By Terrence McCoy
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By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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The University of Miami's superstar wide receiver Andre Johnson, a big factor in this year's Rose Bowl win, was hammered February 19 by a post-season gang tackle. A group of his fellow students, sitting as the Undergraduate Honor Council, voted to suspend him for two semesters beginning this fall. That effectively quashed Johnson's expected return to the Hurricanes next season when the team defends its national championship. A panel of five delivered the hit because, New Times has learned, last year Johnson was caught cheating on a sociology exam, and then three months later turned in a plagiarized term paper for another sociology course.
But relax, sports fans. Thanks to some creative off-field blocking by UM administrators who handled his appeal, Johnson has wriggled free. The former Pop Warner quarterback for the Opa-locka Optimists and Miami Senior High grad -- now a 6-3, 220-pound speedy sophomore -- will be suspended only for UM's two 25-day summer sessions, allowing him to suit up for the Hurricanes right on schedule.
All isn't smooth on UM's campus, however. Word of the reduced punishment has angered some students and faculty familiar with the Johnson case, many details of which are confidential because state and federal laws forbid colleges and universities from disclosing a student's records without his or her permission. Campus sources are afraid to comment for fear of being punished by the administration or even sued by Johnson. But those constraints don't blunt more general criticism. "Lots of professors are upset at the sway the athletic program has over academic departments," said one tenured professor who teaches at UM's College of Arts and Sciences. "The athletic-department people don't want an even playing field. They want it weighted on their side."
Several members of the student honor council declined to discuss the issue, saying that dean of students William Sandler, who serves as secretary of their council, instructed them to refer all inquiries to him. "I do the best I can," sighed one member when asked if she was frustrated by honor-council sanctions being reduced. "We try to do a good job." Sandler refused comment and did not respond to written questions delivered to his office.
"That's apparently the way it works at UM," said a senior majoring in communications. "When they're in high school, a lot of these black kids get sold this dream and duped into playing sports, and then the university makes a lot of money off them. They're like indentured servants and they get breezed through their classes."
The Johnson controversy is but one example of a conflict that occurs nationwide at schools where guardians of scholastic excellence butt heads with athletic departments that run what are essentially semiprofessional football teams. And UM's football program is indeed formidable. Even people who are not fans of the sport sat up as the Hurricanes crushed the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Rose Bowl this past January 3. By halftime quarterback Ken Dorsey had thrown three touchdown passes, two of them to Johnson, and the score was 34 to 0. The Dorsey-Johnson combo earned the duo a co-MVP award for the game. Johnson ended the day with seven receptions for 199 yards, a UM record for a bowl game. "The Perfect Storm," as some sportswriters dubbed the new national champions, left Nebraska's hopes scattered. The 37-to-14 victory was a glorious end to an undefeated season for the 'Canes.
In early February, though, the celebratory afterglow began to dim. Dean of students Sandler sent Andre Johnson a letter notifying him of the plagiarism charge and instructing him to appear before a five-student honor council.
The saga, which New Times has gleaned from documents and sources familiar with the case, began on September 21 during an exam given by adjunct professor Thomas Petersen in Sociology 373, Courts and Society. Petersen is a retired Miami-Dade Juvenile Court judge, a former chief prosecutor for the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, and the recipient of numerous public-service awards for his work with inner-city youth. He would not comment for this article and referred New Timesto Sandler.
Two students alerted Petersen to the possibility that Andre Johnson and two other football players in the class had shared exam answers. Petersen investigated. "Each student had exactly the same correct and wrong answers," he wrote in a memo to the athletic department. "My attention to these one-hundred-percent correlations (unique to these three students in a class of 58) was initially based on the fact that the three papers were handed in at the same time." Petersen also found that Johnson had signed only five of the ten attendance sheets handed out by that point in the semester. Attendance was significant because the exam questions were based mostly on information Petersen presented in the classroom.
Several days later Petersen confronted the trio. According to his memo, a copy of which was obtained by New Times, they readily confessed and received failing grades on the test. At first the instructor was conciliatory. "I want to work with these students in every way possible," Petersen wrote, "and I certainly do not want to jeopardize their athletic eligibility or their standing within the university if there is an explanation or resolution that is fair to the other students who took the test." He met with Hurricanes football coach Larry Coker, who reportedly told him he would discuss the matter with Johnson individually and with the team as a whole.