Schlissel talks athletic culture and academic performance issues

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By Stephanie Shenouda, Daily News Editor
Published November 10, 2014

Delivering his first public remarks in the Regents Room of the Fleming Administration Building since announcing the resignation of former University Athletic Director Dave Brandon just more than a week ago, University President Mark Schlissel discussed the “sports stuff” that has transpired over the past semester with the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs on Monday.

During the candid 40-minute talk, Schlissel expressed concerns regarding several aspects of the University’s athletic culture, including the academic qualifications of some student-athletes recruited to play for University teams, particularly the football team.

“We admit students who aren’t as qualified, and it’s probably the kids that we admit that can’t honestly, even with lots of help, do the amount of work and the quality of work it takes to make progression from year to year,” he said. “These past two years have gotten better, but before that, the graduation rates were terrible, with football somewhere in the 50s and 60s when our total six-year rate at the University is somewhere near 90 percent, so that’s a challenge.”

Schlissel said an individual’s academic deficiencies are often overlooked to fill competitive rosters. He cited these oversights as the cause for low graduation rates, not the “tiny number” of student-athletes who play on a University team for one or two years before moving on to professional leagues.

“The thing you have to keep in mind is there’s football and there’s everything else,” he said. “There are 930 or so recruited athletes and 115 of them play football, and most of those teams actually have great graduation rates, and it’s just where you’d expect we struggle.”

He cited the specific incident that occurred at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in which administrators allowed student-athletes to take “no-show classes” or loosely defined independent-study courses to maintain academic eligibility for athletic events.

“UNC’s a serious place and they’ve really moved up in the world, and this has been a complete nightmare for them,” Schlissel said.

He went on to describe precautions the University has taken to ensure the integrity of its own programs, highlighting the role of English Prof. Anne Curzan, who serves as faculty liaison to the Athletic Department and requests reports every semester on any classes with more than 20 percent student-athletes enrolled. The audit process also includes independent-study courses with just a single student-athlete in them. Schlissel said Curzan has observed that the University has “very few” classes that meet these criteria.

“For those individual classes, she and the academic support person for athletics looks at the individual classes one at a time, and she has to make sure there’s nothing that shows a lack of integrity,” Schlissel said. “You only look for what you know to look for.

“It’s still pretty scary,” Schlissel added, referring to the possibility of academic misconduct by the Athletic Department at the University.

SACUA Chair Scott Masten, a Business School professor, said Curzan and the committee’s representative to the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, a group of faculty governance bodies representing schools from across the NCAA, have been invited to speak about student-athlete performance at next week’s regularly scheduled meeting. He said it wasn’t in direct response to anything that has happened in the Athletic Department recently.

Schlissel also addressed the motivations for athletic departments to value performance over academic integrity.

“The incentives are really strong for them to be as successful on the field as possible, and some of those are in dollars and others are in performance,” he said. “If we had won Nobel Prizes this year, we wouldn’t have gotten as much attention as did our A.D. It’s sad but it’s really true.”

Schlissel added that Curzan said the Athletic Department “often tries to keep her at arm’s length,” expressing frustration regarding the marginalization of faculty governance in these matters.

“That’s why I’m taking a bit of time with the search for Dave’s successor,” Schlissel said. “Some folks wanted me to hire an athletic director (earlier) so he could fire the current football coach and hire the next coach but I want to take the time to make sure we get someone who is not only technically adept, but can ensure that the program has financial and academic integrity, and also someone who shares the value system of realizing our mission.

“People have been saying all kinds of things about who I’m talking to about positions and this sports stuff, and they name names of people who I have no idea who they are,” Schlissel said. “I’ve really learned that this whole athletic sphere and the usual way you approach things just doesn’t work. It’s just a crazed or irrational approach that the world and the media takes to athletics decisions.

“It’s a time sink,” he added.

Schlissel said he hasn’t formally looked for anyone to permanently fill the athletic director position.

Schlissel emphasized that his greatest concern with the Athletic Department is its “diminishing connectedness” to the rest of campus, which he attributed to its size and financial stability, since it is financially independent from the University’s General Fund.

SACUA member Robert Ziff, an Engineering professor, said he believes student-athletes have an “extreme amount of demands placed on them,” as a result of their status, and that they’re often made to feel that the “$100 million Athletic Program is riding on them,” which could contribute to decreased performance in the classroom and elsewhere.

Schlissel said he understands these concerns and wants to work to make academics more of a priority for student-athletes by enforcing NCAA guidelines that cap the number of hours they can practice and compete.

“If I could wave my magic wand and really change things for these student-athletes, I would. The NCAA says 20.5 hours is the max, but it turns out nobody follows that,” Schlissel said. “There are ways that they work around it and if it was only us, it’d be ridiculous, I’d clean house, but it’s everybody.”

In 2010, Michigan admitted to four major infractions — most notably breaking the NCAA’s regulation of countable hours, which is limited to 20 hours per week in-season — within the football program. The University self-imposed a two-year probation period, to which the NCAA added a third year.