Wary Colleges Ratchet Up Scrutiny of Athletes in the Classroom
Chronicle of Higher Education
Six-figure incentive bonuses for coaches and athletic directors whose players excel on the field have long been a fixture in big-time college sports. But unless those players are also cutting it in the classroom, the University System of Maryland will no longer pay out.
Friday’s decision by the Maryland Board of Regents to tie athletic incentive bonuses to academic performance for new Division I coaches systemwide comes at a time of heightened scrutiny for athletics departments nationwide. Concerns over academic fraud are nothing new, but the intensity ramped up considerably last week with the release of a 136-page report detailing how athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had been steered into sham classes for nearly two decades.
The revelation that so many advisers, professors, and administrators had either gone along with the scheme or looked the other way prompted a flurry of worried calls from regents on some campuses. Experts urged college officials to watch more closely for possible signs of academic fraud, including courses that cater disproportionately to athletes and independent-study courses with vague requirements.
“As a university president, if you don’t look at this report and ask, ‘Can I be certain that we have the right checks and balances in place?’ you’ve missed the boat,” said Walter Harrison, president of the University of Hartford and head of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s academic-reform efforts over the past decade.
Reports about the apparently widespread practice of tutors’ completing assignments for athletes have prompted many college programs to reassess how they train their own tutors. They are also reassessing whether there is a sufficient firewall between coaches, who want to see athletes remain eligible to play, and academic-support staff members.
The North Carolina case provides “a great reminder of ethical boundaries,” said Brady W. Rourke, associate athletic director for student services at West Virginia University. “It challenged me, and I, in turn, challenged the staff, to think about how much is too much help.”
Troubling Incentives With the increase in the number of tutors, mentors, and graduate-student assistants for athletes, administrators need to be sure they aren’t simply “pouring information into students” or doing work for them, he said.
David E. Clough, a professor of engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has shared tracking and predictive tools with more than 100 NCAA programs to monitor how athletes are performing in the classroom. Mr. Clough, who serves as the university’s liaison between sports and academics, said Colorado had instituted an enhanced auditing system for independent-study courses, requiring students, faculty members, and department heads to sign a contract spelling out what’s expected and what is actually being done.
Maryland’s new policy, which was already in the works when the North Carolina report was released, tackles some of the troubling incentives a win-at-all-costs attitude can foster.
“This is a modest step, but we think an important one, that begins to put real teeth into the notion that student-athletes are students first,” Maryland’s chancellor, William E. (Brit) Kirwan, said in an interview on Tuesday.
While many coaching contracts include modest incentives for strong academic performance, the amounts are a small fraction of the incentives they receive if they win an NCAA tournament or have an undefeated season.
Maryland’s policy (Item 5e) would withhold those larger incentive bonuses if players fell below the minimum “academic-progress rate” set by the NCAA. For athletics directors, the threshold, which equates to a 50-percent graduation rate, would apply to the average of all of the campus’s intercollegiate sports.
“People need to be accountable,” said C. Thomas McMillen, a former member of Congress and secretary of the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents. Mr. McMillen, a former college and professional basketball player, was a key proponent of the new policy. (His sister, Liz McMillen, is the editor of The Chronicle.)
“Why should a coach get hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses if a team is failing academically?” Mr. McMillen said.
Trust, but Verify Some coaches have resisted the change, saying they shouldn’t be held accountable for a player’s academic performance. “They are responsible for the kinds of kids they recruit,” Mr. McMillen responded, adding that it would be “antithetical” to the goals of a university to reward coaches whose players were flunking out.
Mr. Harrison, the Hartford president, suggested a mix of techniques to keep athletics and academics in proper proportion.
“I look for clustering in courses and ask for periodic reports from the athletic director,” he said. “I want to be sure our student-athletes’ courses look like everyone else’s.”
Like independent-study courses, online courses are popular with athletes because of the flexibility they offer when teams are on the road. If not carefully monitored, both can lead to abuse, said Philip R. Hughes, who heads academic-success programs for athletes at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
Mr. Hughes, who reports to the provost even though his office is housed in the athletics department, said reporting lines like his are becoming more popular as academic leaders try to get a better handle on how their athletes are faring in the classroom.
“The whole story at North Carolina has been simmering for so long that a lot of institutions had already strengthened their procedures and protocols and expanded transparency requirements,” Mr. Hughes said. Faculty oversight committees are among “a myriad of systems that make sure a lot of people are looking at it from a lot of different angles,” he said.
“You can try to legislate integrity, but the people in the university, from students to faculty members to department chairs to deans—you have to rely on them to do their jobs,” he said. Still, good intentions aren’t enough. Independent verification is the buzzword in athletics departments these day, Mr. Hughes added.
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