Seven members of the University of Miami's faculty senate are investigating the controversial cheating case of a star football player whose penalty was later altered in a way that will allow him to play this fall, as the Hurricanes defend their national championship. "I have asked the athletics committee [of the senate] to talk with the appropriate people in the administration about the allegations that have appeared in the press and report to the senate on what it finds," says biology professor Steven Green, chairman of the faculty senate. The academic body is expected to hear from the committee at its April 24 meeting.
The cheating case, first reported by New Times ("End Run," March 7), involved a plagiarism complaint by adjunct professor Thomas Petersen against Andre Johnson, the wide receiver who was a co-MVP in the Hurricanes' Rose Bowl victory this past January. Petersen, a retired Miami-Dade juvenile court judge, charged the sophomore with submitting a plagiarized final-exam paper for Sociology 370, Juvenile Delinquency, in mid-December. In a letter to the Undergraduate Honor Council, the student group that reviews cases of alleged academic dishonesty, Petersen emphasized that three months earlier he had caught Johnson and two other football players cheating on an exam in a different sociology course. Petersen wrote that he had attempted to handle the first incident quietly. He contacted Hurricanes head football coach Larry Coker, who, according to Petersen's complaint, promised to discuss the problem with his players.
A five-student panel heard the case on February 19 and suspended Johnson for a full school year, apparently sidelining him for the upcoming football season. But one week later an appeals committee composed of two administrators and one student reduced the suspension to UM's two 25-day summer sessions, thus enabling Johnson to play with the team in the fall. Some faculty members reacted with dismay, including a tenured arts and sciences professor who asserted that it was just the latest example of an athletic program with too much influence over academic departments.
The flap erupted while University of Miami president Donna Shalala was at the Big East basketball tournament in New York on March 7, cheering for the Hurricanes. A followup story by the Miami Herald reported that the following week Shalala "would address the issue of academics and athletics at length with the Herald." New Times also sought an interview with the university president.
Shalala spent March 12 with UM's national championship football and baseball teams as they visited President George W. Bush at the White House. Then she was off to watch the Hurricanes lose to Missouri in the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament in Albuquerque.
In response to New Times's request for interviews with Shalala and other UM administrators to discuss the subject of athletics and academics, the university issued this statement: "New Times chose to publish confidential information concerning a student. Federal law protects the privacy of student records. We decline to participate in a story on this matter." The federal law is the 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, also known as the Buckley Amendment. It prohibits the release of a student's education records without his or her permission.
Like Shalala, UM athletic director Paul Dee elected to treat the subject of athletes and scholarship as a confidentiality issue involving one particular student. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel quoted Dee as saying, "I can't confirm or deny it. The federal law prohibits me from commenting on it and you from writing it."
A sociology department source familiar with the Andre Johnson case denounces the university's evasiveness: "This business of secrecy, using the holier-than-thou position and saying this is all about the Buckley Amendment and protecting Andre Johnson's confidentiality, really becomes a way to protect the administration."
Shalala's reluctance to discuss academics and athletics does not surprise some professors who worked with her when she was chancellor of the University of Wisconsin in the late Eighties and early Nineties. She was an ardent sports booster in Madison, where she is widely remembered for resurrecting a moribund football program. After the Badgers finished 1-10 in 1988, she hired athletic director Pat Richter, who brought on a new head coach, Barry Alvarez. Five years later his team posted a 10-1-1 record, followed by a Rose Bowl win.
She also left an impressive fundraising legacy at UW, raising $400 million for the university's endowment fund and another $225 million to improve and expand the school's research facilities.
But Shalala's athletic agenda disturbed some UW professors. "Dr. Shalala ran into conflict with the faculty senate over the emphasis she put on the big-money sports," recalls Anatole Beck, a UW mathematics professor who was a faculty senator during Shalala's tenure. (He currently is a visiting professor at the London School of Economics.) The conflict, Beck explains, resulted from Shalala's decision to cut athletic scholarships for fencing, gymnastics, and baseball. "The ostensible reason for having an athletic program at all at a university is the supposed instruction in self-discipline, team spirit, and cooperation it gives to genuine scholars," Beck maintains. "It is an open secret that the big-money sports are not instructional but merely a way of providing money for the university and entertaining alumni and students."
In 1991, with only two dissenting votes, the 260-member UW senate demanded that the chancellor delay the scholarship cuts for a year to allow the students relying on them to transfer to other universities. "We returned in September to learn that Dr. Shalala had paid no attention to our attempt to keep faith with our students," Beck says. "She had her own idea of what is important in a university, and that was football, basketball, and ice hockey. The upshot was that in order to find more money for the big-money sports, many nonmoney sports had to suffer."
Other professors also thought Shalala's academic priorities were skewed. "I went in to see her about the terrible watering-down of her undergraduate education here," recounts Robert Kimbrough, a professor emeritus in UW's English department. "Students were not getting the concentrated education they used to get. All she wanted to talk about were her budget problems and how if she didn't have these deans of these various schools and colleges, she could really run the place. It was quite clear she didn't want to hear my agenda. She had her own agenda. So after about fifteen minutes I said, Chancellor, I won't take any more of your valuable time,' and walked out.
