Saturday, March 6, 2010

Things Fall Apart--the SUNY Binghamton Basketball Mess & Failed College Leadership

I have been following the sad and compelling story of the implosion of the SUNY Binghamton athletic program. The fate of the athletic program at this academically excellent public institution deserves careful scrutiny. The SUNY Board of Trustees recently released a four month long,  $900,000 investigative report of what happened at the University. Its long time President Lois LaFleur, after throwing everyone else off the boat, finally jumped off herself with a retirement for "personal reasons."

The report team was chaired by Judith Kaye, a senior partner at the law firm and former Chief Justice of the New York supreme court. It distills the story of an athletic program and basketball team torn apart by undermining university admissions standards, arbitrary intervention by the President and Provost and a team decimated by arrests, drug dealing, violent assaults and academic failure and fraud. The sordid story appeared on the pages of the NewYork Times and serves as a poster child for all that can and does go wrong in NCAA athletics.

The point of the game is how quickly an entire program can be destroyed. It emphasizes how vital the admissions process is and how the academics of an athlete program can be subverted with lightening speed if the President and athletic director fail to monitor and, instead, collude to win over all other considerations. 

The Report spells out fundamental lessons for all program. Every college athletic program needs   needs strong structural supports to maintain the academic integrity against the cross pressures of Division I athletics. The undertows of Division IA sports pull against keeping the academic welfare of the student athletes front and center. The need to win to gain the recognition and pay off or justify the facilities is amplified by college’s ruthless willingness to fire coaches who succeed in graduating students but do not win championships or make it into NCAA tournaments.  Close to the majority of football coaches fired in the last two years had winning records.

It is an article of faith for the NCAA that an athletic program needs strong presidential support to maintain its integrity against outside forces. This Presidential support should be buttressed by significant structural design.
1)     The admissions process needs to be insulated from outside pressures so that students admitted have some change of succeeding at the university.
2)      The students admitted, especially the at risk students, need deep academic support that gives them the mentoring and tutoring to get the tools to succeed academically and in life when they graduate.
3)      This support system of tutors and academic monitoring must be tightly controlled to avoid cheating or special treatment. The academic support matters profoundly because the revenue sports recruit a significant percentage of minority students with awful academic backgrounds and without social support networks to reinforce academic pursuits. To bring underprepared students into selective universities without clearly assessing the students’ willingness to work and the university’s academic support system is simple exploitation.

The SUNY Binghamton debacle goes wrong from the top down. The NCAA creed insists that Presidents must control the integrity of the athletic Department. Presidents have a number of tools to accomplish this: appointing the Athletic Director (AD); overseeing the budget process; overseeing the Provost and relevant Deans and Vice Provosts who administer academics and admissions; the Faculty Athletic Representative who is a faculty member who reports to the President and has the task to watch over the academic and compliance integrity. The FAR can bring issues directly to the President.

The NCAA model requires an engaged President, not one who outsources oversight of athletics to a Vice President or Vice Provost.  The irony of SUNY Binghamton is that President Lois LeFleur was too involved in the program She invested time, reputation and capital in moving the program to Division I and building a new facility. She desired a championship team to enhance public recognition. She viewed athletic success and visibility as a capstone to her stewardship of the academic portion of the university. To build a winner, she micro-managed issues; stayed on top of recruiting of top players—the AD would email her progress reports on recruits and teams; replaced the FAR with a faculty member nominated by her AD as more friendly to athletics. In critical actions she intervened in the admissions process on to help get student athletes into the university whom admissions had rejected.

The President’s involvement subverted the creation of an athletic program that had structural integrity. The keystone for any program at an academically select university is high and carefully monitored admissions standards and process.  This intersection determines whether a university is serious about bringing in young student athletes who can not only compete in athletics but stand a chance to thrive in the classroom and gain a degree.

A successful admissions process for selective institutions requires several things. First, the admissions process needs to be autonomous from athletic influence. The admissions process must be insulated and protected from outside pressure from coaches, athletic directors and boosters. Second, the admissions process needs strong faculty support. This can be in the form of strong standards and limits upon the number of very high at risk students who are allowed in. Third, it needs either a faculty committee to review the at-risk students or a faculty appeal process to review students.

Binghamton with ample help from its President destroyed  the integrity of admissions. It rejected a faculty admissions committee because it might hinder coaches’ ability to build winning teams. Written policies stated that all contact with admissions should only be through the Director of Compliance. Instead coaches and athletic directors would contact and harass admissions personnel. Worst still, the FAR, who should be the last line of defense to support admissions standards, actively worked outside of admissions to overturn their academic and character based decisions.

