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A 6-month-old federal gender discrimination investigation of University of Minnesota athletics sprang to life on school grounds this week, as U.S. Department of Education representatives combed the campus, interviewed Gophers coaches and measured square footage in locker rooms and offices.

They are here to examine whether Gophers athletics discriminates against women, a claim raised in a 2014 formal complaint to the Office of Civil Rights. Donors, former university employees and some women’s sports advocates echoed similar accusations to the Star Tribune, saying the athletics department has lost its focus on gender equity and is violating the spirit of Title IX, the 43-year-old law that bans sex discrimination in any federally supported school.

The anonymous complaint, recently obtained by the Star Tribune, said Gophers women’s sports have become an afterthought — a dozen teams with dwindling rosters receiving an inexcusably low percentage of spending. The issue reached a crescendo when university leaders drafted their ambitious $190 million plan to build new practice and training centers with a heavy focus on high-profile men’s teams.

University President Eric Kaler and athletic director Norwood Teague denied any bias and said the school has not wavered on fairness.

While “no one is eager to have an OCR investigation,” Kaler said, the university welcomes scrutiny. “And to the degree that we need to make improvements, we’ll make them,” he added.

Kaler said he believes “there is a small group that is not convinced that we’re doing the right thing or that [Teague] is doing the right thing.”

Said Teague, “Title IX and gender equity is a discretion component on every decision we make.”

As a member of the university’s Department of Athletics Leadership Council, Deborah Olson is privy to the department’s decisionmaking. She said the priorities are obvious.

“I don’t think much time or effort is spent at all for smaller sports and for the women’s sports,” said Olson, a former CEO who has given $1.4 million to the university. “There are definitely two different sets of rules.”

The school’s largest nonrevenue sport, track and field, accounts for 45 percent of female athletic participants. The program was left without a home in the “athletics village” plans, an issue at the heart of the OCR complaint. The current track would be demolished to make room for a football facility, and track athletes will have to travel 5 miles to Division III Hamline University in St. Paul to practice for at least the next two years.

University leaders delayed the start of construction on the proposed athletics village last week by omitting a Board of Regents vote from the meeting agenda. Kaler said the delay of the vote to September is not because of the OCR investigation, but due to wanting “a better answer on the track.”

Battling the skeptics

If shovels hit university soil in September as university leaders hope, many, including popular football coach Jerry Kill, will count it as a victory. But as Teague pushes toward the halfway mark of fundraising for the project that could shape his legacy — the Gophers have raised $70 million in two years — he must do so against emerging skepticism.

Some within and around the university perceive a change in mission: Teague’s “charge” is to raise money and elevate major men’s teams, they believe.

“There were a lot of people sitting on the sidelines when Norwood came. It was like, ‘Let’s wait and see,’ ” Olson said. “And I bet a lot of them have totally walked or are still sitting on the sidelines.”

“I’m aghast,” Priscilla Lord, an alumna, donor and former member of an on-campus advisory committee, said of athletics department decisionmaking. “I don’t think anybody wants to give up, but there’s no vehicle to make a difference except with money. I would withhold funds.”

Lord and Olson have been involved in U athletics for years, including from 1999 to 2007 when four new facilities were built to serve Gophers women’s sports. During Joel Maturi’s tenure as athletic director, from 2002-2012, he earned the nickname “Mr. Title IX.” When he stepped down in 2012, some believe the culture changed.

With Teague, 49, at the helm, major men’s sports took the clear focus, several donors and former school employees said. Track athletes, accustomed to regular Maturi sightings, took note of Teague’s absence at meets. “It’s obvious they’re different people,” said Kate Bucknam, a track athlete and cross-country co-captain last season. “I’m not saying either one is bad. Mr. Teague is more of a businessman and a fundraiser, and you need that. But Joel was a lot more for those [nonrevenue] sports … he was more on our side.”

