A River Divides It

To: Robert Bruininks, University of Minnesota President


For those of us who have lived within sight of the University of Minnesota, or who crossed the bridge between West and East banks as students, the greening of the Mississippi valley turns our attention to the buildings that overlook either bank.

For the University of Minnesota, stadia are uniquely peripatetic. Gopher football was first played at Northrop Field—named for Cyrus Northrup, the university’s first president—on the East Bank of the Mississippi River. From 1900 to 1921, Dr. Henry Williams coached the Gophers, but was fired in 1921 for several losing seasons. (Williams Arena, also known as “the Barn,” was named for him.) In 1924, Memorial Stadium was built approximately four football fields away from Gopher football’s original home, serving the team during its glory years (and subsequent years) through 1981.

In 1982, the football team hopped the river and started playing on the West Bank of the Mississippi River in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. The only game I remember seeing the Gophers play during that time was their 84-13 loss to the University of Nebraska, thus proving that a change to an indoor, professional environment did not have an immediate revitalizing effect on the fortunes of the team.

Once again, the peripatetic Golden Gopher Football program will hop the river and play on the East Bank, about four football lengths from the site of Memorial Stadium, and about a mile from its current home at the Metrodome. Supposedly, a new, open-air stadium back on the East Bank will revitalize campus life.

Whether or not $288 million is an appropriate amount to invest in this football amenity should be decided in part by what the university does with another of its peripatetic institutions: its hospital.

If it’s important to have an open-air football stadium on the campus on the East Bank of the Mississippi River, it is at least equally important to have a successful University of Minnesota hospital there. The question before us: Can we have both?

The merger of the University and Fairview hospital systems in 1996 was difficult. The Minnesota Daily, other local newspapers, and frequent speeches by a variety of University of Minnesota personnel all made it clear that the merger was not universally popular.

There were physical challenges to the merger. Frank Cerra, the university’s outstanding senior vice president of the Academic Health Center, put it best when he said, “This hospital has a river running through it.” As recognized in the Academic Health Center Strategic Positioning document, a report to the board of regents, dated June 2006, the merger coincided with the loss of quality faculty members. Some on the faculty continue to complain in private about restrictions on research and patient care supposedly caused by the “Fairview” side of the merger.

The 10-year retrospective written by Mary Hoff and published in the Minnesota Medical Foundation’s Medical Bulletin offers a generally reassuring analysis of the Fairview-University merger, despite the initial bumpy period. This letter is written to offer you the opportunity to reassure friends and supporters that while an open-air football stadium on the East Bank is deemed important, it is well understood by everyone at the university that continued support of medical research, the Academic Health Center, and the University of Minnesota Medical Center–Fairview hospital system is a great deal more important. Can you give us that reassurance?

Yours for football (and hockey) and health,

Vance K. Opperman

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