By David Ridpath, Gerry Gurney, and Donna Lopiano
In 2017, after the University of North Carolina (UNC) escaped punishment for a two decades long massive academic scandal designed to manage and maintain the eligibility of underprepared athletes, the cumulative outrage from the public, media, and athletics watchdog groups demanded that the NCAA establish stronger rules and standards for the widespread fraud within American college programs. Last week, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors under pressure from the Division I Presidential Forum, quietly dropped important academic integrity recommendations advanced by two NCAA groups that would have modified and strengthened rules to address systematic and widespread academic fraud on member institution campuses. The non-action was taken “in the dark of night” despite an August 7th NCAA news release that announced the Division I Board of Directors was ready “to shore up academic integrity rules.”
Dr. David Ridpath, Drake President, commented on the decision:
“It was timid, spineless, defensive, protective of the status quo and fully supportive of the public view that college presidents are incapable of controlling renegade coaches and under-supervised tutors, learning specialists and athletic academic advisers at their institutions. College and university presidents are fully aware that they have already sold out academic integrity to commercialized college sport. Once the president approves special waivers of normal academic admissions standards, which allows academically underprepared football and basketball players into their selective institutions, the proverbial dominoes start to fall. Underprepared athletes are clustered in less demanding academic majors and classes. Underprepared athletes must be steered toward friendly professors and propped up by armies of athletic department tutors and learning specialists. It is not surprising that college presidents are perpetrating their own job security by failing to approve more stringent standards. They turn a blind eye to academic integrity by offering independent studies or online classes with no academic rigor or similar fraudulent practices to keep underprepared athletes eligible to participate in athletics – as long as the institution makes sure non-athlete students are also participating in the scam.’”
In 2017, The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics co-chairs former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and former university president Carol Cartwright called for the NCAA to change rules that permitted institutions to make their own determinations of academic fraud, as was the case at UNC. Cartwright, co-chair of the Knight Commission and president emeritus of Kent State University said, “It’s clear that we need a new approach that can provide more fairness to student-athletes, while giving more teeth to the NCAA to ensure academic integrity in college sports.” Coupled with tough talk from NCAA president Mark Emmert, it seemed maybe the NCAA was going to make a decision on how to enforce systematic academic misconduct and fraud consistently, something it has failed miserably at as an organization in the past.
In response, two NCAA blue ribbon committees, one led by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and another led by the NCAA Academic Working Group, were tasked with modifying ineffectual NCAA rules regarding academic misconduct and fraud. For an organization that claims to be about education these were needed steps to finally define college sports’ role within the higher education space. Both came up with the same conclusions, it was essential to give the NCAA power to investigate and adjudicate systemic academic fraud such as that demonstrated at UNC. Yet, despite all the bluster and promises, it simply is not going to happen, and it is back to business as usual for the NCAA and that means keep college athletes eligible at any cost so winning and money can continue to flow.
If the NCAA membership, led by university presidents, refuse to exercise any authority over academic integrity in college sports, then it is simply past time for a new approach that all institutions can follow without NCAA oversight. Dropping tougher systemic academic fraud proposals is an abject failure of college presidents to protect the educational mission of the university. It is time for tenured faculty to stand up, and demand accountability at least on their own campuses since the NCAA membership wants no part in it. As discussed in our recent Drake position paper on shared responsibility, there are better ways to regulate intercollegiate athletics and ensure academic integrity. The only path forward, and one that has been a bedrock principle of The Drake Group, is transparency and disclosure of academic benchmarks within intercollegiate athletic programs in comparison to the general student body. In other words, until institutions are publicly shamed or at least under the threat of public exposure, they will continue to hide behind federal privacy rules to protect an athletics eligibility-centered commercial enterprise at the expense of providing a real education. As with many academic scandals in the past, once fraudulent academic practices came to light the institutions finally acted to fix problem. Without that public exposure, these practices continue unabated under the NCAA mythology that the organization is primarily about the athlete and academics. The way forward is clear. Transparency and disclosure monitors vulnerabilities and fixes issues before they become scandals and it can be done within federal privacy law (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act-FERPA) guidelines.
