Changing Times: Whitman Shifts Athletic Affiliation to NCAA Div. III
WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Beginning with the 1995-96 academic year, athletic programs at Whitman College and other members of the Northwest Conference (NWC) underwent fundamental change.
In a move spearheaded by the college and university presidents, the NWC shifted its national affiliation in the fall of 1996 to Division III of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The move, which Whitman had contemplated for years, aligned the NWC with similar colleges and universities in California and other parts of the country.
"Nearly all of our kindred sister and brethren schools around the nation are affiliated with NCAA Division III," then Whitman president Tom Cronin said at the time of the shift in affiliation. "This is clearly where selective liberal arts colleges such as ours belong. The policies and philosophy of Division III athletics place a strong emphasis on student-athletes who are students first and athletes second, which is an emphasis Whitman has always maintained."
The 1995-96 academic year marked the beginning of a required three-year provisional NCAA membership period for the NWC schools. The transition period gave athletic departments time to bring their programs into full compliance with NCAA Division III regulations on recruiting, financial aid and other issues. Full membership for most NWC schools began in fall of 1998, at which time NWC teams and athletes became eligible for NCAA post-season competition. Until then, the NWC continued its affiliation with the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and competed in post-season events sponsored by that organization.
For NWC schools, post-season play in the NAIA always carried a degree of inequity. "When our athletes were successful and moved into the post-season, we found ourselves competing against teams and schools that were very unlike Whitman in terms of academic standards and athletic scholarships," Cronin said. "There were instances where a small nation might send its Davis Cup tennis players or Olympic athletes to an NAIA school for a few semesters to train while receiving athletic scholarships. Those situations were grossly unfair for our students, who essentially were competing against professional athletes from abroad."
NAIA membership had dwindled in the years prior to the NWC's shift in affiliation to the NCAA. At that point in time, Cronin noted, Whitman was the "most academically prestigious school on the list, and the NWC by far was the academically strongest conference left in the NAIA."
A key change NWC schools faced in switching national affiliations was the NCAA Division III prohibition against any form of financial aid based on athletics. In the past, NWC schools used enhanced financial aid packages to help meet the demonstrated need of some athletes. Under Division III guidelines, financial aid for athletes must not differ from assistance offered to all students.
"I don't think the transition effected Whitman to any great extent," Cronin said. "I know of very few students who come here for athletics first and academics second. We also have a strong financial aid budget, and we are able to meet the financial need of most of our students."
The recent move to NCAA in no way represents a de-emphasis of athletics in the conference, Cronin said. "On the contrary, we think this is a very healthy athletic conference, a very important conference nationally, and we want to strengthen it. Each of the private college presidents in this region wants to maintain strong athletic programs that allow our students to compete at the intercollegiate as well as the intramural levels. The type of conference we want to preserve is one in which the concept of the student-athlete is more important than the student who is recruited solely because of athletic ability."
One indication of the NWC's vitality is the recent increase in membership that took place when George Fox College and University of Puget Sound joined in the mid-1990s. Other schools in the conference, in addition to Whitman, are Pacific Lutheran University and Whitworth College in Washington, and Williamette University, Linfield College, Pacific University and Lewis & Clark College in Oregon.
Whitman made its first attempt at joining NCAA Division III in the mid- to late-1980s. That attempt, which included a three-year dual membership in the NCAA and NAIA, failed when too few of the other conference schools followed suit. One of the complicating factors at that time, according to NWC Commissioner Arleigh Dodson, was that the conference was still in its infancy. "There were too many issues at that time for us to focus on just one issue," Dodson said.
"We were disappointed at the time," former Whitman athletic director Max Seachris said. "We felt then, and we still do, that NCAA Division III is where Whitman belongs."