The University permitted the athletic director and coaches to do end runs and meet with Deans, especially the Dean of the School of Community and Public Affairs That Dean enabled at risk student athletes to congregate in a “friendly” major. The admissions process became nullified by ex parte contacts; end runs to Deans and Provosts; and finally the President’s willingness to get involved in admissions decisions to benefit teams.

The lack of structural integrity at admissions infected academic support. Once the university essentially abandoned its own admissions decisions and let in anyone the coach wanted who met the NCAA minimum qualifications, the rest followed. Student athletes congregated in one major and college. Two faculty members, with the encouragement of the FAR and the Dean of the College, took on special teaching obligations, offered independent studies; helped students with their assignments in other classes and even pressured other professors to give extensions to student athletes they were “mentoring.” The College of Community and Public Affairs with that Dean’s acquiescence and faculty enablers became a dumping ground for the students let in under pressure. The University even considered creating a special sports management degree using on line classes to benefit student athletes.

Finally, the University Faculty oversight committees were not able to get any information that tracked the performance of student athletes nor that identified the range of students now being admitted at risk to the campus. Even as restive faculty members challenged the issues and the New York Times exposed the University to embarrassment, the faculty could not get consistent data to review the effectiveness and progress of the program. Without the data the faculty could not oversee or recommend revisions in admissions or support standards.

The Report reveals how an overzealous President permitted and abetted the undermining of a system of checks and balances and oversight of the academic credibility of the program. She and her athletic director gave permission to coaches to violate the integrity of admissions and subvert academically responsible support to the admitted student athletes.

The SUNY Report spells out how a college athletic program  needs strong structural supports to maintain the academic integrity against the cross pressures of Division I athletics. The undertows of Division IA sports pull against keeping the academic welfare of the student athletes front and center. The need to win to gain the recognition and pay off or justify the facilities is amplified by  a college’s ruthless willingness to fire coaches who succeed in graduating students but do not win championships or make it into NCAA tournaments.  Close to the majority of football coaches fired in the last two years had winning records.

The Report makes incredibly clear that the quality of leadership matters profoundly. Here the President, the Provost, the FAR, and the Dean of the School of Community and Public Affairs all failed

They collaborated in ensuring that academically at risk and character challenged students would be admitted to SUNY-Binghamton. In intercollegiate athletes in the big revenue sports, at risk student athletes get admitted all the time. But I have never seen a program where the top academic officers pushed the admissions department to compromise their work. The top academic administrators  then worked to find safe harbors for the at risk students. Finally the academic officers injected a pro-athletes FAR to remove real academic oversight and  actively encouraged  two academic faculty enablers to give special courses and grades to the student athletes. The point of the game here is that the collapse occurred at the top first. The senior Academic officers sacrificed their values to cover-up the academic disaster unfolding before them.

It is not uncommon to find the perverse combination of safe majors, enabling faculty members, spotty admissions and compromised academic support. What sets Binghamton apart is that all the senior academic administrators and a major Dean collaborated to make this happen. This was a new program that did not have to go in this direction. The disaster occurred not because of lack of leadership but because the leaders wanted this to happen.

The Athletic Director clearly made all this happen by hiring a borderline coach whose penchant for "rescuing" at risk kids was well known. The AD continued the depredations by violating his own rules, hounding admissions  and directly contacting academic officers and Deans about not just admissions but setting up academic blinds for his students.

To make the complex equation work where universities bring in at risk and underprepared students as athletes, the university has to expend alot of effort to assess the "character" of the young athletes. If the young underprepared athletes are competitors in all areas of life; if they are willing to try and work hard at academics; if they are willing to live by the rules--they may not become great students, but they can grow into college students who can acquire an education. Good academic support units regularly prove that academic support, strong coaches and committed athletes can lead underprepared kids to grow into college students.

The whole academic risk of intercollegiate athletics depends upon upon young athletes of character that translates across athletics to academics. This responsiblity rests with the coach in recruting and the department in support. The AD at Binghamton failed to demand that his coaches honestly evaluate character, failed to build a strong unit of support and failed to respect the boundaries of academic achievement and sport achievement. The end result of academic and criminal and civil malfeasance rests with him as well as the academic officers who endorsed his behavior.

One of the more disturbing and bizarre aspects reported in the SUNY investigation was the President's attempt to manipulate the issue of race and athletics to attack the admissions office. This is a complex and touchy subject that pervades all the work colleges and NCAA do around admissions. At many schools the traditional admissions standards of GPA plus test scores adversely impacts  young minorities and low social economic students.

