Correction Appended: This incorrectly stated that Donald Graham chairman of the Washington Post Company, donated money used to build the Stephen M. Ross Academic Center. The actual donor was University alum Donald Graham who founded the Graham Engineering Company.

Roshan Reddy
A view of different floors inside the Stephen M. Ross Academic Center. (AARON SWICK/Daily)
Roshan Reddy
Athletes work in a study area at the Stephen M. Ross Academic Center. (ALI OLSEN/Daily)

LSA junior Jason Dest struggled when he took his first calculus course. It wasn’t that he was bad at math or not smart enough – he is now an economics major. It wasn’t that he was uncommitted or that he didn’t go to class. Well, it was partially that last one.

Dest is a defenseman on the Michigan hockey team. The team travels a lot and so does Dest. His calculus course was every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and he missed a lot of Friday classes because of his travel. To make it worse, his instructor scheduled quizzes every Friday.

“I was always missing the quizzes,” Dest said. “And then she would have review sessions during practice times, so I never got to attend any of those.”

Though it may not sound like it, Dest was lucky. Instead of denying him opportunities to reschedule – he has had professors do this to him in the past – his calculus instructor worked with him. She met him at the library late at night, sometimes as late as midnight, to go over material he missed and review any algebra he was having a hard time with. She let him make up quizzes on Mondays.

How’s he going to handle it?

It’s rare for a student athlete to find a teacher as accommodating as Dest’s, but academic support is easy to come by at Michigan. Just head down State Street to the athletic campus and look for the new building with the large windows and the big sign that says Stephen M. Ross Academic Center.

There you can find Shari Acho and Sue Shand, co-directors of the Academic Success Program at Michigan. They are two of ten full-time staff members – paid out of the athletic department’s budget – who work with athletes to make sure as many as possible get through the rigors of a Michigan education.

The University can be an intimidating place for any student, and for athletes it’s often tougher. Between practice, watching film, weight training, rehab and competition, athletes essentially work a full-time job in addition to going to school. To make it worse, many of them worked the same full-time job in high school, meaning they are often less prepared than other students. Although Ted Spencer, executive director of undergraduate admissions, insists the University doesn’t admit any students who are not qualified, it does admit those who can, with the proper amount of assistance, tackle the challenges that will face them.

The proper amount of assistance: That’s where academic support comes in. Tutors, learning specialists and academic counselors – along with computers and places to read – are all available to athletes in need of assistance.

“It’s very student-specific,” Acho said. “We don’t have any cookie-cutter program. It depends on their schedule, and it depends on their strengths and weaknesses.”

It used to be different. Until this year, the system looked a little more like a gingerbread man. All freshmen were required to go to study table Sunday through Wednesday from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. There was no set location because the athletic department didn’t have any space. So students were scattered throughout campus – in Mason Hall, in the Shapiro Undergraduate Library, even in the Department of Public Safety offices.

With the new building and resources, freshman study table will change to allow for a little more flexibility. Instead of being forced to study at times determined by the athletic department, now a freshman student athlete will be able choose when he wants to study. He will still be required to have designated study time for eight hours a week, but now he can schedule time with tutors, time in the Ross Academic Center’s 70-station computer lab and time to sit in the center’s lounge in front of the fireplace or flatscreen TV and read – all as a part of his required eight hours.

“I’d have kids – again, I work specifically with football – but they would come to study table and they’d have ice bags on their shoulders and their knees. They’re exhausted,” Acho said. “So this is really going to give our kids the flexibility to study when it works best for them in their schedule as opposed to it having to be in the evening.”

Acho is quick to point out that all of Michigan’s student athletes have to study more than eight hours per week if they are going to graduate, but she said she thinks it’s important, especially for freshmen, to know they are somewhere studying for that block of time.

“These are student athletes, a lot of them tops in the nation,” Acho said. “So these are kids who maybe never had to do it before sometimes. Now we’re saying, ‘First semester, you have to make this time.’ By second semester, I sort of loosen up a little bit.”

After freshman year, there has always been a little more freedom built into the Academic Success Program. The assumption is that, after a year, student athletes have learned how to manage their time. As long as they aren’t struggling academically, they are no longer forced to attend any sort of tutoring or study table. What “struggling” means is up to the specific team – for football, it’s a GPA below a 2.3; for women’s basketball, it’s anything below a 3.0.

In order to stay eligible for NCAA competition, athletes around the nation must keep up with the academic standards set by their conference. The Big Ten standards change based on how many years a student athlete has been at the school, but they are lowest after the first semester – when just a 1.65 GPA is required. At Michigan, athletes, like all students, need to keep their GPA above a 2.0 or risk being put on academic probation or even being kicked out of school.

