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.
The star running back Carnell (Cadillac) Williams, now playing in the National Football League, said the only two classes he took during the spring semester of his senior year were one-on-one courses with Professor Petee.
This is perhaps the most openly dishonest line in the entire article, and it’s a prime example of how a story can be slanted by willing omission.
What Thamel doesn’t tell you until much later in a four-page article is that by “the spring semester of his senior year,” Carnell Williams’s college football career was already over. He had played in four consecutive seasons and completed every second of his eligibility (Williams was a now-rare exception who played as a freshman without redshirting). After January 2, 2005, Williams could never play another down of college football.
By the time Auburn’s spring 2005 semester began, Carnell Williams was a shoo-in for the first round of the NFL draft. He had already been invited to the NFL’s Senior Bowl and numerous pro combines and workouts. After the April draft, Williams would be expected to report immediately to his new NFL team to go to work—and Auburn’s academic semester would not end until that May.
In short, Williams had two choices: drop out, or make other arrangements. Williams, a B-average student who’d never had academic problems, elected to take two independent study courses and continue work towards his degree (he is six credits short as of this writing). In the weird world of Pete Thamel and James Gundlach, it apparently would have been preferable for him to drop out.
Thamel interviewed Williams by phone for this piece, but admitted in a radio interview with Paul Finebaum (after the article was published) that he’d misled Williams about the subject matter of his reporting, a pattern that was repeated in most of Thamel’s dealings with Auburn administrators, faculty, staff and alums.
At one point, Professor Petee was carrying the workload of more than three and a half professors, an academic schedule that his colleagues said no one could legitimately handle.
“It was a lot of work,” Professor Petee said. “And I basically wore myself out.”
Colleges have long offered easy courses, and athletes are by no means the only ones to sign up. Under new National Collegiate Athletic Association rules, however, colleges whose athletes do not meet academic standards can be penalized, sometimes by having their number of athletic scholarships reduced. That change is intended to help ensure that student athletes receive a legitimate education. But it can also increase the pressure on colleges to find ways to keep athletes from failing.
In Auburn’s case, the sociology department and one of its leaders became just the ticket.
As opposed to say, Duke, where:
[U]nusually high number of players are studying sociology, which is considered a light course taken by only a small percentage of the student body.
You’d think New York Times investigative reporters would know how to use Google, wouldn’t you?
Auburn, a public university in eastern Alabama with more than 23,000 students, has a storied football tradition. The team won a national championship in 1957 and has a track record of producing professional players, most notably the football and baseball star Bo Jackson.
Professor Petee’s directed-reading classes, which nonathletes took as well, helped athletes in several sports improve their grade-point averages and preserve their athletic eligibility. A number of athletes took more than one class with Professor Petee over their careers: one athlete took seven such courses, three athletes took six, five took five and eight took four, according to records compiled by Professor Gundlach. He also found that more than a quarter of the students in Professor Petee’s directed-reading courses were athletes. (Professor Gundlach could not provide specific names because of student privacy laws.)
Thamel once again repeats the sin of omission here, by brushing over the actual numbers of Petee’s directed-study courses with a vague “which nonatheletes took as well.” The actual numbers, not revealed by Thamel until much later in the article, give us a more complete—and much more mundane—picture of events.
The Auburn football team’s performance in the N.C.A.A.’s new rankings of student athletes’ academic progress surprised many educators on and off campus. The team had the highest ranking of any Division I-A public university among college football’s six major conferences. Over all among Division I-A football programs, Auburn trailed only Stanford, Navy and Boston College and finished just ahead of Duke.
Among those caught off guard by Auburn’s performance was Gordon Gee, the chancellor of Vanderbilt, a fellow university in the Southeastern Conference and the only private institution. Vanderbilt had an 88 percent graduation rate in 2004, compared with Auburn’s 48 percent, yet finished well behind Auburn in the new N.C.A.A. rankings.
“It was a little surprising because our graduation rates are so much higher,” Mr. Gee said. “I’m not quite certain I understood that.”
Ah, yes, Vanderbilt, SEC football’s welfare queen, annually collecting millions from schools that can actually earn bowl bids, but contributing not a dime of its own in more than a generation. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Gordy. Say, just how many of your athletes regularly transfer credits in from Austin Peay…?
he N.C.A.A. cannot comment on specific academic cases. But when asked how much 18 players taking 97 credit hours could affect a football team’s academic standing, Thomas S. Paskus, the N.C.A.A.’s principal research scientist, said it would be likely to lift the number. He added that it would be difficult to gauge how much the classes helped the academic ranking.
Since Thamel’s story was rushed to print, NCAA representatives have stated that they doubt any rule infractions took place at Auburn. Even James Gundlach himself apparently agrees; he says in a Huntsville Times interview today,
“Since I’ve been thinking about the athletic rules and other such things, it is clear that everything Petee did for athletes was also available for other students. In terms of the letter of NCAA regulations, there are probably no problems.”
In the spring of 2005, Professor Gundlach confronted Professor Petee, to whom he reports, about the proliferation of directed-reading courses. That spring, the university’s administration told Professor Petee he was carrying too many of the classes. Far fewer have been offered since.
The availability of better grades for some athletes who did not attend class did not surprise professors who said Auburn sometimes emphasizes athletics at any cost. In December 2003, the university was placed on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, partly because of concerns about whether trustees had too much involvement in the athletic department.
