Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Independent Studies

Education should be exercise; it has become massage. ~Martin H. Fischer

Auburn University is in trouble. Just how much trouble depends on whether you think an educational institution should actually worry about educational matters or whether everything that happens at a college revolves around athletics.

For the rest of the world, allow me to explain how Auburn fits in the great scheme of things down here. Auburn is Alabama's other football factory, living in the shadow of the University of Alabama. Even with the recent problems of the Crimson Tide coupled with the success of the Tiger's program, Auburn is “the other school” to the majority of Alabamians. To put things in perspective, Montgomery is just slightly farther from Auburn than Birmingham is from Tuscaloosa. Yet you will find many more Bama fans in Montgomery than you will Auburn fans.

When I first came down here, I was led to believe that Auburn was the superior educational institution, even if the football team wasn't up to snuff. Strangely, as the football team has gotten better, it seems that the educational program has gone down the tubes. A couple of years ago, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) put the school on probation because of mismanagement and micromanagement by the trustees, who seemed to insinuate themselves into every little detail of the school, particularly the sports programs. All of this bad management was not helping educational efforts at the school.

As a result of the nationally embarrassing attempt by the president of the university to fire coach Tommy Tuberville, for, horror of horrors, having a mediocre season, both the president and the athletic director were invited to take their services elsewhere. It seems that this pair of geniuses didn't see any potential problems with interviewing a coach still under contract to another school without said school's permission.

Enter interim president Ed Richardson, former State Superintendent of Schools. His priorities were clear from the start: Improve the athletic programs. He went about ensuring that Coach Tuberville (who went 11-0 the next season) got a big raise and contract extension, firing the basketball coach (who had time remaining on his contract), and firing the baseball coach.

Oh, I know. Supposedly these things were done by the new AD. But if you think he made moves without direction from the university president, you don't know much about big-time college athletics.

So Auburn athletics looked happy (aside from the amount they were paying to ex-coaches fired with time left on their contracts). Meanwhile, the educational side was imploding.

The other day a story broke about a sociology instructor or professor named, I think, Gundlach. I say, “I think”, because for reasons I will explain as we go along, he has disappeared from this story. It seems that Prof. G, we'll call him, was unhappy because a criminology professor by the name of Peete, who happens to the the interim (seems everyone at Auburn these days is “interim”) chair of Prof. G's department, supposedly gave a couple of hundred “independent study” courses. Independent study courses, where a student gets a reading list and prepares some work based on that on his/her own, are common enough. For one professor to have 152 of these courses in a given semester, though, is not common.

Prof. G felt that Prof. Peete was demeaning the sociology department by his actions.

By the way, the “sociology” department is my term; the department actually includes criminology, sociology, anthropology, and social work. Most schools have one of these catch-all departments, which fill out a curriculum but are not currently highly supported. Different schools have different areas in their catch-all; this set is Auburn's.

At any rate, because no one seemed to be listening to him, Prof. G decided to perform an analysis which showed that 20% of the students taking Prof. Peete's “courses” were athletes. Then, conveniently enough, this report got leaked to the New York Times. Of course, Prof. G claims he has no idea how they got hold of the information. Suddenly, instead of a boring academic squabble, we've got an athletic scandal!

Bullpuckey. Look at it this way. Eighty percent of the students in these courses were non-athletes. The athletes didn't get particularly high grades in the courses. In other words, the word got out that Prof. Peete was giving “cake” coursework, and some of the athletes jumped on the bandwagon. What gets lost in making this an athletic scandal is that Prof. G's statistics also showed a number of these courses in other departments, again not just offered for athletes. Seems like there is a lot of independent studying going on at Auburn.

What we've got here is an educational problem, not an athletic one. The intermim adinistration's focus on athletics may have allowed this sort of hanky panky to go unnoticed by the powers that be, but athletes didn't benefit to any obvious extent based on Prof. G's own data, evidently. I say “evidently” because I can only go on a summary of his statistics given by a Birmingham reporter who interviewed him.

The funny bit comes now. It seems that things got a little out of hand. The sports pages in Montgomery and Birmingham are full of the story; the New York Times is reporting it; everyone is up in arms one way or the other. It also turns out that the school, according to interim-President Richardson was already investigating the matter.

Oddly, Prof. G seems to have disappeared from the story. According to the reporter, Prof. G has declined to participate in the ongoing investigation of Prof. Peete's courses, saying he's provided his data and sees no reason to explain it further. His name no longer appears in articles on the subject.

I don't know what Prof. G's motives were, and I don't care. What he did was take a genuinely questionable academic situation, having little or nothing to do with providing favors to athletes, and blew the athletics part completely out of proportion in order to get attention. He has set the stage for the school to announce that there are no NCAA violations (of course there aren't; the courses were available to everyone and the athletes didn't get favorable treatment). Therefore, case closed.

And once that dust has settled, what will become of Prof. G and interim department chair Peete? If I were to hazard a guess based on what I know of academic politics, Prof. G, who was reported to have personal differences with Prof. Peete prior to making his concerns public, will be teaching sociology somewhere else. Prof. Peete, after scaling back his activities for a while, will return to giving his “independent study” courses by the boatload.

I hope it doesn't go down like that. It would be much better for Auburn to remember that they are an educational institution and that they should clean up their educational house with the same gusto with which they approached improving athletics. Perhaps, they will, but given the behavior of large universities in recent years, I doubt it. Worrying about academics would interfere with school presidents worrying over making the BCS bowl games and raking in enough athletic revenues to pay for their egregious athletic outlays.

After all, they've got to pay all those ex-coaches somehow.

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