Shifts in funding

Spending numbers submitted in 2013 by the university to the Department of Education show expenditures for football, men’s basketball and hockey taking huge leaps in Teague’s first year. Football’s “game-day” spending — which doesn’t factor recruiting costs and coach salaries — jumped 45.2 percent in one season. The spending gap between men’s and women’s hockey more than doubled. Men’s basketball got a 32 percent bump, while game-day spending on the women’s team went down 1.6 percent.

“I don’t know the entire overall perception from the outside, but I’m confident that within the department that we’re moving in the right direction,” Teague said. “I know what discussions go on behind closed doors, and I’m very proud of us in relation to Title IX and gender equity.”

The OCR representatives are on campus this week to investigate, among other things, fairness in spending, facilities and opportunities. They will use accounting that differs from other Department of Education equity filings. For instance, Minnesota included 25 male students who practiced against various women’s teams as “female participants,” as required in the latest Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA) report. The OCR will not consider them when totaling athletic opportunities for women, which will make at least one former practice player happy.

“I’m a little surprised by that,” said A.J. Litwinchuk, who practiced with women’s basketball until 2014. “I am definitely a male, so being counted as female does not sit very well.”

Among Big Ten schools in 2013, Minnesota counted the second-most male practice players in its total (25). Most were in basketball, leading to this odd fact: There were more men (18) than women (10) among women’s basketball “female participants” that season.

The largest group of Gophers’ female participants comes from track and field. Those athletes account for 227 participants, although many of them are counted three times by competing in indoor and outdoor track and cross-country. That counting is allowable and common, but the OCR will focus on whether it represents true opportunities for women, said Title IX attorney Nancy Hogshead-Makar.

While 501 female Gophers athletes are listed on Minnesota’s EADA filing, when male practice players are removed and each athlete is counted once, that number shrinks to 312 female student-athletes. That total is down 37.2 percent from 2005, when the Gophers reported a recent high of 497. Shrinking opportunities are high on the list of Minnesota’s “red flags,” according to national women’s sports advocate Donna Lopiano.

“This is ridiculous,” she said. “Those numbers just beg to look into whether or not the women are getting the same kind of participation experience that the guys are.”

Council member Olson said she will continue to donate despite similar concerns, but give more carefully. Olson said she now targets her donations, telling one university official she was making her contribution “in spite of” the administration and because she felt many women’s needs wouldn’t be addressed otherwise. According to the university, donations to all Gophers women’s sports were up in 2014, also the year fundraising for the athletics village officially began.

‘Change in the pendulum’

Recent renovations to the Bierman Building created a makeshift practice facility for men’s basketball, upgrades that occurred without outside fundraising. Pam Borton, who coached Minnesota to a Final Four but was fired in 2014 following a five-year NCAA tournament drought, watched those renovations and was baffled about the lack of consideration for the women’s team. Around this time, Olson witnessed the administration ask the volleyball staff to do its own fundraising for a new locker room.

“I didn’t see a whole lot of effort from the university,” Olson said. “It was just like ‘Yeah, if you can go out and raise the money, fine.’ ”

“There was a change in the pendulum,” Borton added. “I could see it, I could feel it and it was not going over very well with me. … Things that were equitable before, when I left they were not.”

Others at the university in 2013, including Kimberly D. Hewitt, the university’s Title IX coordinator, also had equity concerns and recommended an internal review. Since then, however, the OCR committed to its investigation — “the gold standard process” of evaluating fairness, Kaler said. While the university review is ongoing, officials said there are no plans to release results.

“[Gender equity] has always been extremely important here and it always will be,” Teague said. “I always want to look at it as a high priority and consider the success and well-being of our female athletes.”

Amid the federal investigation, Minnesota will finalize plans for a track-and-field complex before the September Board of Regents vote. Until there is an athletics village ribbon-cutting, fundraising will remain a top priority for Teague.

“I think [Teague] has assembled a great group of senior leaders in the department,” Kaler said. “I think he’s made some great coaching hires. He’s raised a very large amount of money privately toward the athletic village, so I am very pleased with the job he’s doing.”

Star Tribune reporters Joe Christensen and Jason Gonzalez contributed to this story.

Amelia Rayno • 612-673-4115