That’s why, according to Acho, Michigan has its own standards for the athletes. Even though it tries to be flexible and allow student athletes to plan their own tutoring and study sessions – especially non-freshman athletes – the Academic Success Program is in place to help make sure no one slips through the cracks and gets forgotten.

“A lot of parents, they get scared,” Acho said. “Michigan is considered like an Ivy League school. How is this kid from inner-city Detroit, how’s he going to handle it? And as a parent, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, my kid could never handle this. This scares me to death.’ Then when we go through all the support we’re going to give the kid, it makes it a little more palatable.”

Joe knows

But what if the answer for the scared parent is not more academic support for student athletes, but, get this, less time on the practice field. That’s the heretical idea of Joe Roberson, Michigan’s athletic director from 1994 to 1997, who thinks Michigan’s priorities are in the wrong place. He agrees that the way athletics at the Division-I level are structured right now, needs to change. But what about cutting back practice hours? What about less focus on athletics?

Acho would call that unrealistic, but it’s all part of what Roberson dubs “the athletic culture.”

It’s been many years since he was athletic director at Michigan, and even more since he played professional baseball and community college basketball while trying to get an education. But from Florida, where he spends his retirement, Roberson talks emphatically about the danger to the student athlete.

He’s concerned because he was there once. A superstar athlete in high school, Roberson thought he could make it in the world of professional sports. He gave up an opportunity to play Division I sports while getting an education to sign with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

“I thought certainly I was going to be an All-Star, probably a Hall-of-Famer,” Roberson said. “But at the end of three and a half years, due to some small injuries and the competitive nature of what I was into, my career was over and I was 20 years old, and all I had left was the rest of my life.”

Luckily, Roberson had support from his family and friends to get an education on his own. Even while playing baseball, he attended Flint Junior College during the offseason. When his career ended, he went back to college and got a doctorate in education administration. He has always considered himself to be an educator, one who looks out for the best interests of the student athlete, which is why he’s scared about the athletic culture.

Roberson is worried that the best interest of the student athlete is being thrown to the side all around the country in order to field competitive programs and make money, but his uneasiness about academic support is two-fold. The first is that everything the Academic Success Program offers athletes – tutoring help, computers, advising – is already offered by the University on a broader level. By paying tuition to the University for all its student athletes, the athletic department is already paying for these services. The Academic Success Program is just a duplication of those fees and a waste of money, he says.

But Athletic Director Bill Martin knows how to balance a budget if anyone does. The $12-million surplus this year is one of the biggest athletic department surpluses ever, and the Michigan athletic department is the third in the country in terms of total revenue – behind Ohio State and Texas, respectively.

So maybe the $1 million a year that the athletic department spends on academic support isn’t such a bad thing. As Associate Provost Phil Hanlon points out, in some senses, it’s a good thing that the entire student body is benefiting from the extra money the athletic department pays to the University.

Roberson’s second and bigger objection to academic support – and more specifically to the new academic center – is that it further isolates the student athlete from the rest of the student population, something Roberson sees as a detriment to the education of both the student athlete and the general student population.

“The University went to the Supreme Court arguing that diversity was a very important component of education in the affirmative action case,” Roberson points out. “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 made the construction of the building possible with his $5 million donation, argues that studying is an individual thing. “They still go to classes together, so I don’t think it isolates them,” he said.

Hanlon, who oversees the Academic Success Program from the provost’s office, said he would be very concerned if he thought it isolated student athletes from the rest of the population. But, like Ross, he doesn’t expect the academic center to cause more isolation.

“That’s never been the tradition at Michigan,” Hanlon said.

He’s not worried, in part because student athletes will still take the same classes and in part because the center will eventually be open to all students, at least during certain hours The center does have classrooms available, and even though they will eventually be used for the occasional class, they will be mostly for review sessions and group study sessions.

Isolation of student athletes may not seem like a big deal, but it’s something that the NCAA takes very seriously. In October 2001, the NCAA made it a requirement that universities integrate athletes into the rest of the student body. Institutions may not house student athletes in athletics dormitories or even athletic blocks within dorms, the rule states.

“They need to be integrated into the general college and university environment as much as possible, with the recognition that they have other responsibilities,” said Erik Christianson, director for public and media relations at the NCAA.

When asked specifically about the creation of academic centers designed primarily for athletes, Christianson said it was the NCAA’s hope that universities were making the best decisions to support all athletes.

