RIT’s push for NCAA legislative change opens the door for women to move to Division I

Sometimes, the door is held open for you.

Other times, you have to knock.

When Rochester Institute of Technology started to think in 2004 about elevating its men’s hockey program from Division III to Division I, the plan had always been to move the women’s team to D-I as well.

The NCAA’s four-year moratorium on moving programs into D-I, put in place in 2007, slammed the door shut on those plans.

“In hindsight on this, had we known the moratorium was going to be in place, we probably would have taken both the men and the women to Division I in 2004,” said Mary Beth Cooper, RIT senior vice president for student affairs. “No one knew that the next year the NCAA was going to put a moratorium in place that would preclude us from taking the women.”

However, when the moratorium was lifted, in August 2011, also gone was the opportunity for schools to “play up,” that is, to be multidivisional.

And that left RIT — a member of the Division III Liberty League in all other sports except wrestling — with a dilemma.

Moving the entire athletic department from D-III to D-I would be time consuming and expensive. All intercollegiate sports would have to move to Division II first, which would require a two-year transition period. Before a move from Division II to Division I could happen, RIT would need to participate for five years at Division II, followed by a four-year transition period to Division I. A total of 11 years would be needed to become a full Division I program, assuming that finding a sponsoring conference at each level and other detailed and stringent NCAA requirements were met.

That timetable simply was not going to work.

Athletic director Lou Spiotti, RIT president William Destler, and legal counsel for the university began meeting in the fall to discuss how to proceed.

It was time to knock on the door.

Destler wrote a letter to the NCAA administrative council proposing legislation to allow a waiver to the moratorium for universities with a men’s program playing at D-I but not a women’s program. RIT proposed legislation that would provide a window for Division III institutions to move one women’s team up.

“Eventually the administrative council took it on,” said Spiotti. “The argument we made was gender equity in Title IX. That really rung true with them. It really kind of slid through the administrative council and then it went to the board of directors of the NCAA back in November. Once it got there, the people were really great. They moved on it quickly.”

That the NCAA was receptive to the recommendation by RIT, and that it moved on it so quickly, is remarkable, said Cooper. “The NCAA is a huge organization and has more barriers and more policies than anybody I know. So the fact that one school and one president can write a letter that changes their mind and lets people move forward was more significant than anything else.”

After the approval of RIT’s proposed legislation by the NCAA in November, the athletic department had to get things moving quickly on what Spiotti described as a “two-fold” process.

“One was finding a league,” Spiotti said. The CHA quickly and unanimously welcomed the Tigers.

But then came the paperwork.

“The grueling process was the NCAA application,” said Spiotti. “There are requirements that you build a strategic plan; you to have answer multiple questions and give them data. We began putting the materials together over the holidays and got that in shortly after the first of the year. It had to be in by June 1, but we wanted to have it in in plenty of time.”

That June 1 window, however, does not change the prohibition on Division III teams offering scholarships for Division I sports, except for those grandfathered under a 30-year-old waiver.

Is it time for the NCAA to consider legislation to allow all D-III schools with D-I teams the ability to offer scholarships?

“I think that will be a topic for conversation,” said Cooper. “Hockey is one of the sports that doesn’t have a large audience. RPI president Shirley Jackson actually went on the floor — and I was at that meeting — and she was very eloquent about that. So I think it’s time to revisit that.”

At that 2004 meeting of the NCAA, Jackson spoke in favor of keeping scholarships for multidivisional programs when Division III, led by former Middlebury president John McCardell, considered legislation banning them. Programs which had been offering athletic scholarships prior to 1971 and which had kept them during a 1982-83 waiver — Clarkson, Colorado College, Rensselaer, and St. Lawrence — were grandfathered in, but no new programs were allowed to offer athletic grants.

Though he would be in favor of such legislation, Spiotti believes that finding support for such a measure will be difficult. In men’s and women’s hockey, Union and RIT are the only D-III schools prohibited from offering D-I scholarships.

“Over the years, I’ve seen these arguments on the floor of the NCAA over multi-divisional particularly,” Spiotti said. “There’s the argument from the Division IIIs that we do not want an institution that has a Division I program to have an inordinate amount of assets which would make a competitive inequity with other Division III schools, and then the Division Is who say that we would not be in favor of it because they made the choice and they knew what the ground rules were, and so if they want scholarships, make the whole program Division I.”

The argument could be made that it would make things consistent, Spiotti added. “With so few in that category, would the NCAA at Division I and Division III say, ‘Let’s get this cleaned up for the good of men’s and women’s ice hockey? Let’s get this cleaned up and move on.'”

Scholarships or not, the move of RIT women to D-I is an opportunity that no other Division III school will get. Being able to walk through that door at the culmination of months — or really years — of hard work is very satisfying to Spiotti.

“I’m pretty excited about solidifying this whole thing. I’ve felt for a long time that I’ve wanted to see this happen with women’s ice hockey, and I’ve advocated for it,” he said. “I’ve really kind of pushed hard these last few months to get things where they need to be.

“I think this is really going to be very big for RIT.”