"She's willing to put athletics out in front for bringing in the money and the rah, rah, rah," Kimbrough adds. Despite that, he doesn't think Shalala would knowingly permit the University of Miami's academic reputation to suffer under her administration: "I think she's too smart to get caught in that trap. I don't think she'd expose herself there."
Shalala, who assumed her post this past June, seems to have the UM faculty senate on her side, at least for the time being. "I would place her athletic boosterism in the context that she is a passionate advocate for students having a wonderful experience at their university," says senate chairman Green, who praises her for initiating "profound" changes on the academic side. "She has challenged the faculty," he reports, "to reconsider and revise the curriculum, and to do it in a way that makes more sense educationally and makes more sense to students looking at it, so that it's something other than a shopping list of courses without any rhyme or reason to it."
Some faculty members are hoping Shalala will also usher in some profound changes in the academic expectations placed on football players. Thomas Petersen declines to comment on the specifics of the Johnson case, but he believes UM's president should take action to address issues surrounding sports and scholarship. He envisions the formation of a committee of athletic-department staff, professors, students, and administrators that would work toward making sports and academics "mesh better" at UM. (Since 1995 only 41 percent of the school's football players have graduated, according to figures the university provides the NCAA. Stanford University, another private college that recently fielded a Rose Bowl contender, had an 83-percent graduation rate in the same period.)
Petersen also thinks UM needs a form of judicial reform. "There should be a way they justify a decision to overrule the Undergraduate Honor Council by citing precedents," he says. "Unless you do that, the perception is that they're being arbitrary." He rejects a disclaimer posted on the honor council's Website that reads: "There is no precedent taken into account when determining a sanction." Scoffs Petersen: "I don't know what the hell that means. There's a whole body of law around administrative proceedings. Like in a judicial proceeding, you cite your precedents. You say why you're doing it. Whenever you have a decision-making body making a decision and not saying why, you're leaving yourself open to criticism, and that's what's happening here. What is the real story? What are the precedents nobody wants to discuss?"
In contrast to Shalala's silence, faculty senate chairman Steven Green speaks candidly about the issues arising from the Johnson case. For example he believes appeals of honor-council decisions should be eliminated. "The problem with appeals is not limited to athletes," says Green, who was an honor-council member at the California Institute of Technology in the early Sixties. "The problem is that whenever there is a reduction in a sentence imposed by the honor council, I think it creates a problem. I'd rather see the entire thing stay within the honor council and not have administrators second-guess what the honor council decides."
Green allows that there might be "a rare, occasional instance" in which a student was so emotionally distraught that an appeal should be heard. "I'm speaking not with regard to athletics at all," he elaborates. "One can imagine that a student is so emotionally upset and going through a really tough time because a parent or sibling or spouse is in a terminal-disease state, and a student takes a stupid shortcut academically that's a dishonest shortcut and is found guilty and receives a penalty." Under such circumstances, he believes, the appeal should be heard by a separate group of independent students, not administrators.
Green is one of the few UM faculty members willing to broach such subjects publicly. Professors teaching in the university's sociology department -- popular among football players -- are reported to be particularly cautious. Recently they have been in a state of "fear and loathing" and in a "bunker mentality," according to the department source who requested anonymity. An assistant professor in the department warns, "I can tell you nobody is going to talk to you from their [campus] office."
Several sources say the apprehension is in part the result of an investigation launched by the administration to discover whether one or more sociology professors disclosed Johnson's confidential honor-council suspension in e-mail postings on CanesTime.com, a Website devoted to UM sports. Shortly before the New Times article appeared March 7, university provost Luis Glaser reportedly summoned sociology department chairman Dale Chitwood and another professor to his office and angrily notified them of the probe. "The administration's zeal to find out who leaked what to whom is misplaced and a little bit dishonest," says the sociology department source who requested anonymity. "I don't think everybody is rushing to protect Andre Johnson. They are protecting themselves." And perhaps they are also protecting an exceedingly valuable commodity: the University of Miami's football program.
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A former Hurricanes lineman who is now playing in the National Football League (one of 43 UM alumni currently signed to the NFL) contends that a full-year suspension for Johnson would be too costly. "Doing that would keep the kid from graduating," he argues. "That would cheat him of millions of dollars as well. He would miss a year of growing and experience on the field. And if he didn't make it to the pros -- arguably because he sat out a year -- and then doesn't even have a degree either, where is he then? He's now wasted four years of his life for nothing. Obviously I'm biased. He's a great player."
The NFL player speculates that the Andre Johnson imbroglio might not have happened under coach Butch Davis, Larry Coker's predecessor. He recalls a cheating incident his freshman year involving a football player who was not called before the honor council. "Davis basically said, If it happens again, I will kick your ass so far out of this school that you won't get on a field ever again.' And I believe he had the kind of clout to make that happen."
The Sun-Sentinel quoted Coach Coker as saying he thought Johnson's summer suspension was "a severe penalty" and "we're disappointed about that."
Advice from the NFL lineman: "If he sat them all down and said, Look, this is what's going to happen this time. But I kid you not, next time this happens someone's not going to be here,' I think that's enough to keep it from happening again. But cheating is part of school. If it weren't, there wouldn't be rules against it."