perspectives into the classroom brings benefits from more robust discussion and multiple perspectives. Students engaged with others from different states, backgrounds and lived experiences graduate more capable of being successful in an increasingly global world. Finally, all students (athletes and students at large) will be a part of building something new that shapes the long-term story of St. Thomas, including new traditions and experiences.

Q: How will you fund the increased expense for athletics?
A: Transition costs will be funded by incremental athletics revenues, philanthropy, and an investment from a board-controlled endowment fund that supports strategic initiatives that match the university’s long-term goals; we view this investment as critical to our goals for the next several decades and beyond. Incremental ongoing expenses associated with D-I will be funded primarily from any new revenues associated with the transition, including incremental revenues associated with competing at the D-I level (ticket sales, fundraising, sponsorships, etc.).

Q: Have the budgetary effects of the pandemic changed your ability to fund this?
A: It’s important to remember that our transition into D-I doesn’t begin until July 2021. Financial pressure from incremental COVID-19 expenses are being mitigated now. Because future COVID-19 expenses are uncertain, we have reexamined our athletics transition expenses, reduced the total investment and implemented a longer transition period. We still expect incremental athletic expenses from D-I to be offset by philanthropy and incremental revenue. Reclassifying to D-I is the right long-term decision for the university and we are planning the transition – financial and otherwise – with a long-term horizon in mind.

Q: Do you anticipate any facility upgrades? Will any sports compete in off-campus venues?
A: We are carefully assessing our options as we consider both the competitive landscape and the current economic climate. Any facility investments will be made strategically, with intended outcomes and impacts on student-athlete and fan experience, as well as possible revenue generation. St. Thomas will consider both on and off-campus options, either of which will be appropriately scaled for the level and expectations of our competitive expectations.

Q: Will you involve others outside of St. Thomas in planning the D-I transition?
A: Yes. Phil Esten is convening an outside group to advise on transition and long-term operations of a D-I athletics program in the Twin Cities market. Pat Ryan, chair of the University of St. Thomas Board of Trustees, has agreed to co-chair the inaugural advisory committee to help guide athletics during our reclassification and beyond.

Q: Why are these leagues – the Summit League, Pioneer Football League, the Women’s WCHA, and the Central Collegiate Hockey Association – good fits for St. Thomas?
A:The move to D-I must be about more than just athletics – any move we make must be in line with the university’s trajectory, and each of these conferences represents good fits for our institution as a whole.

  • The Summit League is a strong, Midwestern Division I athletic conference with a history of successfully reclassifying programs. Under the longtime leadership of Commissioner Tom Douple, the conference has enjoyed both academic and athletics success as its trajectory continues to ascend.
  • The Pioneer Football League is institutionally an excellent fit for St. Thomas, as many of its colleges and universities have similar profiles to ours. Additionally, the league is truly a coast-to-coast conference that will provide quality competition. This league gives us opportunities to develop regional rivalries as close as Iowa, and chances to raise our visibility in the Northeast, the Southeast, and all the way to Southern California.
  • The WCHA Women’s League is inarguably the strongest women’s hockey conference in the country, steeped in tradition and providing outstanding regional competition. Competing against both prominent women’s hockey programs in the state of Minnesota and national university profiles will help St. Thomas to extend our brand reach beyond our traditional boundaries.
  • The CCHA not only provides St. Thomas an opportunity to extend our visibility across the region, but also to be a part of the re-emergence of a rebuilt conference with a bright future. Under the leadership of former University of Minnesota coach and two-time national champion Don Lucia, the new CCHA is poised to re-establish itself on the national college hockey scene.

Q: How are you advancing actions on racial equity in the St. Thomas athletic program?
A: Racial equity is an extremely important topic for our entire university. Our institutional values clearly define our expectations for equal treatment and respect for all members of our community. The murder of George Floyd forced us all to reflect on how we have not succeeded in creating a just society that treats all humans with dignity. We are committed to act to help end systemic racism in our institution and within our country. Intercollegiate Athletics has begun important actions around how they will listen, learn and lead in this area. Phil Esten has engaged our Student Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) as well as coaches and staff to identify actions that will lead to change and positive outcomes; they are committed to outcomes, not just words.