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Kaler's moment: Let's hope he seizes it

MinnPost photo by Jana Freiband
How President Kaler handles the Norwood Teague aftermath is likely to be his most visible moment.

Like many in my demographic, the soundtrack of my life is sports talk radio. The Common Man Dan Cole, Dan Barreiro, and the cadre of talented Twin Cities radio personalities provide a fun distraction from my academic life as a law professor at the University of Minnesota.

Francis X. Shen

But recently these worlds have collided. With the news of UMN Athletic Director Norwood Teague’s resignation for sexual harassment, followed by Star Tribune reporter Amelia Rayno’s revelations of Teague’s inappropriate conduct with her, talk radio has been filled with debate about what the university should do next.

At the center of these debates is U of M President Eric Kaler.

Less than five years on the job, Kaler has faced a series of challenges from reduced state funding to increased crime around campus.

But how President Kaler handles the Norwood Teague aftermath is likely to be his most visible moment (and not just for us sports talkers).

So far, President Kaler is on the right track. He was quick to condemn Teague’s actions, and the university has announced that it will hire outside experts to examine “the culture and hiring practices” in the Athletic Department, as well as department finances. These are excellent first steps.

Looking for bold, fearless leadership

But in the weeks and months to come we will look to Kaler for something more than reports on hiring and spreadsheets on spending. We will look for bold, fearless leadership.

This is Kaler’s moment.

So what should he do?

No doubt the president will listen to many advisers, from both inside and beyond the university, as he formulates his next steps. Certainly we must ensure above all that the university is a safe, supportive working environment. Sexual harassment cannot be tolerated.

But amidst myriad considerations and pieces of advice, I hope Kaler will spend an hour listening to sports talk radio. There he will hear from his most dedicated Gopher fans calling in to express their frustration. As one caller described it, when he heard the news he felt it in his gut. Oh boy, here we go again. The anguish being expressed is deep and genuine.

These callers are not the big donors whose names will adorn buildings. These are regular, everyday Gopher fans who dream of a Big 10 Title and a sports program with national relevance. Some are Gopher alums, but most are simply Minnesotans.

Worried about ramifications

And many Minnesotans are worried. Will Teague’s resignation set the program back another decade? Will all the fundraising progress be halted? Will recruits be wary of coming to the Twin Cities amidst a leadership void?

Some in the university, here and across the nation, think college sports are overblown. Others think athletics are fine, but that every sport should be treated equally without preference for football and men’s basketball. No doubt such factions will see this as an opportunity to redirect the university’s attention to other priorities. And to be clear: Educating students and addressing harassment are top priorities.

But I hope that President Kaler will retain a bigger, bolder vision that includes a place for big-time athletics. I have dedicated my life to higher education, and there is no one who values teaching and research more. But one doesn’t have to choose between world-class academics and national-caliber athletics. UMN can do both.

The path forward

The path forward is not to retreat from the progress we’ve made in improving our athletics programs. Rather, it’s to double-down. Let’s not let one man’s despicable acts stop our march to the top of the Big Ten.

I believe President Kaler has the skill and strength to keep us on a path toward excellence.

Let’s hope he seizes his moment.

Francis X. Shen, J.D., Ph.D., is a McKnight Land-Grant Professor and Associate Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches criminal law and evidence. He is a former NCAA athlete and is currently the USA Track and Field Masters National Champion in his age group for the 400 meter hurdles. Views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Minnesota.

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Comments (11)

The vision

So what should that vision be? What role should athletics play in the modern university? Does the current structure we are looking at reflect what we expect from a university in the second decade of the 21st century, or is it the creaky leftover from a model constructed long ago that holds itself together by force of habit? Are these questions we want to deal with now, or defer to a later time or possibly avoid altogether?

Spreadsheets on spending are a good thing

"But in the weeks and months to come we will look to Kaler for something more than reports on hiring and spreadsheets on spending."

Actually looking at spreadsheets is informative. Looking at reports to the NCAA made by the U concerning athletic department finances is also useful.

For example:

From the 2014 U of M annual report to the NCAA:

The "athletically related facilities annual debt service" for fiscal year 2014 was $17,663,000.

