When University of Minnesota Athletic Director Norwood Teague showed his sports facilities plan to regents yesterday, he sparked a discussion over how successfully the U could juggle -- or marry -- academics and athletics in the competitive world of fund-raising.
(The $190 million proposal would be privately funded, Teague stressed.)
The presentation started off with the athletic director highlighting athletes' academic accomplishments. Among them, he said, graduation rates "are the highest they've ever been." The U had also improved in the Academic Performance Rate, which tracks eligibility and retention of college athletes.
Teague later discussed two projects that seemed to continue the theme Athletes are students, too.
One of those is a new academic center.
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"I can't tell you how much this is needed. As well as we're doing academically, we have kids at night who are studying out in the hallway on the floor because we're so crowded. ... And if you're in the Academic Center, you can hear everything going on (next door) in the Bierman Gym, because it's just an old facility."
The new center, he said, would have larger computer labs, tutoring rooms, office space and private study areas.
"Our kids deserve this," he said.
The second project was a dining facility called a "training table" that would serve meals to meet athletes' special nutritional needs.
Teague said NCAA rules require that one meal be open to the public.
He told regents of a trip he took to see Nebraska's:
"They open lunch to the public. They say professors come in and eat with the student athletes. Students come in and eat with the student athletes. And that would be our goal there."
(Again: Athletes are part of the student body, too.)
But regents had also just heard a presentation, prior to Teague's, that discussed the need for other facilities -- those for research. Regent Patricia Simmons asked Kaler how he would prioritize all of those construction needs and raise funds accordingly.
(My reading of her question: How will you decide whether to push athletic projects or academic/research projects when you ask donors for money?)
President Eric Kaler responded :
"I do believe there are donors who are inclined to give to Gopher athletics perhaps more than to our academic program. But these kinds of priority-settings and identification of appropriate (requests) are things that the (University Foundation) leadership and I work on continuously. ... There will be people who support one, or in come cases both of these missions."
Teague pushed how one helped the other:
"If we continue to build our athletic department, and we build it to a level of excellence and become an incredibly great "front porch" (for the U) ... and bring more branding and awareness and pride to the school, I think the benefits will help everyone. ... If the athletic department excels and does it the right way, it's going to make everyone else's job easier to raise money in other departments."
Regent John Frobenius suggested marrying the two:
"It's going to be absolutely critical that we make this an all-university project -- not just all-athletic-department project ... and it shows how it also strengthens the academic mission of this university."
(He'd also mentioned how attendees at a university athletics-related event in St. Cloud had remarked how impressed they were with the emphasis the U placed on academics.)
But regent Abdul Omari, a Humphrey School doctoral student, made an observation that countered the athletes-are-students-too image.
Athletes are busy morning till night, he said. He wondered whether they're too isolated from the rest of the student population -- and thus have little interaction with it.
"I'll just give you this: As an undergraduate ... I would not have gone to a dining facility that was at the athletic facility. So how do we ... make sure that (athletes) are in the fabric of the university?"
The message I walked away with was this:
Convincing donors and the public that athletes and athletic facilities are truly part of the university might mean ... making athletes an actual part of the university.