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SAN DIEGO — UC San Diego announced Monday that it will begin the process of moving its athletics program from NCAA Division II to Division I, the top level in collegiate sports.

The Tritons will join the Big West conference, which also invited Cal State Bakersfield to become a member.

“Division I athletics will provide many opportunities to positively impact the culture of the UC San Diego campus and within the San Diego community,” said Earl Edwards, UCSD’s athletic director. “It will allow us to continue our proud tradition of academic and athletic excellence at the highest level. Division I athletics will provide the opportunity to connect and strengthen our relationships with 185,000 alums.”

He said the move will enhance school pride, allow the school to engage more with the San Diego community and enhance the brand of “a world-class university” on a local, national and global scale.

Former Mayor Jerry Sanders, now president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, called the move — which could take as long as six years to complete — “a transformational moment” for both the university and San Diego.

Current Mayor Kevin Faulconer also spoke at the news conference where the move was announced.

The Tritons will be required to spend two years elevating athletic scholarships to minimum levels, followed by a four-year transition period. Only after that transition period can a school participate in the post-season and achieve full-fledged Division I membership.

With the move up from Division II, UCSD will become the third Division I school in the city after San Diego State University and the University of San Diego. The process to explore Division I membership began in May of last year, when students voted to raise fees to support the transition from Division II.

The process took another big step in January, when the Academic Senate —   comprised of professors, lecturers, select administrators and other academic staff — voted to approve the move after conducting a months-long investigative process that included reports from five different committees.

Plans hit a wall in April when the Big West Conference’s current member schools voted against admitting the Tritons. According to reports, the conference’s UC schools — Irvine, Riverside, Santa Barbara and Davis — voted for the Tritons to be admitted, but its CSU members — Long Beach, Fullerton, Northridge and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo — did not. It was unclear how the ninth member, Hawaii, voted.

UCSD consistently ranks highly in lists of top universities in the U.S. and the world, but the reality is that a school often receives its greatest visibility and identity on the courts and fields. Chancellor Pradeep Khosla emphasized the benefits of extra visibility when he made his remarks.

Triton sports have generally been very competitive in Division II over the years, including three straight national championships and three appearances in the finals in women’s soccer.

UCSD currently fields teams in 23 sports, including men’s and women’s basketball, cross country, fencing, rowing, soccer, swimming and diving, tennis, track and field, volleyball and water polo. It also fields baseball and softball teams as well as men’s golf but does not have a football team. The Big West is a non-football conference, though three of its members field football teams that compete in other leagues.

The planned rise will leave Cal State San Marcos, which recently made a move up, and Point Loma Nazarene University as the two colleges in San Diego County competing in Division II.