Not long after the NCAA’s top governing body opened the Association’s doors for international membership in 2007, Division II became the first division to walk through them. Ten years later, the division remains the only one that has capitalized on the international pilot program after admitting British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University as the first NCAA member from outside the United States.
That program, adopted as a decadelong experiment by the former NCAA Executive Committee (now the Board of Governors), is up for a review this spring. And as discussions of whether to permanently allow international membership begin, the spotlight inevitably will fall on Division II, where leaders are speaking out about the positive impacts of international members with the hope that opportunities afforded through the pilot will become etched in NCAA policy.
While the program was established by an Association-wide committee, the authority ultimately remains in the hands of each division to determine whether it will admit international members. Division II took that step in 2008, passing legislation that enabled Canadian schools to join its ranks. While the action has led to the addition of just one Canadian member, advocates say Simon Fraser has strengthened Division II competition and brought cultural benefits to student-athletes. Supporters also envision future growth — in Canada and, perhaps, also in Mexico.
The Canadian trailblazer
Simon Fraser has always prided itself on being unique — in its educational offerings, in its extracurriculars and in its overall vision. Just over 50 years old, the school has competed in athletics on U.S. soil since its inception, formerly as a member of the NAIA. But when Division II opened its membership to Canadian schools after years of conversation, Simon Fraser saw an opportunity to build upon its mission.
“As Canada’s only post-secondary institution competing in the NCAA, we can offer a first-class education together with competing in the NCAA, which is highly regarded as the top intercollegiate association in North America,” says Simon Fraser Athletics Director Theresa Hanson. “It really is a win-win on all levels for the university as a whole, not just the athletic program.”
School administrators believed the potential payoffs of Division II membership outweighed the lengthy process in getting there. International schools applying for membership are held to the same standards as schools in the U.S., including a requirement to be accredited from an approved U.S. accrediting agency. That was a seven-year journey for Simon Fraser, Hanson says.
There are other hurdles: A cross-border travel schedule inevitably presents challenges, most notably around NCAA championships. Because it’s difficult to ensure proper travel documentation for mass numbers of student-athletes, Simon Fraser is not permitted to host a championship on its campus. So this fall, when Simon Fraser’s men’s soccer team earned the top seed in the West Region, the Clan hosted the regional at Seattle Pacific University, its neighbor two-and-a-half hours south.
Despite those challenges, institutions on both sides of the border are calling the partnership a success. “The addition of Simon Fraser made geographic sense for our conference, since the institution is within driving distance of half our members,” says Dave Haglund, the commissioner of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference. “But more than that, Simon Fraser elevated the GNAC from a competitive standpoint; it is an institution with a rich and successful athletic tradition.”
The next frontier?
The trail blazed by a Canadian school has motivated other members of Division II that sit closer to the southern U.S. border. Could a similar relationship rooted in athletics develop with schools in Mexico?
The concept of Division II Mexican membership was originally raised in 2012, after the Executive Committee expanded the international pilot. But a proposal to allow Mexican schools failed in a Division II Convention vote, as members cited concerns about travel costs and safety.
Now, a contingent of presidents is looking to revive those conversations with a focus on one particular Mexican school. Talks with CETYS Universidad, based in Baja California, began during a visit to the Mexican campus by San Francisco State University President Les Wong. The U.S. university president was impressed — he saw a beautiful campus, high-quality programs and competitive athletics teams. Additionally, CETYS had received its U.S. accreditation in 2012.
“The board and I got to talking about athletics,” Wong says, “and I said, ‘Hey, why don’t our soccer teams play?’ It soon gravitated to playing in the conference. And I just thought it was a fascinating idea.”
Interest spread among CETYS administrators, including president Fernando León-García, and San Francisco State’s conference, the California Collegiate Athletic Association. Now, an exploratory process with the Mexican university is underway. Ultimately, any movement on Mexican membership would require a Division II vote, and advocates recognize the long road that would require. Yet they are hopeful.
“We are convinced it is good for the students, it is good for our programs, it is good for the university,” León-García says, “And, I think, it is good for both our countries.”