P.J. Fleck seems like an outstanding coach who brings new energy and enthusiasm to the University of Minnesota’s football program. I wish him and the team nothing but the best.

I just wish that I could be more excited. Instead, I have been unable to shake my doubts about the wisdom not just of this hire but of how distant from the university’s mission statement we have drifted.

Read the opening part of the mission statement: “The University of Minnesota, founded in the belief that all people are enriched by understanding, is dedicated to the advancement of learning and the search for truth; to the sharing of this knowledge through education for a diverse community; and to the application of this knowledge to benefit the people of the state, the nation, and the world.”

One could make an argument for the inclusion of football and other sports in this mission. However, it would be a long, convoluted argument. It is possible that the “knowledge” generated by the sports’ teams “benefit the people of the state.” But is it the proper and wisest approach to meeting the university’s mission and benefiting our state?

It’s not a rhetorical question. I am conflicted. I love sports. I ran cross-country and track and field briefly in college, and I still draw on the lessons I learned as an athlete. The sports section of the newspaper is a daily indulgence, and I have coached at the high school and community levels. My two daughters benefited immensely from Title IX. They learned that their bodies are powerful, graceful and capable of so much more than they (and the norms of society) originally expected. My son is an athlete who hopes to compete after graduating from high school, and I can see him applying the lessons of athletics to his studies and his work. Playing fields can be powerful classrooms.

My concern, however, is with the exorbitant costs. Chip Scoggins’ Jan. 10 column notes that Fleck’s five-year contract calls for $18 million. Add the university’s bill of $600,000 to buy out Fleck’s contract from Western Michigan University. Then add the costs of buying out former coach Tracy Claeys’ contract, as well as the costs of his staff, reported by Scoggins at $5 million. That’s $23.6 million for one sport that, in any given year, involves slightly more than 100 students (this year’s roster listed 108 students). That’s not the entire budget for football, mind you; that’s the money set aside for just the coaching salaries.

Contrast that with the university’s nursing program. According to the university’s fiscal year 2016 operating budget, the total budget for nursing was $18,871,860. The School of Nursing notes that 951 undergraduate and graduate students are currently enrolled. Do the math and ask yourself: Are we a better society if our universities prepare more nurses or more football players? And, yes, it’s possible that one could be both a football player and a nurse (but no 2016 football player listed nursing as his major).

I recognize that’s reductive, that I am comparing the proverbial apple to the orange. I get it. This is just a snapshot comparison. Still, it suggests an imbalance worthy of the public’s consideration.

I am not blaming university President Eric Kaler or athletic director Mark Coyle for this situation. One can applaud or condemn them, but ultimately, they are simply doing what we have hired them to do.

I also recognize that sports is a multimillion-dollar business with powerful tentacles: Think not only of the money generated by ticket sales but also by advertising at events, media (spend an hour listening to sports talk radio, and you can easily be persuaded that sports are the most important activities in our lives), marketing, and so on. It is downright mind-boggling.

The larger question is directed at us, the state’s citizens. What do we want and expect from our flagship public research university? Is it, as the joke goes, a university that the football team can be proud of? Or, is it an educational institution that prepares tomorrow’s nurses, business leaders, teachers and informed citizens? I used to think we could have both.

Now I am not so sure.


Michael Kuhne lives in Shoreview.