Archive for Saturday, October 14, 2006

Simons: Athletics, medicine, journalism pose challenge for chancellors

October 14, 2006

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A former Kansas University chancellor once said, "Being a chancellor would be enjoyable and a piece of cake if he didn't have to worry about the athletic department, the medical school and the journalism school."

This was said some years ago, but the observation seems to remain a fairly accurate assessment of what goes on at major university campuses and where troubles often arise.

For one reason or another, the KU School of Medicine has had fairly constant unrest, marked by turf wars among doctors and researchers. Issues have included an embarrassing heart-transplant controversy years ago, questionable leadership at times, disagreements over how much fiscal support should be provided to the medical school by the now-independent KU hospital, the move of a number of heart doctors from St. Luke's Hospital to KU, the practice of KU doctors operating private medical corporations, and, most recently, efforts by some at KU Med, St. Luke's Hospital and Children's Mercy Hospital, pursued without discussion with the Kansas Legislature, to form some kind of alliance that would not necessarily be helpful to KU.

The announcements earlier this week concerning NCAA sanctions against KU's athletic program certainly illustrate the accuracy of the former KU chancellor about major college athletic programs providing a fertile ground for headaches. At KU, as well as at a large percentage of other major state-aided universities, problems in the athletic department focus unflattering attention on the schools.

Yes, journalism schools and the actions of editors and reporters on school papers can and do cause headaches for a school's administration and, in such cases, there is little a dean or senior journalism faculty member can do to minimize this danger.

The large majority of college papers are independent from any control other than what might be considered common sense or good taste, and, even in these areas, there are frequent abuses.

KU is fortunate to have Ann Brill heading the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications. She is quietly but effectively strengthening the school with the goal of building it back to the national prominence it occupied in years past.

Getting back to the KU athletic scene and the NCAA crackdown.

In the eyes of many alumni and friends, the most damaging and embarrassing part of the review was the disclosure that a graduate assistant provided answers to academic tests taken by academically marginal young men being recruited by KU. Most KU alumni and friends consider the academic excellence of the school its greatest asset. Anything that compromises this reputation is harmful and embarrassing.

An individual providing a sports jacket to KU basketball players who had completed their eligibility doesn't seem like a serious offense. The man who had befriended a young Oklahoma boy who grew into a fine basketball player is understandable. However, it was dumb for KU officials, if they knew about it at an early time, to allow this Oklahoma man to continue to provide assistance when the young man became a highly recruited basketball player.

It is reported Chancellor Robert Hemenway is the individual who became suspicious and called for an investigation.

Paul Buskirk, who heads student support services for KU athletes, is one of the athletic department's finest assets, and it is hard to believe he knew or would have allowed a graduate assistant to help the junior college students cheat on their tests to gain admission to KU.

Buskirk has high standards, and it is highly unlikely he would tolerate anything illegal.

KU Athletic Director Lew Perkins has many critics, and he has caused numerous formerly loyal and general alumni and friends to change their thinking about KU, the administration and the athletic department. Some even have changed their plans for fiscal support of the school.

This is likely to continue, given Perkins' manner, but if he indeed is the person inside the athletic department who blew the whistle, cracked down and demanded full compliance with NCAA rules, he is to be thanked and congratulated.

The KU athletic department cheating matter is serious, highly embarrassing and wrong. It is wrong to justify such actions by suggesting other schools are doing the same thing but haven't been caught.

However, consider what Minneapolis Star Tribune reporters recently discovered.

"The U (Minnesota) provides athletic scholarships to more students with very low college entrance test scores than most schools in the Big Ten.

"Since 2001, in several key sports, the U has admitted more scholarship athletes who scored 17 or below on the national ACT exam than any of the seven Big Ten schools that responded to Freedom of Information requests from the Star Tribune.

"The most glaring numbers belong to the University's football program, which in five recruiting seasons gave scholarships to 16 players with ACT scores of 15 or below (the maximum score is 36).

"... In coach Glen Mason's football program about one-third of the scholarship athletes signed since 2001 scored 17 or lower on the ACT.

" ... Not only is Minnesota at the bottom of the most recent Big Ten graduation rates for scholarship athletes, its graduation rate for black male athletes - 24 percent in the latest NCAA report - is near the bottom nationally among major colleges.

"Of the 56 Division I football teams in the post-season bowl games last year, Minnesota ranked 53rd in the graduation rates among its black players...

"Minnesota President Robert Bruininks and Coach Mason (who coached at KU from 1988 to 1996) refused to talk with the Star Tribune reporters but earlier this summer said, 'I think any time a young man has an opportunity to play college football and it doesn't work out, I think it is a travesty and I think it is a failure. There's a lot of responsibility that goes with failure on both sides.'

"One of Mason's best running backs, Gary Russell, failed at least one class during each of the four semesters that he was enrolled at the University, including the summer of 2005. He earned only 28 credits out of a possible 51 and had a combined grade-point average of 1.829. He did receive three A's in Football Coaching, Weight Training and Beginning Tennis."

After the two-part series in the Star Tribune, university officials have said they intend to review whether Mason and members of his staff violated NCAA rules by aiding Russell.

The Minnesota story is just one more example of the importance university leaders, the schools' alumni and others place on winning and filling stadiums and fieldhouses.

There are many excellent and true "student athletes," but in far too many cases, there is a great deal of hypocrisy on the part of chancellors, presidents and athletic directors who talk so much about treating scholarship athletes the same as other students, that these young men and women are at the particular school as students first and athletes second and that getting a good education is the school's first priority for scholarship athletes.

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