What Thamel doesn’t mention here is that the AU-SACS squabble had nothing at all to do with academics or instruction. It had plenty to do with a generation of feuding between various faculty factions and uber-trustee Bobby Lowder (for the record, I’m a fan of neither side), but not the regular operations of the university. Jack Allen, vice-president of the Commission on Colleges at SACS said in an interview on Saturday, “Academically, I think they have been great.”
The N.C.A.A. has cited Auburn through the years for seven major infractions, the most of any university in the Southeastern Conference and among the most in the nation.
The sociology department became “a dumping ground for athletes,” according to one sociology professor, Paul Starr. That did not bother Professor Gundlach as much as what he viewed as the university administration’s apathy toward Professor Petee’s academic approach.
Sorry if this bothers Professor Starr, but as noted above, sociology is a notoriously-easy major at virtually every college. When I was in school, sociology classes were universally known as “GPA boosters.”
Professor Gundlach took the case to John Heilman, a university administrator who would soon become Auburn’s provost. He included paperwork showing that Professor Petee taught more than 250 students individually during the 2004-5 academic year. He also provided Mr. Heilman with examples of how prominent athletes had cut academic corners.
Now we get to the rather gristly meat of the situation. Petee taught “more than 250 students individually during the 2004-5 academic year?” There are only 85 scholarship players on the Auburn football team—if every single one of them took one of Petee’s special classes, they’d still be far less than a majority. As it happened (and by Thamel’s own account), only 18 football players took directed study courses from Petee. Maybe they do different kinds of math in the sociology (or journalism) departments, but I figure that at 7.2 percent of Petee’s students.
This is a front page story… why?
Well, because it’s a hit piece, and one that Thamel probably had half-written before he ever set foot on campus. After all, “College Students Avoid Hippie Professor, Still Find A Few Easy Classes” just isn’t the kind of headline that makes the front page.
The rest of Thamel’s article consists of a mishmash of inflammatory statements from Gundlach, an irrelevant (and factually sketchy) rundown of previous scandal stories from Auburn, and a collection of interviews with former Auburn players, all (as admitted in the Finebaum interview) collected by Thamel under false pretenses. Most of those interviewed have since blasted Thamel and his accusations; links are here, here, and here. You can click over and read the rest if you like; but before we go I would like to draw your attention to one last bit of sloppy work on the part of the “newspaper of record.”
The academic journey of the former Auburn defensive end Doug Langenfeld illustrates how Professor Petee and the athletic department helped athletes remain eligible.
When Mr. Langenfeld arrived at Auburn in 2003 from a junior college in California, he wanted to major in nursing. To do so would have required him to take a heavy load of 21 credits his first semester. Instead, he said, Mr. Starks suggested he major in sociology. Mr. Langenfeld asked for advice from Mr. Williams, who claimed that the major was “easy if you studied.”
An observation yet to be refuted, I feel compelled to add.
In the fall of 2004, Mr. Langenfeld found himself in an academic bind. More than two months into the fall semester, he realized that he had been attending the wrong class because of a scheduling error. Mr. Langenfeld approached Professor Gundlach about adding a class, but Professor Gundlach said he could not help him because it was too late in the semester.
Mr. Langenfeld then went to his academic counselor in the athletic department, Brett Wohlers, with a plea: “I got dropped from a class and need a class to stay eligible for the bowl game,” Mr. Langenfeld recalled in a recent telephone interview. “I need a class, and I’ll take any class right now. I don’t not want to play in my last bowl game.”
He said Mr. Wohlers told him about a “one-assignment class” that other players had taken and enjoyed. So in the “9th or 10th week,” Mr. Langenfeld said, he picked up a directed-reading course with Professor Petee. Semesters typically run 15 weeks.
Mr. Langenfeld said he had to read one book, but he could not recall the title. He said he was required to hand in a 10-page paper on the book. Between picking up the class and handing in the paper, he said, he met several times with Professor Petee in his office.
“I got a B in the class,” said Mr. Langenfeld, who started in the Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech. “That was a good choice for me.”
Turns out Thamel’s inability to use Google or LexisNexis catches up with him again here. If he’d taken the time to do a bit of research, he might have learned that Langenfeld’s situation was hardly unique. For instance, there’s this instance of several college football players from the same team signing up for independent study courses in order to maintain eligibility for a bowl game, just last fall:
[Alabama’s] JB Closner from San Antonio Clark is one of seven Tide players who graduated in May. Southeastern Conference rules require players to pass six hours to be eligible to play in a bowl, and Closner said he found an independent study class worth six hours’ credit.
“Like a diamond in the rough,” he said of the class, smiling. “Had to write a five-page paper. I was done with that by September.”
Quarterback Brodie Croyle, another graduate, took the same course. “I kind of slacked up a little bit,” he said, looking at the ground. “I got done in December.”
Said Peprah: “I actually had some pretty tough classes. Not P.E. or music, the art of cartwheels or whatever classes they were taking.”
When Croyle was asked who had it tougher, himself or USC quarterback Matt Leinart (who took only ballroom dancing last semester), he said, “Probably him.”
Now, isn’t that odd? You’d think that Thamel’s collegues and co-Times-Company-employees at the Tuscaloosa News could have pointed out that story to him before he embarrassed himself last week.
Ah, well. I’m sure it was an innocent oversight.