Stephanie Herseth Sandlin certainly didn’t shy away from the subject.
In fact, she addressed it head-on.
Will Augustana University make the jump to Division I athletics?
A former congresswoman, Herseth Sandlin — now in her second year as president at Augustana — told the large crowd at Wednesday’s Yankton Quarterback Club luncheon that, yes, her school is examining a possible move from Division II to Division I.
"The last time we looked at it was 12 years ago," she said, following her 30-minute speech.
"It’s overdue to look at it again, but as part of a longer-term planning process."
Momentum has picked up this year on the topic of the Sioux Falls-based school someday joining the likes of the University of South Dakota and South Dakota State in the next rung up the college athletics ladder, but Herseth Sandlin made clear Wednesday that the conversations are all related to Augustana’s strategic plan.
Put another way: It wouldn’t be an athletics-only decision.
"We’re now looking at it as part of a broader, long-term planning process," Herseth Sandlin said. "And we’re not sure that it’s the right thing to do.
"But we do think it’s right to take a closer look."
The school, she added, hopes to make a decision one way or the other by the end of the fiscal year (next summer).
Augustana, Herseth Sandlin pointed out, explored a possible reclassification back in 2005, following the move of South Dakota State and North Dakota State to D-I athletics. The University of South Dakota and the University of North Dakota have since followed, and all four schools will soon be in the same conferences once again — UND joined the Summit League this year and will join the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2020.
The decision at the time by Augustana was to remain in D-II and reexamine the issue in another decade, Herseth Sandlin said.
"I think we all know what’s happened in those 10 years, now 12 years," she said.
Augustana’s Board of Trustees agrees that it’s time to explore the topic again, but "not in isolation and not in a reactive way," Herseth Sandlin said.
While the Board has not made any final decisions about Augustana’s 2030 vision, she added that it does, however, "think it’s important to explore this possibility because of a very critical point: Athletics can be a means to helping Augustana achieve its vision."
That vision, according to Herseth Sandlin, would be Augustana University brought to a wider audience, which would in turn lead to expanded opportunities and partnerships for both the school and for its students.
"We know that greater visibility leads to greater awareness, and from there, we can chart a series of ‘if this, then what’ statements," she said. "Greater awareness leads to more interest."
And from there, more interest in Augustana would allow the school more opportunities to share its story, which Herseth Sandlin could spark an increase in enrollment.
To achieve all of the goals in the school’s strategic vision for 2030, "substantial financial investments" would be needed, she said, particularly with athletics.
Although Augustana has a "much healthier" athletic budget than it did 12 years ago, Herseth Sandlin acknowledged that the small school would have to devote more resources to its athletic programs — Augustana’s current athletic budget is about $10 million, while SDSU and NDSU, for example, have a budget twice as large.
"It’s an enormous investment," Herseth Sandlin said. "It would require a lot of financial resources from the Sioux Falls business community and our alumni."
That business community support, though, helped lure the Summit League basketball tournaments — the crown jewel of the conference’s events — to Sioux Falls in 2009, and the tournaments have remained and will stay in Sioux Falls through 2022.
Still, whether Sioux Falls would support Augustana in a possible move to D-I is an aspect the school is exploring, according to Herseth Sandlin.
"And the Sioux Falls community may be ready, and they might not be, and that’s part of the thing we have to vet, because Augustana certainly can’t do it on its own," she said.
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