A graphic popped up on James Gundlach’s television during an Auburn football game in the fall of 2004, and he could not believe his eyes.
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One of the university’s prominent football players was being honored as a scholar athlete for his work as a sociology major. Professor Gundlach, the director of the Auburn sociology department, had never had the player in class. He asked two other full-time sociology professors about the player, and they could not recall having taught him, either.
So Professor Gundlach looked at the player’s academic files, which led him to the discovery that many Auburn athletes were receiving high grades from the same professor for sociology and criminology courses that required no attendance and little work.
Eighteen members of the 2004 Auburn football team, which went undefeated and finished No. 2 in the nation, took a combined 97 hours of the courses during their careers. The offerings, known as directed-reading courses, resemble independent study and include core subjects like statistics, theory and methods, which normally require class instruction.
The professor for those players and many other athletes was Thomas Petee, the sociology department’s highest-ranking member. The star running back Carnell (Cadillac) Williams, now playing in the National Football League, said the only two classes he took during the spring semester of his senior year were one-on-one courses with Professor Petee.
At one point, Professor Petee was carrying the workload of more than three and a half professors, an academic schedule that his colleagues said no one could legitimately handle.
“It was a lot of work,” Professor Petee said. “And I basically wore myself out.”
Auburn, a public university in eastern Alabama with more than 23,000 students, has a storied football tradition. The team won a national championship in 1957 and has a track record of producing professional players.
Keeping players academically eligible is a task that has bedeviled many institutions. Colleges have long offered easy courses, and athletes are by no means the only ones who sign up. Under new National Collegiate Athletic Association rules, however, colleges whose athletes do not meet academic standards can be penalized, sometimes by having the number of their athletic scholarships reduced. That change is intended to help ensure that student athletes receive a legitimate education. But the change can also increase the pressure on colleges to find ways to keep athletes from failing.
In Auburn’s case, the sociology department and one of its leaders became just the ticket.
Professor Petee’s directed-reading classes, which nonathletes took as well, helped athletes in several sports improve their grade-point averages and preserve their athletic eligibility. A number of athletes took more than one class with Professor Petee over their careers: one athlete took seven such courses, three athletes took six, five took five and eight took four, according to records compiled by Professor Gundlach. He also found that more than a quarter of the students in Professor Petee’s directed-reading courses were athletes. (Professor Gundlach could not provide specific names because of student privacy laws.)
The Auburn football team’s performance in the N.C.A.A.’s new rankings of student athletes’ academic progress surprised many educators on and off campus. The team had the highest ranking of any Division I-A public university among college football’s six major conferences. Over all among Division I-A football programs, Auburn trailed only Stanford, Navy and Boston College, and finished just ahead of Duke.
Among those caught off guard by Auburn’s performance was Gordon Gee, the chancellor of Vanderbilt, a fellow university in the Southeastern Conference and its only private institution. Vanderbilt had an 88 percent graduation rate in 2004, compared with Auburn’s 48 percent, yet finished well behind Auburn in the new N.C.A.A. rankings.
“It was a little surprising because our graduation rates are so much higher,” Mr. Gee said. “I’m not quite certain I understood that.”
The N.C.A.A. cannot comment on specific academic cases. But when asked how much 18 players taking 97 credit hours could affect a football team’s academic standing, Thomas S. Paskus, the N.C.A.A.’s principal research scientist, said it would be likely to lift the number. He added that it would be difficult to gauge how much the classes helped the academic ranking.
In the spring of 2005, Professor Gundlach confronted Professor Petee, to whom he reported, about the proliferation of directed-reading courses. That spring, the university’s administration told Professor Petee he was carrying too many of the classes. Far fewer have been offered since.
The availability of better grades for some athletes who did not attend class did not surprise professors who said Auburn sometimes emphasizes athletics at any cost. In December 2003, the university was placed on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools partly because of concerns about whether trustees had too much involvement in the athletic department.
The N.C.A.A. has cited Auburn through the years for seven major infractions, the most of any university in the SEC and among the most in the nation.
The sociology department became “a dumping ground for athletes,” according to one sociology professor, Paul Starr. That did not bother Professor Gundlach as much as what he viewed as the university administration’s apathy toward Professor Petee’s academic approach.
Professor Gundlach took the case to John Heilman, a university administrator who would soon become Auburn’s provost. He included paperwork showing that Professor Petee taught more than 250 students individually during the 2004-5 academic year. He also provided Mr. Heilman with examples of how prominent athletes had cut academic corners.
“It was at that point that I figured the corruption runs the full gantlet of the administration,” Professor Gundlach said. “We were getting sociology majors graduating without taking sociology classes. I’m a director of a program putting out people who I know more than likely don’t deserve a degree.”
After Professor Gundlach turned over many of his findings to The New York Times and a reporter began questioning administrators two months ago, the provost’s office began an investigation. Mr. Heilman said yesterday in a prepared statement that the investigation began on June 5 after an anonymous complaint was submitted.
In a separate statement yesterday, Edward Richardson, Auburn’s interim president, said, “I want to assure everyone associated with Auburn that upon completion of the investigation we will deal with this issue as we have dealt with other challenges — directly and openly.”
In a telephone interview, Mr. Heilman refused to comment on Professor Petee’s courses, saying he could talk only about what had happened since he had become provost.
“I can assure you as provost that academic misconduct will not be tolerated at Auburn University,” Mr. Heilman said in his statement yesterday.
Professor Petee denied that he favored athletes, saying there were only “a handful of them” in his directed readings. He said nothing was unethical about the number of courses he taught, though other professors viewed his workload as unprecedented and unmanageable.
