Marshall Column: Analyzing AU Grades Case

Wading through the hyperbole, let's take a look at what is actually alleged in the New York Times article concerning classes that Auburn athletes and other students took in Auburn's sociology department.

For years, I have told friends who are Auburn fans and friends who are Alabama fans the same thing when the opposing school is having problems:

"Don't laugh too much, because your time is coming."

In the wake of allegations by Sociology professor James Gundlach that Thomas Petee, the interim chair of the department, gave special treatment to athletes, is this Auburn's time?

There's no way to know for sure, of course, until the ongoing internal probe is over and the whole story is told. The New York Times, apparently becoming aware that others of us were onto the story, rushed its long-awaited piece onto the Internet late Thursday afternoon.

The reaction was predictable--hand-wringing and embarrassment by Auburn fans, chortling by Alabama fans who have waited not-so-patiently through their own problems for something bad to happen to Auburn, or at least to Tennessee.

How bad is it? If one assumes that everything that Gundlach says is true, it certainly isn't good. It's certainly embarrassing for Auburn. But how bad is it in terms of Auburn's future?

The strong implication, of course, is that Auburn's strong Academic Performance Rating--the highest among public universities--was inflated.

Wading through the hyperbole and the rehashing of past Auburn problems and perceived problems, let's take a look at what is actually alleged:

Allegation No. 1: Petee was carrying the workload of 3 1/3 professors in teaching so-called directed study courses, courses in which students study independently under the supervision of a professor instead of regularly attending classes. Further, former star tailback Carnell Williams took only two courses in the spring semester of his senior year, both one-on-one courses with Petee.

Is it an infractions problem? Only if athletes had access to the courses and normal students didn't. There is no indication that was the case. In fact, it is clear that wasn't the case. What Williams took the second semester of his senior year doesn't mean a lot. His eligibility was used up. Had he left school at the end of the fall semester, he would have left in good standing. Thus, whatever he did in the spring semester, had no impact on Auburn's APR.

Allegation No. 2: A number of athletes took multiple classes with Petee over their college careers, helping to improve their grade point averages and helping them stay eligible. More than a quarter of the students who took the direct study courses under Petee were athletes.

Is it an infraction problem? As a rule, if an athlete takes advantage of something that is available to all students, it is not an infraction problem. Some players sought the easiest courses available. Maybe someone should have encouraged them to seek more challenging courses. But an infraction it is not.

Allegation No. 3: The sociology department became a "dumping ground" for athletes. Some athletes were encouraged by Auburn academic counselors to pursue those majors.

Is it an infraction problem? No chance. It is well-known among Auburn students that sociology, which also covers criminology, is one of the least challenging majors offered. More than 95 percent of the students pursuing those majors are not football players. Is anyone truly surprised that players who arrived with poor academic backgrounds ended up in the major that gave them the best chance to pass?

Allegation No. 4: Eighteen members of the unbeaten 2004 team took 97 hours of directed study classes in 2004-05 and had a combined GPA of 3.31. In all other classes, their average was 2.13.

Is it in infraction problem? Only if they got credit for work they didn't do or got higher grades simply because they were athletes.

Allegation No. 5: More than two months into the fall semester of his senior year, defensive end Doug Langenfeld discovered that he was taking a class that, because of a scheduling error, would result in his not being eligible for Auburn's bowl game. Academic counselor Bret Wohlers arranged a "one-assignment class," in which Langenfeld made a B and was eligible.

Is it an infraction problem? If a class was created for Langenfeld because he was an athlete, it could be. Langenfeld told me on Wednesday night that it was a "nine-week" course, which is allowed by university policy if the work is essentially the same as a full-semester course.

As I read it, those are the main issues raised by reporter Pete Thamel. We don't know yet what issues, if any, will be raised by the internal investigation that was initiated in early June by the office of the provost. If there is no more than what has been alleged, it is highly unlikely that the NCAA would get involved.

Does that make it OK? Of course it doesn't. The whole story has a sleazy feel to it, one with which no university would want to be associated. Is there evidence that there was improper activity in the athletic department itself? Not that I have seen, but then again, all the evidence isn't in.

Whether Petee did not follow university guidelines or whether he should be disciplined is a decision for university administrators to make when their investigation is done.

A lot of fine accomplishments by Auburn football players will now be called into question. That might be the most unfortunate byproduct of all this.

Twenty-one players have played in Auburn's last three bowl games as college graduates.

Three of them majored in sociology or criminology.

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