“I believe in school and hockey”

Acho, who has been involved in athletics and education for most of her professional life, believes she has the best interest of athletes in mind. She has done academic counseling, specifically for football players, for the last 12 years – six here and six at Michigan State. Before that, she worked as a teacher and athletic director at a high school in Florida. She has a bachelor’s degree in exceptional student education and a master’s in athletic administration. So, needless to say, she knows what she’s doing. But she can’t do it all on her own.

Every Monday morning, she meets with the football coaching staff to give them a full report on all of their student-athletes. She tells the coaches if any of the athletes are having problems, skipping class or failing anything. She – like all the other academic counselors with their specific sports – does “grade reports” for the coaches as the semester moves along.

“We kind of have a no surprise rule,” Acho explained. “It’s not our fault if a kid fails out as long as the coaches are aware all along. And if they haven’t intervened . there’s a responsibility of the coaches to help us out in that way.”

The way Acho sees it, she has nothing to hold over the head of a kid who is struggling academically. The coaches can hold kids out of competition. They can kick them off the team. She says that, in general, the coaches are “pretty tough” on their kids.

Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson has a great story that he tells when he’s asked about the importance of academics for his collegiate hockey players.

It was February of the 1997-98 season, and Michigan, like always, was fighting for first place in the CCHA as the regular season wound down. In a game at rival Michigan State – a game that The Michigan Daily described at the time as “arguably the biggest game of the season” – Berenson benched senior goaltender Marty Turco, the team’s star, for academic reasons.

“I had heard that Turco had missed a couple of classes, and it was his senior year,” Berenson recalled. “And I told him, ‘Marty, if I find out you miss another class, you’re going to miss a game.’ And sure enough, he did.”

The team got shellacked by the Spartans in a 5-1 loss and ended up losing the CCHA regular-season title because of that loss – although they did go on to win the NCAA Tournament two months later.

“The good thing was I think Marty learned something and his teammates learned something,” Berenson said. “We had to make a tough decision, but I thought it was the right decision. Now, we’ve sat out a lot more players than that, but that was a visible thing.”

When the television reporters asked him after the game why Turco wasn’t between the pipes for one of the biggest games of the year, Berenson told them, “Marty’s a great kid, but he made a mistake. Maybe he wasn’t accountable for it, but now our team is accountable and our fans and everyone is disappointed that Marty Turco made that decision. Even me.”

The decision obviously resonated with Turco, who told the Daily after the game that he “let the team down.”

Although Acho said that most coaches are “very supportive,” she also admitted that Berenson is by far the best. Berenson has a reputation for caring more than most about the education of his student athletes.

Perhaps it’s because he was a hockey player and a student athlete here 30 years ago. He was in the College of Engineering before transferring to the business school. He knows that it’s tough to be both a student and an athlete. But he also knows that it’s possible to do and do well.

Berenson had a brief stint as a coach in the NHL, but he came back to Michigan “because I believe in school and hockey, but not just hockey.”

Acho also pointed to the support from Athletic Director Bill Martin as a reason why coaches are willing to sit players who are struggling academically. She says he makes it clear, again and again in meetings, that it’s not just about winning. According to Acho, he tells the coaches often that “we need to make sure that our kids are doing what they’re supposed to be doing and are representative of this program.”

It’s this overall philosophy, she says, that makes sitting players down when they aren’t performing the in classroom a little bit easier.

Just as efficient as we can

Martin cares about graduation rates, probably as much as almost any other athletic director in the country. Easily visible in his office – on a bulletin board above his desk and next to his computer – is a chart of graduation rates. It’s paper with a few sets of bar graphs – two for each year since he’s been Michigan’s athletic director. The maize bar graphs all show student-athlete graduation rates. The blue ones show the graduation rates of the general student population.

The blue graphs are higher than the maize graphs for every year, but as Martin points out, some years they are closer than others. When he arrived at Michigan in 2000, regular graduation rates were at 82 percent and student athletes graduated at a rate of 68 percent. Last year, it was 85 to 73, but the year before that, the chart shows Michigan graduated 82 percent of its athletes to the University’s 84 percent. That’s the closest the athletic department has ever come to hitting Martin’s goal of surpassing the graduation rates of the general student population.

Ultimately, Martin says, “What I focus on is, are we making certain that these kids, all of them when they leave here, they’ve got the necessary tools to be productive members in our society today.”

Martin insists that “all our coaches know what our objective is.” Even though he’s an athletic director, he says the first thing he talks about at every one of his meetings with senior staff is academics.

If you want more proof that Martin at least tries to be education-oriented, follow the money. Martin is a self-proclaimed cheapskate. He finds corners of his notebook to write on so that he doesn’t have to waste paper, and he claims it’s a well-known fact that he goes around turning off lights.

