If you ever needed proof that summer is indeed the silly season for college sports, watching the newspapers in Alabama and a few points north over the last few would have settled your mind. After weeks of rumor and speculation, and shortly following a post of mine right here at VP, Pete Thamel of the New York Times rushed in his story on…
… well, on not much. But it’s July, and there’s nothing else for sportswriters to talk about, so Thamel’s overheated article has been causing quite a stir in print and one the air since late Thursday. As for the realities of the piece, without further ado, a Fisking. My comments are in bold.
For Some Athletes, Courses With No Classes
By PETE THAMEL
The New York Times
Published: July 13, 2006
A graphic popped up on James Gundlach’s television during an Auburn football game in the fall of 2004, and he could not believe his eyes.
One of the university’s prominent football players was being honored as a scholar athlete for his work as a sociology major. Professor Gundlach, the director of the Auburn sociology department, had never had the player in class. He asked the two other full-time sociology professors about the player, and they could not recall having had him either.
It’s actually not all that unusual for a student to go through an academic career without having had a particular professor, especially at a big school. I myself never took a single course taught by my department head at Auburn, in aerospace engineering. In my case, it wasn’t for any particular reason; my schedule just never worked out for one of Dr. Williams’ classes. Nice guy, but I didn’t even meet him until my graduate exit interview. I don’t think I ever met the head of the aerospace department at the University of Texas, where I earned my masters degree.
That said, there just possibly could have been a reason why Gundlach hasn’t met a good number of Auburn’s sociology majors. Examining Gundlach’s ratings on the RateMyProfessors.com website (free registration required) as posted by his former students, it’s clear that he wasn’t going to win any campus popularity contests, even before the Thamel article was written. We should ignore any postings from 14 July and beyond, as it’s likely they were generated by notoriety from the NYT piece; suffice to say Gundlach’s ratings were in the dumper long before most people had ever heard of him.
Granted, RateMyProfessors is at best an inaccurate measuring stick, but as any college student will tell you, the word about which professors are the real jerks gets around quickly, especially among close-knit student communities like, say, football teams. Here’s what former Auburn player and sociology major Derrick Graves had to say about Gundlach in Saturday’s Montgomery Advertiser:
“It only took me a couple of days to figure out that I needed to get out of there,” said Graves, who never took one of the directed-reading courses that prompted the article. “Me and (Gundlach) didn’t get along. I’m not going to get into what the problem was — I’ll just say that a lot of us didn’t agree with a lot of the stuff he was saying.”
A recent Auburn graduate and former Gundlach student says, “He hates sports… He thinks athletic scholarships should not be given. He also completely badmouths Auburn University and The United States of America every single day.” Among the overwhelmingly-conservative Auburn student body, it’s not hard to see how plenty of students would avoid the ponytailed avowed-leftie Gundlach, athletes as well as non-athletes.
So Professor Gundlach looked at the player’s academic files, which led him to the discovery that many Auburn athletes were receiving high grades from the same professor for sociology and criminology courses that required no attendance and little work.
Eighteen members of the 2004 Auburn football team, which went undefeated and finished No. 2 in the nation, took a combined 97 hours of the courses during their careers. The offerings resemble independent study and include core subjects like statistics, theory and methods, which normally require class instruction.
Speaking of statistics, let’s stop here and do a little math.
An undergraduate degree at Auburn requires about 120 semester credit hours (in the Sociology Department, it’s exactly 120 hours; here’s a .pdf file with the university bulletin). Eighteen players taking 97 hours over a minimum of four years (the norm is usually five for football players, who almost all take a “redshirt” year without playing in games) comes out to 5.4 hours per player, or slightly less than one-and-a-half hours in an academic year.
I am at a complete loss as to how numbers like that are at all remarkable. 1.34 hours a year? So what? Even if you take one hypothetical player and assume he took three times the average, that’s only 16 hours over a full undergraduate career, a paltry 13.4% of all credit hours. Again: so what?
The professor for those players and many other athletes was Thomas Petee, the sociology department’s highest-ranking member.
Let’s stop again here. It’s obvious from subsequent reporting in Alabama (but conveniently left out of Thamel’s article) that James Gundlach is not a fan of Thomas Petee. While Gundlach denies reports that he was passed over for promotion in 2002 to department head—a job that did go to Petee—Gundlach’s statements to the press over the last few days that indicate he does not approve (to put it mildly) of being Petee’s subordinate.
The feud between Gundlach and Petee appears to be rooted in run-of-the-mill office politics and rivalries. According to a rather fawning portrayal of Gundlach written by Alabama graduate Evan Woodberry for the Mobile Register,
[T]he conflict is clearly rooted in his academic department, an unwieldy collection of sociology, anthropology, social work, criminology and criminal justice professors.
Petee, a criminologist who researches homicide and policing, was elected chair by a voting bloc made up of criminology and social work professors, Gundlach said.
Gundlach said Petee exploited his influence as chair, teaching directed-reading courses in fields outside his expertise.
“Petee was teaching more upper-division students in his directed-reading sections of sociology classes than the three real sociology faculty were all together,” Gundlach said. “If you look at where athletes and other students were going, they were going to Petee’s classes. They weren’t going to the regular sociology faculty.”
Gundlach said he and other sociology professors were angry that easy classes were watering down their major.
“We have a person whose primary area is outside of sociology teaching sociology classes and giving our department the reputation of being easy,” he said. “That attracts people who are looking for an easy major and easy grades.”
I had never heard of either Gundlach or Petee before last Thursday. I didn’t take any sociology coursework in college, but I can tell you now what I would have told you on Wednesday: the concept of Sociology being an intellectually-undemanding major did not suddenly spring to life after 2002, when Petee was named Gundlach’s boss. That’s been an open not-very-secret at Auburn and most other campuses since subjective pseudo-sciences were added to university curricula.