End Run

The second time a professor caught him cheating, UM football star Andre Johnson seemed to be in deep trouble. That's when home-field advantage kicked in.

Petersen was satisfied with this, at least until Johnson turned in a term paper for Sociology 370, Juvenile Delinquency, in mid-December, just three weeks before the Rose Bowl. The paper was an essay on No Matter How Loud I Shout: A Year in the Life of Juvenile Court, a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes. As he read, Petersen grew suspicious.

Those suspicions prompted him to draft a formal complaint to the Undergraduate Honor Council. New Times obtained a copy of the complaint. "Even a cursory reading of this paper clearly shows it to be a copy of a promotional description of the book," Petersen wrote. "The report was copied without reproducing even the correct punctuation from the original." Petersen met with Johnson, who again confessed. "When I asked him what the source of the material was, he stated he did not know since the report was prepared by his girlfriend," the professor's complaint continued. "I asked him if he knows the meaning of several words contained in the report, specifically “euphemism' and “stigmatizing,' and he stated he did not know the meaning of these words. Given the fact that this is the second instance of cheating by this student in my classes within a period of less than 90 days, I told him that I would refer this to the honor council and that I would ask for a severe penalty since I felt that my leniency in the first instance had obviously been an error."

UM created the Undergraduate Honor Council in 1986 after a group of students blew the whistle on classmates who had purchased copies of a stolen exam. While the honor council, composed of 22 students who hear cases on a rotating basis, maintains a kind of academic moral authority, real power is concentrated in the council's Selection and Appeals Committee. That body, composed of a student representative, the university provost, and the vice president for student affairs (or their designees), not only selects students to serve on the honor council but is free to revise any sanctions the students hand down. Since their inception, the undergraduate councils have issued approximately 275 sanctions, including warnings, reprimands, suspensions, and occasionally expulsions from the university.

Ken Dorsey (left) will have the benefit of another season with his star receiver Andre Johnson (right)
Ken Dorsey (left) will have the benefit of another season with his star receiver Andre Johnson (right)

In response to Petersen's complaint about Andre Johnson, Sandler convened a five-member panel and designated two other students to investigate the charges. The hearing took place on the evening of February 19 in a conference room at UM's main administration building. An undergraduate student advisor is allowed to attend such meetings to assist the accused, though the advisor is not permitted to address the honor council. Who would a wide receiver bring along to help dazzle his peers? His star quarterback and co-MVP, Ken Dorsey.

First the two student investigators presented their findings. The panel then questioned Johnson, who said he had left the paper to the last minute but did not cite his rigorous football schedule as a factor. He pleaded guilty.

When Petersen spoke, he emphasized his desire to avoid embarrassing the national championship football team, but he said poor academic performance and lax attendance by some athletes created persistent problems for many instructors. Such problems were systemic at UM, the retired judge asserted. The Johnson case was just one egregious example.

According to a source who attended the hearing and requested anonymity, when one student asked Johnson about the earlier cheating incident, dean of students Sandler interrupted to say he didn't think the panel should delve into that. (Sandler would not comment on the account.)

The honor council then turned to the plagiarism charge. After deliberating for more than an hour, the students came down hard on Johnson. They voted to suspend him for two semesters beginning this fall. Not surprisingly Johnson appealed the ruling, and a hearing was scheduled for one week later.

Before long, rumors of the Rose Bowl MVP's suspension spread to a Website chatroom called CanesTime.com. Despite the confidential nature of the honor council's proceedings, the message that began a thread of postings was quite accurate, mentioning the two-semester suspension commencing in the fall. Most of the responses were expressions of disbelief.

"Some guy is posting rumors that Johnson will not be playing next season because he was caught cheating.... I say BS," wrote one football fan.

"I've personally seen worse academic behavior from athletes who have gotten away with it," added another, who was sure the wide receiver would be in uniform for the upcoming season. "You're foolish if you really believe athletes aren't given any special treatment and/or get away with a lot more than would a regular student.... Some of them take tests on plane trips with coaches as proctors!"

Somehow the UM administration became aware of the gossip on CanesTime.com. The response was swift and aggressive. Computer technicians reportedly were deployed to trace the origins of the chatroom messages about Johnson's suspension. Sociology department faculty fell under suspicion. Campus sources say provost Luis Glaser summoned department chairman Dale Chitwood and another professor to his office and angrily notified them of the investigation, warning them about the confidentiality rules governing the release of student records. (Chitwood did not return calls seeking comment.)

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