After more than an hour of heated debate, the faculty Senate Assembly approved a motion to change who reviews student-athlete eligibility and a motion urging the University president to stop a practice of funding bowl games for members of a student-athlete eligibility advisory committee.
Members of the Committee on Academic Performance make recommendations to the provost as to whether a student-athlete should be considered eligible. The Athletic Department currently offers committee members reimbursement for airfare, hotel, ticket and meal expenses if they want to travel to a bowl game.
The practice came under heavy criticism after a July 2007 internal University audit found that the practice “may appear to be a conflict of interest.” Despite the audit’s findings, the University has continued its practice of paying for the committee members’ trips.
University President Mary Sue Coleman and Provost Teresa Sullivan have defended the practice, arguing that because the provost makes the final determination on eligibility — not the committee members who received reimbursement for trips — a conflict of interest doesn’t exist.
A letter to the assembly from Athletic Director Bill Martin echoed Coleman’s and Sullivan’s stances, stating a conflict doesn’t exist because the provost is not provided with tickets or reimbursed for travel to the bowl games.
At the meeting, Statistics Prof. Ed Rothman, chair of the Athlete Academic Advising Committee — which was created to look into the student-athlete advising — gave a presentation on his committee’s findings and recommendations regarding student-athlete advising.
Rothman’s proposal outlined seven recommendations to reform how the University handles issues regarding student-athletes.
“The focus is primarily on advising,” he said. “It is in the interface of these operations that we saw some issues, and that is what our improvements are directed at.”
Rothman presented a motion to the assembly proposing that each academic unit be responsible for making recommendations on an athlete’s eligibility to the provost. The motion was approved 29-4 with one abstention.
“We are proposing that that function be handled in the same way as eligibility of all students, with respect to University rules,” Rothman said. “The academic advisers who make decisions about eligibility (should) make decisions about eligibility of student-athletes as well.”
Physics Prof. Keith Riles introduced a motion to recommend that the University president discontinue the practice of payins for APC members to attend bowl games. After much discussion and controversy, the motion passed 19-11.
Controversy over the motions and the voting procedure arose when Classical Studies Prof. David Potter, chair of the Senate Assembly, explained to assembly members that Rothman’s proposal would be considered and only if it failed would Riles’ proposal be considered. Riles challenged Potter saying he was abusing his power.
“You clearly do not want this resolution to pass, since you are a beneficiary to this very perk,” Riles said. “I have put a motion before the Assembly. I think it should be voted upon and your manipulation — trying to say that we have to choose one motion or the other — is ridiculous.”
Riles also accused Potter of receiving $5,000 in travel costs from the Athletic Department for attendence at bowl travel expenses.
Potter subsequently recused himself from the vote, leaving College of Engineering Prof. Michael Thouless to preside over the meeting. Thouless allowed discussion on the motions and procedure, which continued for approximately 30 minutes.
Assembly members argued both sides of the issue: some calling for an immediate vote on Rothman’s proposal or the tabling of Riles’s proposal, while others argued that the motions should be considered separately.
Throughout the discussion, several faculty members could be heard making off-hand comments to others in the audience that they were frustrated with the lengthy procedural debate.
One faculty member argued to the entire assembly that he found it agonizing that assembly members were willing to tolerate such a clear conflict of interest.
Adding to the comment, another assembly member said the trips didn’t serve any purpose and were “one big party.”
One faculty member, who had previously served on the APC, defended the practice saying travel to bowl games gave faculty a valuable opportunity to represent the University.
Another assembly member countered the argument saying that faculty members not on APC would be equally qualified to represent the University to prospective students and alumni at the bowl games.
Rothman told assembly members that if they voted in favor of Riles’ motion, they would be sending a message that they believed a conflict of interest existed, despite the lack of evidence.
Riles responded to Rothman’s claim saying APC’s power to recommend eligibility was not the only possible conflict of interest.
“That’s just the extreme conflict of interest,” he said. “Even the appearance of a conflict of interest should be eliminated. It’s just that simple.”
After further debate, the two resolutions were each approved separately.
– Haven Bassett contributed to this report.