College Presidents Group Outlines Steps to Fight Academic Fraud in Athletics

By Steve Berkowitz | USA Today


In response to a series of academic fraud cases involving college athletes, one of the nation’s leading higher-education groups on Tuesday issued a report calling for schools and accrediting agencies to take specific steps aimed at creating what it called a “culture of integrity” within sports programs.

The 12-page report comes from the American Council on Education (ACE), a Washington-based organization that represents the presidents of more than 1,700 public and private colleges and universities. Earlier this year, the group held a roundtable discussion among 35 people representing a full range of academic and athletic interests, then conducted follow-up interviews with others.

NCAA president Mark Emmert was among those involved in the initial conversations, and during a conference call with reporters ACE president Molly Corbett Broad described him as a “very active participant and supporter of this work,” which says, among other things:

Schools should have “regular processes in place to identify and monitor situations involving unusual course or major ‘clustering’ involving” athletes. These are situations in which an exceptionally disproportionate percentage of a given team are enrolled in a specific academic area. In the past, researchers have used a benchmark of 25% of a team being in the same major to define a non-random cluster.

This type of activity has received recent attention through the ongoing academic scandal at North Carolina, which has focused on the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. But this is a long-standing issue in college sports. In 2008, a USA TODAY study of the majors of juniors and seniors in five prominent sports at 142 NCAA Division I schools found that more than 1 in 3 of the teams had at least one cluster of athletes in the same major.

The report said that some schools require that courses or majors with a specified enrollment percentage of athletes trigger a review by the provost or a campus committee. The report adds that “such processes should address changes in distributions of majors and courses, retention rates across all sports and student-athlete demographics, and analyses of diversity among administrators, coaches, athletes and support staff.”

Schools should have “clear, unambiguous policies and protocols regarding how they will act when alleged misconduct (by athletes) is reported” and that “such investigations should be a functional responsibility of campus officials outside of athletics.”

Last April, the NCAA’s Division I schools adopted legislation that required schools, as of Aug. 1, to have written policies and procedures in place regarding academic misconduct that is applicable to all students, including athletes. They are to be kept on file or made accessible on the institution’s website.

However, the report said: “In too many cases, institutions have not developed appropriate policies detailing how they will investigate academic misconduct allegations and respond to cases in which violations are found. This can result in investigations taking too long or being mishandled.”

It added that “initial enforcement” of the NCAA’s new rules “will be key.”

Academic advising and support units for athletes “should report to (or have regular access to) senior academic executives.” In addition athletics directors, staff and coaches “should not have supervisory over or influence the selection of academic support staff for specific teams.”

Accreditors should review schools’ “current practices regarding matter of academic integrity – including those that impact student-athletes – in institutional self-study processes and make informed decisions as to whether they are adequate.”

The ACE’s initial roundtable panel included Belle Wheelan, who is president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges – the accrediting group that placed North Carolina on probation for a year in the wake of the scandal there.

Georgetown University president John DeGioia, who chairs the ACE’s board of directors, cited the North Carolina case as part of the impetus for the ACE’s work, but he noted that NCAA enforcement officials had told the ACE panel that 21 academic fraud cases were being reviewed by the NCAA.

“It wasn’t isolated high-profile cases,” DeGioia said, “as much as a concern that we did not have the kind of regulatory framework in place to ensure appropriate guidance for all of our institutions.”

University of Hartford president Walt Harrison, who has spent many years at the center of the NCAA’s efforts to improve academic performance by athletes, also was involved with the ACE group.

Asked whether all of the group’s recommendations involved notions that seemed “blindingly obvious,” Harrison deadpanned: “I think I’ve spent a career of being the spokesman for the blindingly obvious.”

He added that academic integrity issues in athletics programs are “moderately widespread and worth the attention of university presidents and governing boards.

“The problem,” he said, “is there is an enormous amount of money and attention flowing into athletics. College campuses are complex places, and within athletic departments it’s pretty easy to sort of hide some of the problems that are happening. … It’s one thing to talk about it. But it’s another to have presidents really keeping an eye out on this.”

[IMAGE: Bob Donnan, USA TODAY Sports]

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