Anatomy of a Scandal
A scandal involving bogus classes and inflated grades at the University of North Carolina encompassed about 1,500 athletes who got easy As and Bs over a span of nearly two decades, according to an investigation released in October 2014.
Most of the athletes were football players or members of the school’s cherished basketball program, which won three of its five national titles during the scandal (1993, 2005, 2009).
In all, about 3,100 students enrolled in classes they didn’t have to show up for in what was deemed a “shadow curriculum” within the former African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department from 1993 to 2011, the report by former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein found.
Many at the university hoped Wainstein’s eight-month investigation would bring some closure. Instead, it found more academic fraud than previous investigations by the NCAA and the school.
— The Associated Press
Paul Buskirk reveals his fastidious nature periodically when he carefully removes his eyeglasses, fogs each lens, reaches into his right pocket for a handkerchief, wipes the lenses clean and uses both hands to place the glasses back on the bridge of his nose just so.
It’s a constructive habit for a man in his position. He is associate athletics director for student-athlete support services at Kansas University.
Now more than ever, it’s imperative that Buskirk clearly sees everything within his purview. The volcanic academic scandal at North Carolina involving fake classes taken by an alarming number of football and basketball players in recent decades has given those with Buskirk’s job at every university reason to heighten awareness.
“I’m after safe,” said Buskirk, who has been in the department for 31 years and has headed it for 26. “I want safe.”
To that end, he said he has told his staff, “Don’t you dare look in the mirror and say it couldn’t happen here. We need to be very afraid every day that it could happen here. So we better work our tails off to make sure that our house is safe so that it never happens here. Sweat every day.”
Buskirk recalled the first time he discussed the North Carolina mess with his staff.
In the spring of 2012, when the NCAA sanctioned the North Carolina football program for improper tutor assistance, few knew it was just the beginning.
In the offices inside the Wagnon-Parrott Athletic Center, adjacent to Allen Fieldhouse, Buskirk and roughly 20 others sat around a long table in a conference room discussing the scandal. Buskirk asked those assembled to think about every program they’d ever head a rumor about, every program they’d ever had a doubt about. North Carolina wouldn’t have made anyone’s list.
“All the more reason for us to go into our closet and look at it one more time,” he told them.
The self-examination is known within the department as “Protect the House,” an ongoing process designed to keep Kansas on the right side of NCAA law in the area of academic support.
Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger expressed sentiments similar to Buskirk’s.
“There are certain things that cause you to lose sleep every night,” Zenger said. “Of course, on weekend nights you worry about every student-athlete you have and your own kids equally. I think every parent in America understands that. Well, the same thing applies every day on the field and in the weight room in terms of their physical health and in the classroom with regard to not just their educational growth, but doing it the right way.”
Buskirk said staff members solicited recommendations from other universities on “better practices.” The athletic department’s faculty representative, Susan Williams, headed an internal review. The department also asked for and received a review from the compliance arm of the provost’s office.
Buskirk laid out five areas in which he said great care is taken to make sure his department is, to use Zenger’s words, “doing it the right way.”
Tutoring and writing guidelines
KU athletics employs 100 to 110 tutors each semester. They work anywhere from five to 25 hours per week. Retired teachers, graduate students and even undergrads are the most typical applicants. The vetting process includes a series of questions aimed at uncovering the reason for the applicant’s interest.
“You talk it through a little and they say, ‘Hey, I’d really like to get involved in working with the basketball program.’ That’s the first sign, ‘Ding!’ That doesn’t make you bad, but you need to ask a few more questions,” Buskirk said. “So your vetting the process to find out where the true motives are. Are you here because you’re an educator or are you here because you want to be a celebrity hangout? We have no patience for the latter. It does us no good whatsoever.”
Kansas athletics has a 70-page tutoring handbook packed with do’s and don’ts. For example, tutors are not allowed to put pen to paper when helping a student with a writing assignment. Same goes for editing a document via email.
Tutors also undergo compliance education periodically and are required to pass a compliance test before they can start work. The guidelines are firm.
“Case in point: All tutoring has to be done here on site,” Buskirk said. “Rare exception on that because (of) the notion that every 10 feet away from our building makes me 100 percent more anxious. If you can’t see it, you have no idea what’s going on, so it’s got to happen here.”
Safety first, he reiterated.
“We’re like hawks watching this whole process,” he said. “If we sense anything’s gone awry, we’re sensitive on this whole process, because we can be as safe as the warmest blanket that Snoopy ever found in his life, but if one … tutor or full-time staff … intentionally breaks a rule, not inadvertently, but intentionally breaks a rule, it crashes the whole house of cards and there’s no defense.”
KU student athletes are not taking nearly as many online courses as athletes at some other schools, Buskirk said.
“Online courses scare the hell out of me. They really do,” he said.
“There’s only so much you can control. And this isn’t just (with) athletes. If an athlete or a non-athlete wants to try to take advantage of an online circumstance, and there’s not a protection out there, there’s not much anybody can do. You control what you can control. So our message to our students always is you will fly straight and do this the right way and you will not cheat.”
Before engaging in tutoring with a student taking a course online, Buskirk said, the instructor is sent his department’s tutor-program guidelines.