Our position paper on shared responsibility has 15 detailed, measurable and achievable benchmarks to ensure academic integrity in intercollegiate athletic programs. Some of the highlights have been principles of The Drake Group since its formation in 1999. We believe academic integrity is a shared responsibility, but the primary function of the faculty as guardians of the curriculum. At a minimum, here are some steps that every institution can take today to increase academic integrity within intercollegiate athletics without any NCAA involvement or direction.
Transparency and Disclosure
Sunshine is the best disinfectant! Institutions have been hiding behind federal privacy laws such as FERPA to protect an eligibility-centered enterprise that more often than not falls far short of actual access to an education for the college athlete. Each institution should be required to establish an athlete academic oversight committee, consisting of tenured faculty appointed by the institution’s faculty senate that produces an annual audit submitted to the senate that includes an analysis of several benchmarks, overall and by sport in comparison with the student body. Things examined include athlete versus non-athlete enrollment and grading patterns, adopting a policy that prohibits selection of courses and majors intended merely to ensure continued athletics eligibility or athlete attendance at practice, athlete majors v. non-athletes (Clustering), independent study enrollment, incomplete grades and grade changes, admission exceptions and number of NCAA waivers, just to name a few. A faculty oversight committee can view this data without violating FERPA and faculty senates can enforce changes and policies to ensure academic primacy. The athletic department should not be involved in this oversight. In addition, institutions should publicly make this information available in an aggregate form that does not specifically identify an athlete or student by name but does show that the institution is committed to giving the athlete the best chance at a viable and meaningful education.
Academic Support and Advisement
Athletes should be advised by the same faculty or specialist employees who advise all students. Employees of the athletic department should not be involved in this process. Academic support programs serving athletes should be funded and administered by regular academic authorities and not the athletic department in order to eliminate the conflict of interest. Employment agreements with all athletics personnel should include a provision prohibiting interference with teaching faculty or instructors, regular academic advising, course and major selection, scheduling of classes or tutoring and other academic support services. Employment agreements for academic support personnel such as tutors or learning specialists hired to provide learning assistance to college athletes should include a strict prohibition against writing papers for or preparing other work that is the responsibility of the student. NCAA member institutions should be responsible for providing sufficient release time to their respective NCAA Faculty Athletic Representatives and faculty athletics committees to exercise their oversight and certification responsibilities.
Tenured faculty members who are free of athletic influence must become more involved and be the final decision makers in the review of athlete admissions. The review of qualifications for every athlete must be based upon the applicant’s ability to succeed. We support the institution admitting anyone they want, and it certainly can be important from a diversity and socio-economic standpoint to have a broad based admission policy. However, it is criminal to not remediate those students to bring them to a level where they can succeed academically. It is even worse when it is an athlete, who is working for 40-60 hours per week, traveling and missing classes. If a prospective athlete is more than one standard deviation below the academic profile of the incoming freshman class, he or she should be intensively academically remediated for one academic year combined with a very restrictive practice schedule and no competition. Let’s get our athletes to a level where they can compete academically as much as we want them to compete athletically. Just by doing this, the pressure to cluster and outright cheat is severely minimized. It is telling that a coach would never dream of putting an unprepared athlete on the field or court and will often “redshirt” those athletes so they can become more seasoned and able to compete. Yet, when it means preparing an athlete academically before being allowed to compete, the institution seems less than inclined to do that versus losing a potential player who can help generate wins. Institutions, presidents and faculty must decide what is more important, and if it is winning and revenue generation then at least be honest about it.
The institution’s regional accreditation agency responsible for conducting a regular comprehensive review of the operation of the athletic program as part of the Council of Higher Education accreditation process required of the institution should reexamine its standards to consider the adoption of recommendations made in this document and the position paper. If accrediting bodies are truly more responsible than the NCAA for ensuring academic primacy on campus, then these proposals provide teeth the better regulate intercollegiate athletic programs from an accreditation level and provide another layer of oversight that can keep institutions closer to the goal of actually educating their athletes.
These simple and straightforward solutions mentioned in this article and our position paper are imminently clearer than current NCAA rules regarding academics and academic integrity. Moreover, most can be imposed today by any college president as “best practice.” The Drake Group calls upon college presidents to “step up to the plate” and do their job at the institutional level since the NCAA membership as a whole has made it more clearer than ever and as they communicate via recent court cases, that they do not have a legal duty or responsibility to insure that a college athlete is provided an education. If that is their stance, it is time to for institutions to fulfill that promise.