Archive for Saturday, September 4, 1999

SATURDAY COLUMN

September 4, 1999

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Kansas University alumni and friends are extremely loyal and supportive of the school. They are quick to offer assistance and generous in their private financial support, as well as being strong and effective spokespeople for the institution.

As loyal alumni and friends, they perhaps wear blinders from time to time, focusing only on the positives rather than acknowledging or giving much thought to any negatives associated with the university. They like to think KU is a far better state university than most and that it offers a superior academic program for students.

That is why a recent report on the graduation rates of KU athletes must have come as a surprise and shock to many of these loyal friends of the school. Based on figures supplied by the university to NCAA officials, only 43 percent of the school's athletes graduated during the last reporting period.

This latest report focuses on the entering class of 1992-93 because the NCAA gives student-athletes six years to complete a degree.

Again, only 43 percent of the athletes coming to KU in the 1992-93 school year had graduated from KU within six years. This is a shocker and something that cannot bring pride to university alumni and friends.

Another shocker, perhaps just as big, if not bigger, is that only 55 percent of all KU students graduate within six years.

Various KU officials try to explain or justify the graduation rate of athletes and rightfully point out that athletes who transfer to another school are not counted as graduating, even if they complete a degree elsewhere. KU officials say there was a particularly high number of transfers among the athletes who came to KU in 1992-93, which contributed to the poor graduation rate. Be that as it may, it is a sad and disappointing situation.

In fact, for this latest reporting period, KU ranked 10th, second from the bottom, among all Big 12 Conference schools in its graduate rate of athletes. The only schools with lower figures were Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Missouri topped the report with 66 percent of its athletes graduating within six years.

Some years ago, former KU Chancellor Gene Budig initiated a much improved and more focused tutoring program for KU athletes because he was embarrassed by their academic performance. He approved and encouraged major changes in the program and, from all indications, the situation improved. But apparently, there has been some backsliding, and the current NCAA report raises many questions.

Do KU coaches give sufficient attention to the academic records of those they are recruiting, or are they too focused on whether a young man can dunk a basketball, pass a football the length of the field or run a sub-four-minute mile, or whether a young woman can spike a volleyball or pitch a no-hitter in softball, and not concerned enough about how the young men and women will do in the classroom?

A recent meeting of top amateur athletic officials in Tucson gave special emphasis to the importance of coaches analyzing the ability and intent of high school athletes to complete their college education before they offer scholarships to the athletes. The recent NCAA report certainly raises the point of whether KU coaches are paying enough attention to high school grades and the motivation of these young men and women.

Could it be that KU expects more of its athletes and does not offer as many soft, made-for-athletes courses as other schools provide to allow athletes to receive grades that will keep them eligible and lead to graduation?

How about situations that have been uncovered at the University of Minnesota, where tutors have been writing papers and reports for athletes, many of whom did not even attend classes, and yet they received good grades, kept their eligibility and remained in school. Most KU alumni and friends would be opposed to such actions to improve graduation rates and maybe win a few more games.

In the minds of many, if a school is to compete in intercollegiate athletics and belong to a competitive conference, winning is what is important. Chancellors and coaches know students and alumni and even some faculty members want winning teams, and it takes good athletes to win. Not all good athletes are good students. In fact, many top-flight athletes are borderline students at best. There are exceptions, such as former KU basketball players Jacque Vaughn, T.J. Pugh, Ryan Robertson, Jerod Haase and Dr. Ken Koenigs and former KU football players Dr. Ron Oelschlager of Lawrence and Dr. Mike McCoy of Topeka.

But why can't KU attract more top student athletes? What would it take for KU to lead the Big 12 Conference every year in the number of athletes graduating from the school? Why can't a state-assisted university attract the type of student athletes that schools such as Stanford, Duke and some other private schools recruit? Is there something that says state schools such as KU can't be considered among the elite in recruiting athletes with strong academic potential?

KU is a good school in so many ways. In fact, it is recognized as one of the better state-assisted universities. It is a member of the Association of American Universities, the top echelon of state schools, and various departments are ranked among the nation's best.

This being the case, why can't the school have more athletes who receive their degree within a six-year period? The physical demands of major college athletes are intense, but at the same time, they receive much assistance in the form of tutoring that should help them in their classwork.

The NCAA report indicates something isn't working at KU, and hopefully this embarrassing situation can be and will be corrected. Ideally, KU alumni and friends should take just as much pride in a high athlete graduation rate as they do in a winning athletic program.

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