“Actually, a couple of times they have written and said, ‘You have tighter guidelines than we’ve ever seen in any other engagement with anybody else,’” Buskirk said. “And that’s fine. I like to hear that too, so that’s about all we can control.”
With the help of academic counselors, students inform teachers of travel schedules and try to arrange to take tests before they leave for a trip. If the teacher thinks that compromises the integrity of the test, arrangements are made to have someone, such as a compliance official, a faculty rep or academic counselor, proctor the exam on the road. If that can’t be arranged, most universities, Kansas included, have testing centers on campus and an academic counselor will arrange a time for the student to take an exam there. Or, the teacher might prefer that the student take the test when he returns from the trip.
Buskirk said his department facilitates roughly 250 exams a year. Soon, he said, students will be required to sign a document saying they did not cheat on the proctored exam, a practice picked up from another university.
“The reason we’re so protective of that one is because our faculty have given us this affirmation of faith that we will do this the right way,” Buskirk said. “If we screw this up even once, we’ll blow this for everyone else on campus and we know that.”
Buskirk shared an anecdote of a student who attempted to beat the system. Instead of leaving his backpack in a separate space from where he was sent to take the test, as he was told to do, he sneaked it with him, pulled his cellphone out, took a picture of the test and shared it with his girlfriend and another friend.
“He didn’t have the advantage of an exam beforehand but they did,” Buskirk said. He was found out and confronted, and he confessed.
“We don’t like to bust one of our own, but he did that,” Buskirk said. “I don’t know what the consequence was, but it was whatever was listed in (the teacher’s) academic guidelines.”
For roughly the first half of Buskirk’s 31 years at Kansas, coaches were allowed to proctor exams. Now, he said, that is forbidden, no exceptions.
Buskirk said he sought advice from the compliance department of the provost’s office and was told professors must have a syllabus for an independent studies class. The student-athlete support office obtains a copy of the syllabus and advises the student to sit down with the professor on a regular basis.
“It is not the expectation that the student and the faculty member are in each other’s face every day or even every week necessarily,” Buskirk said. “That is not the definition of the independent study. But there has to be engagement in the process, whether that’s phone, whether that’s Skype, whatever is out there, but, no, there’s not a class-checking element to it.”
How does the academic support staff know that such engagement is taking place?
“We’re talking with the students, making sure that they’re making that contact, and if we have any emptiness about that, we’re contacting the instructor,” Buskirk said.
Buskirk shared a question asked of him by a colleague the day after the release of the Wainstein report that details North Carolina’s academic scandal. Both Buskirk and the colleague are among 100 or so at the university involved in dealing with an outside organization’s accreditation review of KU.
“She said, ‘Given that people have conclusions, accurate or not, about the similarities of our institutions, can you, Paul, write a statement that would say KU student-athletes do not take fake classes?’ She didn’t word it quite like that,” he said. “I sat back for a day or so, and I got on the phone with the individual and I said, I can write you a statement that says, ‘To the best of my understanding, our students are not involved in taking any fake classes because I know who’s going to class and I know who’s not. I’ve got a class checker. And I know where independent study is and is not.’ But I don’t know if that is the question you are asking me. Are you asking me whether KU as an institution has any classes that don’t meet? I said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t think so. But that’s not an athletics issue.’ So do you want me to write the statement about what I think our students do or don’t do? I’m happy to do that.”
Course and major clustering
“Course clustering,” Buskirk said. “You’re teaching a class that has 70 people in it and five are from everywhere and 65 are from the football team, so how did that happen? That by itself doesn’t make that class bad or good. It just means the question is more relevant as to what was the process that led 65 students to go into that class. Well, if they all needed it for their major and needed it to graduate, that’s all fine. But if we can’t find legitimate reasons as to why that happened, then we kind of raise, ‘OK, what’s going on?’ Our counselors are really good about that.”
A tutor isn’t the only one who could bring down an athletic department’s reputation for clean academics. An overzealous professor too invested in the performance of a team could make his class a magnet for that team’s players, which at the very least wouldn’t look good and, at worst, could bring down a university’s academic reputation. In 2008, the Ann Arbor News ran a story focused on a psychology professor to whom student-athletes allegedly were steered to get easy A’s.
Even if a teacher is not showing favoritism, Buskirk tends not to like to see too many athletes from the same team in the same class.
“It doesn’t do anybody any good,” Buskirk said. “It looks bad and, quite frankly, our students spend enough time around each other as it is. I can’t tell you they’re in their most productive element when they’re near teammates when they’re in the classroom environment.”
Max Utsler, a journalism professor at KU, chairs a six-member “governance subcommittee” of the athletic department for the chancellor’s office and in recent years has kept lists of degrees and majors for student-athletes. According to Buskirk, “They see no concerns.”
Reached between semesters while he was on a ski trip in Colorado, Utsler said, “It’s something that our group has been very, very diligent on given the backdrop of all the things that have happened at Michigan and North Carolina, really, really good schools where things have gotten out of hand,” Utsler said, “I think all of us live in fear (and are) doing whatever we can to make sure that something like that doesn’t happen here.”
This article was republished with permission from the original author, Tom Keegan, and the original publisher kusports.com.