The "athletically related outstanding debt balance" for fiscal year 2014 was $201,395,000.

link: http://bit.ly/1NCLHbK

"It appears that the Regents are poised to approve the plans to construct a $150 million "athletic village." (The scope of the project has been temporarily reduced from the original plan at a cost of $190 million.) The cost of financing the project will increase the already staggering amount of athletic department debt. The policy of the University is that 80% of the cost of a project must be raised before starting construction. See the statement of policy by U of M CFO Richard Pfutzenreuter in the February 8, 2015 Star Tribune report on U's Athletics Project. So the Regents will have to disregard the policy of the University to approve the start of construction as the athletic department is far short of raising 80% ($120 million) of the current cost of the project.

Why should the athletic department get a pass on compliance with University policy? Especially when it already has athletic debt on steroids"
link: http://bit.ly/1JeSFzC

Bill!

The Athletic dept is self financing don't ya know!

Paul

As you know, in every conversation about money and athletics at the U, someone will always make the patently false claim that athletics is self-supporting.

Pathetic.

And the author of this piece thinks that the U should "double down."

What can I say?

Bill Gleason, retired U of M faculty and alum

New model

Either we stop pretending that our Universities ought to revolve around "sports" or continue to dismantle one of the best university systems in the world. If our universities are going to be training grounds for pro-scouts of various kinds than the pro leagues need to pay for the athletic programs their using to train their athletes. As it is this just amounts to yet another public subsidy for millionaire sports franchise owners.

And... "No"

This is NOT the big problem Kaler needs to have on his plate, although it does speak to his general competence as an executive. Remember when he staked his name and reputation on reducing and controlling administrative costs?

It's a bit disappointing to

It's a bit disappointing to see an argument that dealing with the head of the athletic department should be the defining moment of a University president's tenure. The tail really does wag the dog. I for one would love to see the U turn it's focus towards being a great university, period. A great symbolic first step would be to make the president the highest paid employee of the school. Instead, that spot is jointly held by the basketball and football coaches. Money talks, and it says where the priorities are.

The right track?

Kaler hired a guy with a history of sexual harassment who - big surprise - went on to sexually harass employees here.

After the latest Teague news broke, Kaler's first response was to excuse Teague's behavior as the result of being overserved.

If we really want to fix this, maybe you should stop congratulating Kaler and consider that he might be part of the problem.

It's too late.

Kaler and the U's public relations machine stick their foot in their mouths every time they try to manage his resignation.

First, Kaler attributed Teague's recent sexual harassment episodes, involving women on his own staff, to the fact that Teague was "over-served." The bartender was at fault, and there was certainly no broader pattern of misbehavior by Teague, right? In the land of 10,000 lakes and treatment centers, this effort to lessen culpability and garner sympathy was a serious miscalculation. So, Kaler apologized.

Then, Kaler suggested a possible consulting hand-shake for Teague at a rate of $285/hour. Presumably, Athletic Department staff were not capable of managing the transition without Teague's help, an assumption that must have been especially demeaning to Beth Goetz, the newly appointed Interim Director. So, Kaler backtracked.

And, there was the matter of annual compensation. The vast gulf between Teague's $422,000 salary (which doesn't include an extra $160,000 in perks), and Beth Goetz's salary of $170,800 as Assistant Director, was suddenly not looking good. But Teague was doing a man's job, and pay equity has never been the U's strong suit. So, Kaler added $95,000 more to her salary, which still left a $156,200 gap.

Finally let's not forget who led the less-than-stellar search that brought Teague to Minnesota in the first place? Kaler.

It's tough to share your confidence in his ability, or the University's, to make educating students its top priority.

What's going on

These are reasons why it's so important for the UofM administration to distance itself from the athletic department. When things blow up, it's vital for the president of the day to be able to say "I couldn't possibly have known that was going on." Maintaining that posture isn't easy. Among other reasons, that's why the crucial decision of hiring of an athletic dicrector is delegated to an employment agency whose job it is to maintain that critical barrier between the administration and what's actually going on.

Exactly

It's called plausible deniability.