McFeely blog: Eastern Washington interim president recommends staying in Division I

EWU's athletic department has long been strapped by financial deficits and faculty pressure to make cuts or reclassify to a lower, more affordable division. The athletic department has racked up an accumulated budget deficit of about $5.5 million since 2014.

Eastern Washington's football success, combined with the red turf on the Eagles' home field in Cheney, Wash., make it one of the top brands in FCS. The university's athletic department faces financial woes, however, exacerbated by dropping enrollment and the COVID pandemic. Christopher Anderson / Special to The Forum

CHENEY, Wash. — The interim president of Eastern Washington University has recommended to the school's board of trustees that it remain in NCAA Division I, a key endorsement that will likely keep the Eagles competing in the Football Championship Subdivision.

David May last week told the board he believed EWU should remain in the Big Sky Conference, but with major financial adjustments, according to the Spokesman-Review newspaper in nearby Spokane .

"If we’re going to remain Division I Big Sky athletics, and I’m making an argument very publicly that this is important for the community and beyond, I hope that community will hear what I’m saying," May said, according to the newspaper.

EWU has been one of the top five programs in FCS since winning a national championship in 2010. The Eagles have a nice history with the North Dakota State program, including a playoff game in the COVID-fueled spring season that was just concluded. The Bison and Eagles are working on a game at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis for 2023.

E WU's athletic department has long been strapped by financial deficits and faculty pressure to make cuts or reclassify to a lower, more affordable division . The athletic department has racked up an accumulated budget deficit of about $5.5 million since 2014 and with dropping enrollment, some faculty believe it has escaped the scalpel while academic departments have been deeply pared.


The school hired a consultant to take an in-depth look at the athletic department and make recommendations. A 75-page report by the PICTOR Group of Reno, Nev., was released in February and concluded there were four viable options for the department:

  • Remain an NCAA Division I-FCS program
  • Remain an NCAA Division I program without football
  • Reclassify to NCAA Division II
  • Reclassify to NCAA Division III

"The university is at a crossroad with respect to determining the value and role of its athletics program and how it fits within the university," the report said.

While May's recommendation isn't the final word since the board of trustees will make its own decision in June, it seems even more unlikely now that EWU will take any rash steps with its athletics.

Instead, according to the Spokesman-Review, it appeared May was leaning toward remaining Division I but reallocating money within the department to bolster its top programs like football and men's basketball.

May is leaning toward taking "funds from low-revenue sports to help boost ticket-selling programs like annual top-25 FCS football program and men’s basketball that’s often competing for Big Sky championships," according to the newspaper.

"He also referenced EWU’s recent NCAA Tournament appearance and near upset of national power Kansas in which the Eagles’ athletic website crashed due to the high-volume from curious basketball fans from around the country," the paper wrote.

The grumblings from some EWU faculty about athletics spending has long been an issue, as it has been on other campuses. It's unlikely to be assuaged by the interim's president's recommendation.


After the PICTOR report was released, one vocal faculty member had this to say about it:

"In spite of the facts, common sense, and what's fair to the students, and in violation of good financial stewardship, the EWU Board of Trustees will still surely vote to keep Eastern in Division I," EWU English professor emeritus Anthony Flynn told the Spokane newspaper. "All those in the community wanting to keep the Eagles in Division I, however few in number, are so committed, so quick to take offense, so dismissively indifferent to real data that they make too formidable a group for the Board to dare cross. Not even moving from NCAA to NAIA – a legitimate compromise ignored, of course, by the PICTOR report – would satisfy them."

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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