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Division I academic groups begin academic misconduct talks

Committee, cabinet seek answers to the question of when the NCAA should get involved

By Michelle Brutlag Hosick

Division I has been wrestling with one of the hottest topics in college sports for more than a year now: academic misconduct. What role should the NCAA play? Should the Association be involved at all? How should it be defined?

“We didn’t go into it thinking we were absolutely in the wrong place (with academic fraud and misconduct rules),” said Carrie Leger, former associate athletics director at North Carolina State University and a member of the advisory group. “We wanted to have a robust discussion to determine if the rules guide the campus the way they need to when we’re dealing with these issues.”

To address academic misconduct issues, the membership now uses ethical conduct rules, which prohibit a student-athlete or current or former school staff member from arranging for or providing fraudulent academic credit or fraudulent transcripts.

A membership committee clarified the rules to help schools decide when academic misconduct should be reported to the NCAA or when it should be handled according to the school’s policies that apply to all students.

The Legislative Review and Interpretations Committee said that if a school staff member was involved in arranging for fraudulent academic credit or false transcripts, it should be reported to the NCAA. The committee also decided that the offense should be reported to the NCAA any time a student-athlete is involved in arranging for unearned academic credit or false transcripts, whether or not the misconduct resulted in a student-athlete’s participation in competition while ineligible.

However, if a student-athlete cheats on a test or plagiarizes a paper without involvement from a school staff member, the school does not need to report it to the NCAA unless the student-athlete participates in competition because the fraudulent grade allows them to remain eligible.

That interpretation has led to some confusion in the membership, Leger said, particularly in cases in which a school’s internal investigation did not find serious misconduct according to the school’s policy, but NCAA rules still require the allegation to be reported.

“It’s been really confusing, not only for the membership, but also for the media,” she said. “People outside looking in are wondering how in the world it’s possible” that a school should report misconduct even when it found none. In other cases, the media questioned instnaces when the NCAA has not been more involved.

The stakes are high for student-athletes accused of NCAA ethical rules violations For starters, student athletes can lose eligibility permanently, though mitigating factors can reduce that penalty to sitting out one or more seasons. The missed seasons would still count against the student-athlete’s four seasons of competition.

The Academic Cabinet and Committee on Academic Performance discussed the issue throughout the summer and fall, but now the groups need feedback from the membership to decide if any changes to current rules are necessary. If the membership does want change, the key questions remain: How should the NCAA define academic misconduct? And, when should the NCAA get involved?

 “I don’t see it as a black-and-white situation,” said David Clough, faculty athletics representative at Colorado and a member of the Committee on Academic Performance. “There can be so many different people involved, and it can be very difficult to document the details of an action like this beyond the shadow of a doubt. For example, you could have an instructor with the reputation of being friendly toward athletes, but when you examine their record in terms of giving grades, it’s very difficult to prove favoritism. You may have advisers in athletics telling athletes to take that course. Unless you can clearly show some type of preferential treatment, it’s difficult.”

Another complicating factor, illustrated by the discussions at cabinet and committee meetings over the last several months, is the different ways Division I member schools address academic improprieties on their own campus, from matters handled only by an accusing professor to those that constitute violations of a student code of conduct.

“Everybody has slightly different standards. We all want to make sure that all our students have academic integrity, especially in this day and age where everything is so much more accessible,” said Jackie Blackett, senior associate athletics director at Columbia University and chair of the Academic Cabinet.

Those who have been working on this issue for some time, including Blackett, Clough and Leger, believe that discussions will continue, in part because reasonable people can look at the same set of facts and come to completely different conclusions.

“It’s not an easily remedied situation,” Blackett said. “Some issues, you can look at the numbers, study the data and have an answer. This is not as quantifiable because you’re talking about integrity. Integrity is not something you can put your finger on and label as clear. But we need to talk about this because we would like the students who are competing to be on as level a playing field as they can be.”

Answering these questions won’t solve all the issues with academic misconduct rules. Many different approaches are possible: The Committee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement could review its guidelines; enforcement could get involved if schools don’t follow their own academic misconduct investigation policies.

Wherever the Division I membership lands on this issue, those involved with it from the beginning have a simple hope: that people on campus know what must be reported to the NCAA and what can be handled at the campus level.

“I hope, at the end of this discussion, when I’m in a room with practitioners or even faculty athletics representatives, asking when you have to report an academic misconduct issue to the NCAA doesn’t prompt an hour-long, mind-boggling conversation,” Leger said. “I hope we can all say we get it. For me, that would be success.”

 

The Committee on Academic Performance met in Indianapolis Oct. 9-10. In addition to the academic fraud discussion, the committee also:

  • Noted that in a few instances schools have missed multiple deadlines in the data collection and/or APP penalty waiver processes resulting in final decisions regarding postseason competition eligibility not coming until late summer or early fall.  As a result, student-athletes who meet the committee’s policy for transferring, and have an interest in doing so, don’t have the opportunity to leave.  The committee expressed concern about this from a student-athlete well-being perspective and adopted a policy regarding the overall data and Academic Performance Program penalty waiver process timeline. The committee decided that schools that have not completed their data and/or waiver processes by June 1 must notify their student-athletes of potential postseason competition restrictions and their opportunity to transfer if they are entering their last season of eligibility.  The policy change allows affected student-athletes to transfer if there is a possibility that their final postseason opportunity may be impacted.
  • Adopted a policy that, by direction of the committee chair, allows the formation of hearing panels to hear appeals of teams that have a Level 3 penalty and are required to meet with the committee in person because they repeatedly have not met the 930 Academic Progress Rate benchmark. The committee concluded that the number of teams appealing could increase substantially because the 930 APR requirement will be fully implemented with the next data collection, potentially making it logistically impossible to have the full committee hear every appeal. The policy addresses concerns about consistency of decisions, diversity on panels and preserving the authority for the full committee to render the final decision.