He looks at the new academic center – a $12 million project financed by the $5 million donation he solicited from Stephen M. Ross, another large donation from University alum Donald Graham who founded the Graham Engineering Company and smaller sums through donations and pledges – and thinks the hallways are about six inches too wide, adding to operating cost of the building.

The athletic department currently spends a little less than $700,000 on the Academic Success Program. Most of that money is tied up in the personnel salaries of the ten people who work in the building and the $8 to $12 per hour they pay the tutors. The rest is used to rent space for freshman study table and other minor expenses.

Next year, that number will go up by about 50 percent because of the new Academic Center. Jason Winters, who is in charge of finances for the athletic department, said the budgeted operating cost for the building for a full year is about $400,000. It’s one cost Martin is more than happy to eat.

“We’ll be as efficient as we can, but if we’re sincere and straightforward about our commitment to academics, that cost is insignificant,” Martin said.

Martin says the same thing about the tuition he pays for student athletes – more than $12 million each year.

Berenson has always been impressed by the athletic department’s desire to get athletes to graduate, even if they have to pay out of their pocket long after the athlete is done competing for Michigan. It’s this attitude that has many in the athletic department praising Martin’s academics-first attitude.

Roberson would sing a different tune. After spending 31 years at the University – three of which came as athletic director – Roberson has a pretty good idea of how things work in Ann Arbor. He laughs a little before he says it, and he makes sure to ask if you’re ready for a little philosophy. But then he jumps right in. He says that, in his time as athletic director, he became aware of the three components to decision making in the athletic department. The first is competition, the second is business and only the third is academics.

“The fact is that the first two are sort of intertwined – the need for money and the need to win,” Roberson says. “You have to have money to win and you have to win to get money.”

On top of that, he says, is that both of those are measurable. Everyone can recognize a winning and losing football team and everyone knows how to spot a deficit in the budget. It’s more complicated to ask someone to point out who left Michigan with an education.

Graduation rates are certainly one way of measuring, but even Martin would agree that they don’t tell the whole story. In fact, Martin would use that argument to make a different point.

Until four years ago, the football players – like most other students – were put on a four-year graduation plan, meaning they would be set to graduate in April of their senior year. But Acho and Shand noticed a trend. Football players were often leaving school in the middle of their senior year to get ready for the NFL. After the bowl game, instead of coming back to Michigan and enrolling in classes sans football, the elite football players – of which Michigan has many – would hire agents, train in Atlanta or some other warm city, go to NFL combines and prepare for the chance to be drafted.

“For those really elite athletes, their mind switches,” Martin said. “They’re focusing on this (the draft). . So when we organize their workload, we don’t talk about whether they’re making satisfactory progress toward eligibility. We’re working toward this day, graduation. That’s what it’s all about.”

Acho and Shand reorganized the way football players make their schedules. They wanted to make sure as many as possible are graduating in December, before the bowl game. They developed two different programs: one for players who redshirt and one for those who don’t. If they play their first year and don’t redshirt – like Chad Henne and Mike Hart, for instance – then they’re on a three-and-a-half year program. They go to school year round, averaging about 37 credits a year.

If they redshirt, they’re on a four and a half year program. During their fifth year at the University, they can choose to start working towards a master’s degree or save a class or two to take during their final football season. Either way, football players started graduating almost exclusively in December because of the plan that Acho and Shand came up with. And graduation rates went up.

It’s tough

The athletic department can give athletes all the help money can buy, make a building dedicated to helping them graduate and tweak their schedules to make sure they leave the University with a degree. But being an athlete will always have obstacles. And the University will continue to try to provide them with support.

It was the last week in October, and the hockey team had spent the last day or so on a handful of flights that eventually landed them in Fairbanks, Alaska. It was only 8 p.m., but some were already thinking about sleeping – after all, it was after midnight back home in Michigan. Business junior David Rohlfs wasn’t thinking about sleep. He was focusing on a midterm for Business Economics 300 that he was about to take. He sat down in the hotel room and his proctor gave him the exam. Two hours later, the time was up and the proctor took the exam back. He would keep it in his possession until he got back to Ann Arbor and was able to hand it over to the professor.

Some would say that being able to take an exam while out of town is a privilege that athletes are lucky to get. Others would argue it’s an arduous strain on athletes to have to travel all day and take tests in the middle of the night. Rohlfs finds himself somewhere in between.

“It’s tough, obviously,” Rohlfs said. “But that’s something that you have to do. They help you as much as they can, and they try to do as much as they can to help you through it so it’s a lot easier on you.”

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