BY STEPHANIE STEINBERG
Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 14, 2009
Correction appended: An earlier version of this article made it unclear that the Athletic Department funded the $12 million construction of the center. It has since been clarified.
It’s Thursday night at 6:45 p.m., and the Ross Academic Center is empty. The only sounds come from the soft pattering of feet on the tile and occasional whispers from a pair of students studying in the lobby. A few people occupy the dozens of study rooms while six students are using the 75 available computers in the computer lab. But these students aren’t just students — they’re athletes, and they’re the only students allowed to use the building.
The Ross Academic Center opened in January 2006. The University, with Athletic Department funds, built the $12 million, 38,000 square-foot facility to serve as a study place for the roughly 750 varsity student-athletes on campus.
When University officials opened the center, they spoke of allowing all students to use it. Yet students who are not athletes — but want a quiet place to work — are turned away. The sign posted on the front door reads: “This facility is reserved for student-athletes. All visitors must be accompanied by a student-athlete and sign in at the reception desk. Thank you.”
Michael Stevenson, executive associate director of athletics, said the center is reserved for student-athletes. However, he said regular students are allowed to enter if they are working on a course project with an athlete or if they are taking a course that is taught in the building.
Though there is no written policy prohibiting regular students from using the facility, Stevenson said if regular students wanted to study in the building they would not be allowed. He explains there is not enough space for the athletes let alone the entire student body.
“It’s so crowded by 750 student-athletes that we don’t have enough computers and computer stations and study space to accommodate student-athletes the way the building is being used,” he said.
University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said the building was designed for varsity student-athletes so they could have a place to study.
“From what I understand, they are full to capacity,” she said.
However, at 7:30 p.m. there were only a dozen athletes in the computer lab, study rooms remained unoccupied and there was plenty of open seating in the center’s lobby.
Cunningham said there is no policy that states athletes are or are not allowed to have their own separate academic facility. She cited other University students with private access to buildings such as the gymnasium in the Ross School of Business for Business students and some computer labs on North Campus for Engineering students.
Cunningham said these facilities were “created to meet the needs of the community.”
However, in October 2001 the NCAA established a rule that stated student-athletes must integrate with the student body, and institutions may not form residences halls specifically for athletes.
Christopher Radford, National Collegiate Athletic Association assistant director of public and media relations, said there are no rules or regulations stating that the University is violating NCAA policy by granting student-athletes their own private building.
“It’s a University issue,” Radford said.
He added that the “NCAA doesn’t govern at that level.”
In an article in The Michigan Daily in January 2006, Joe Roberson, former University athletic director, said the Ross Academic Center isolates student-athletes from the rest of the student body.
"The University went to the Supreme Court arguing that diversity was a very important component of education in the affirmative action case," Roberson said. "How you can justify isolating a group of people who probably have more in common than any ethnic group — being athletes and being driven by athletics — and claim the diversity issue is being accomplished is beyond me."
Stephen M. Ross, who donated $5 million to help fund the construction of the facility, said in the article that the center does not separate athletes and students.
"They still go to classes together, so I don't think it isolates them," he said.
LSA freshman Greg Pateryn, a Michigan hockey player, was studying alone at a table in the hallway of the second floor last Thursday. When asked if he would be willing to allow non-student-athletes to study in the building, he said he “personally wouldn’t mind.”
“But if it got out of hand it would be a little annoying if a lot of people would be in here,” Pateryn said.
He added that the center assists varsity athletes who sometimes need extra academic help, and said it’s nice to have a place for athletes to focus on work.
Another Michigan hockey player, who wished to remain anonymous because he did not want his name associated with the story, said he agrees it is unfair that regular students are barred from the building but believes the policy makes sense.
“It’s pretty big for all the athletes, but if you add other students it would be pretty clustered, and there would not be much room to work,” he said.
Athlete Academic Advisor Steven Carson was not even aware such a policy stating who could enter in the building existed.
“I don’t know if that’s a rule or not,” he said. “If it is, it’s an unspoken rule.”
Carson said he has seen one student who lives across the street come in and use the building about once a week since the center was opened.
LSA sophomore Brad Schumaier, a different student who lives across the street, said he didn’t think he could go in the building.
“I think it would be nice if we could use it,” he said. “It would be better than having to walk over to the library.”
Schumaier is not alone. Even club varsity athletes get kicked out.
Engineering senior Annie Kirkpatrick is a member of the University’s Varsity Synchronized Skating Club team. Kirkpatrick tried going into the Ross Academic Center last year because she was in the area and needed a place to study. When she told the reception desk she was a club varsity athlete, they told her she was not allowed to use the facility because only varsity athletes are allowed.
Since then, Kirkpatrick has not gone back. She said she doesn’t understand why club varsity athletes are denied access to the building, adding she practices eight to 12 hours a week and even pays $3,200 a year in skating fees.
“It would be nice if it were opened up to at least the club varsity sports,” she said. “We spend a lot of time and practice as well, and we’re actually paying for our sport so it might be nice to actually get some of those benefits.”
Recreational Sports Director William Canning said the size of the Ross Academic Center makes it impossible to accommodate the 15,000 students involved in intramural sports and 1,800 involved in club sports.
If he could, Canning said he would love to have intramural and club athletes use the building.
“The building, the services, the staffing, just is not designed to do that nor is there the budget to be able to do that,” he said.
During the 2007 fiscal year, the University spent $251,455 on the center's maintenance and administrative expenses. That number increased to $287,057 during the 2008 fiscal year.
Rackham Graduate School student Julie Lesnik, an Anthropology graduate student instructor, tutors soccer and football players at the center. She said she thinks the center is a state of the art facility that should be available to all students on campus and claimed money is the reason it isn’t.
“I think it reflects that a lot of the money to the University comes through athletics,” she said. “I wish that the academic would be more important in that there would be facilities available to students who were here strictly for an academic reason, but it’s the economy. It’s the world. It kind of all revolves around money.”
Lesnik said she agrees that if the athletes generate the center's money, then they have the right to their own private building.
“It’s understandable, but I just wish there were academics bringing in that kind of money too,” she said.
Kirkpatrick said she sees how it can be hard for varsity athletes to be an athlete and a student, but thinks they shouldn’t be treated differently.
“I guess don’t see why it’s any more difficult for them to use the same facilities as everyone else,” she said.