These young minority athletes are the backbone of most successful college football and basketball programs. Most universities struggle with a collision between their admission standards and the lack of preparedness of at risk minority student athletes who sustain the revenue generating TV worshipped sports. As I mentioned the only way to make this a reasonable and morally defensible risk involves strong character evaluation and strong academic support units.

The report takes acute umbrage at a troubling set of justifications for letting in unprepared and unsupported students into SUNY-BU. In a move worthy of George Orwell and 1984 newspeak, the President and athletic department charged admissions with being “racist” by balking at letting in several student athletes.

The whole world of college revenue sports is riven with issues involving race because so many of the highly successful athletes are minority students from underprepared academic background. Every selective academic institution has developed special admission programs to permit these young men and women into the university despite the fact a significant "gap" exists between their level of academic preparation and the rest of the student body.

In essence the athletic programs become a form of entry for academically ‘at risk” students into universities they would normally not be able to attend. This risk is undertaken because of their special skills in athletics. The key to any reasonable risk decision making is to have clear parameters around how high the risk is, what the institution’s tolerance for the risk is,  and what the university needs to do to mitigate the risk. In this case, the problem is that under  normal academic conditions these underprepared students would fail as students and not graduate.

These are hard topics to discuss and good admissions program make exceptional efforts to ensure that the underprepared students have the motivation to do the academic work and the support for them in the first two years to make the perilous transition from athlete to student athlete.

SUNY-Binghamton failed in this obligation and had no clear parameters to assess the academic success of students they admitted. The admissions office balked at letting in students it knew were not prepared to succeed, but the admissions office also knew that the student athletes would have no real academic support services and several had serious character issues.

Twice the head of the office of Affirmative Action questioned the admissions officers as possibly racist for not letting in or taking a chance on at risk minority students. The President herself charged her own admissions office with possible racism because they would not admit certain transfers who had under 2.0 averages and had evinced serious and dangerous behavior at other schools.

The report found the charges of racism extremely dangerous and irresponsible. It might be argued that letting in underprepared minority students into a university where they cannot succeed and where the university does not provide real academic support is racist exploitation. Many faculty believe this. On the other hand, minority coaches associations and the President at SUNY-BU have invented another form of racism which requires letting in unqualified and at-risk students even if you do not have resources to support them and have not track record of success with them.

It is one thing to bring in student in strongly supported academic program where you have experience at promoting academic success; it is another to pretend that admissions personnel trying to protect the university’s integrity and to protect the student’s ability to succeed as racist. It’s one of the most vexing and ugly discussions that weaves through NCAA and academic discussions and battles over admissions and support.

The irony of all this is that the University probably did not violate fundamental NCAA rules, which largely apply to recruiting and cheating. But it did violate its own standards, sabotaged its own ideals, and created a culture that ended with assaults, dope dealing, thefts, academic malfeasance, but no real violations. The University ended humiliated and embarrassed and morally compromised, but no major NCAA sanctions will occur. It’s an object lesson for existing and wannabe Presidents and ADs about how you cannot let go for a minute and once Presidents set precedents that weaken standards, things fall apart very fast.

The President and senior academic officers willingness to resort to the race card in addition to their disregard of admissions and provision of support demonstrate the difficult and complex skeins that hold together academics and athletics. They reveal how quickly the whole thing can be unwound by reckless leaders.

1 comment:

  1. There definitely were NCAA violations at Binghamton according to the report. One case would be the assistant coach allegedly giving a player gas money. Another would be the situation where a player downloaded a paper from the Internet and then had an assistant coach change words around on the plagiarized assignment so it would not look plagiarized. They had to plagiarize already plagiarized assignments! Now that's sad. A single case of small illegal player payment and a single case of academic fraud may not lead to major sanctions (the NCAA's current idea of harsh punishment is a joke to begin with), but I think Binghamton will be an easy target for the NCAA because there is a lot of public evidence and Binghamton is a nobody. Their poor performance and lack of presence at the tournament will not hurt their bottom line one bit. As Tark the Shark might say, "The NCAA is so mad at USC that they put Binghamton on probation!"

    Since you are part of a faculty, I am curious as to your opinion regarding the treatment of Sally Dear, the whistleblowing adjunct professor at Binghamton. Her saga is well chronicled in the report. I've mentioned her frequently on my site (Link 1, Link 2, Link 3). Is this a real problem for adjunct and nontenured faculty especially in regards to athletics fraud?

    Finally, I found a user comment from a story describing the events at Binghamton. The comment described the differences between a newbie or novice cheater like Binghamton and experienced cheaters at the big time sports schools. I thought the description was pretty accurate, what do you think?