Raising the Average
The Auburn football team appeared to be the biggest benefactor of Professor Petee’s directed-reading offerings.
The 18 football players received an average G.P.A. of 3.31 in the classes, according to statistics compiled by Professor Gundlach. In all of their other credit hours at Auburn, their average was 2.14.
“He’s the kind of teacher that, you know, he wants to help you out, not just pile a lot of stuff on you,” said Carlos Rogers, a former sociology major and defensive back who left the university early and now plays in the N.F.L. for the Washington Redskins.
Mr. Williams said one of the two directed-reading courses he took with Professor Petee during the spring of 2005 was a statistics class.
Asked if that course, considered the most difficult in the sociology major, was available to regular students as a directed reading, Professor Petee said, “No, not usually.”
Mr. Williams described the class this way: “You’re just studying different kinds of math. It’s one of those things where you write a report about the different theories and things like that.”
He said that Virgil Starks, the director of Student Athlete Support Services at Auburn, set up the courses. Mr. Starks said scheduling was not his responsibility, but that of the dean’s office. Mr. Williams said he appreciated the convenience of the two courses, because he was traveling around the country auditioning for N.F.L. teams at the time.
“I didn’t do nothing illegal or anything like that,” he said when told that Professor Petee was under investigation. “My work was good. It was definitely real work.”
Mr. Williams said Professor Petee asked him to autograph a football once when they met in his office. “To be honest with you, if they think that’s a problem, they need to investigate all the teachers at Auburn,” Mr. Williams said.
Mr. Williams, who now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, had already completed his football eligibility at Auburn. He was a B student, according to Professor Petee. But Professor Petee also acknowledged that by taking those two classes, Mr. Williams helped boost Auburn’s standing in the academic rankings. He left Auburn six credits short of graduating.
The academic journey of the former Auburn defensive end Doug Langenfeld illustrates how Professor Petee and the athletic department helped athletes remain eligible.
When Mr. Langenfeld arrived at Auburn in 2003 from a junior college in California, he wanted to major in nursing. To do so would have required him to take a heavy load of 21 credits his first semester. Instead, he said, Mr. Starks suggested he major in sociology. Mr. Langenfeld asked for advice from Mr. Williams, who claimed that the major was “easy if you studied.”
In the fall of 2004, Mr. Langenfeld found himself in an academic bind. More than two months into the fall semester, he realized he had been attending the wrong class because of a scheduling error. Mr. Langenfeld approached Professor Gundlach about adding a class, but Professor Gundlach said he could not help him because it was too late in the semester.
Mr. Langenfeld then went to his academic counselor in the athletic department, Brett Wohlers, with a plea: “I got dropped from a class and need a class to stay eligible for the bowl game,” Mr. Langenfeld recalled in a recent telephone interview. “I need a class, and I’ll take any class right now. I don’t not want to play in my last bowl game.”
He said Mr. Wohlers told him about a “one-assignment class” that other players had taken and enjoyed. So in the “ninth or 10th week,” Mr. Langenfeld said, he picked up a directed-reading course with Professor Petee. Semesters typically run 15 weeks.
Mr. Langenfeld said he had to read one book, but he could not recall the title. He said he was required to hand in a 10-page paper on the book. Between picking up the class and handing in the paper, he said, he met several times with Professor Petee in his office.
“I got a B in the class,” said Mr. Langenfeld, who started in the Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech. “That was a good choice for me.”
Mr. Wohlers said he did not recall Mr. Langenfeld’s situation. He said he was familiar with Professor Petee, but denied seeking him out to place athletes in his classes.
Professors around the university said they saw Mr. Langenfeld’s late-semester rescue as inappropriate. When told of Mr. Langenfeld’s situation, David Cicci, the chairman-elect of Auburn’s faculty senate, said: “From my point of view, that’s not much work for three credit hours. It’s an awful lot of credits for reading one book.”
To get in a class that late in the semester requires the signature of the interim department chairman, Professor Petee, and the dean of the college. The dean at the time, Joseph Ansell, died in late June after a battle with cancer.
Peggy Kirby, who recently retired as the director of student services in the dean’s office, said that the dean typically trusted what was put in front of him for approval.
The senior associate director for admissions and records at Auburn, Louis E. Jimenez, said that a situation in which a student adds a class as late as Mr. Langenfeld did usually happened only once or twice a semester, if at all. “It’s very unusual,” he said.
Confrontation and Change
At a heated faculty meeting in the spring of 2005, Professor Gundlach challenged Professor Petee.
The number of directed readings that Professor Petee offered had jumped to 152 in the spring of 2005, from 120 in the fall of 2004. Professor Gundlach described them as fake courses and said they were undermining the department’s integrity.
Professor Petee offered 15 different courses as directed readings both semesters, along with teaching regular courses. His full-time-equivalent number on his teaching schedule for the fall of 2004 was 3.5, or the workload of three and a half professors. In the spring, it rose to 3.67. He was not compensated for the extra work.
The numbers included his in-classroom teachings and directed readings, but they did not include the time commitment for his responsibilities as interim department chairman. The chairman of the philosophy department, Kelly Jolley, said in a telephone interview that it would be unusual for someone in his department to teach 10 directed readings. As for more than 100?
“Speaking relative to my own department standards, there would be no way,” Mr. Jolley said. “It couldn’t be done. I don’t know anyone here, given their regular teaching load, who could hope to do so.”
Cal Clark, the director of Auburn’s public administration major, said one of his directed readings consists of reading five or six books and a written report on each. He said he usually would teach between three and five directed readings a semester
“Maybe I’m egotistical,” Mr. Clark said. “But I thought that I did a lot.”
Professor Gundlach said that within two weeks of the contentious faculty meeting, Professor Petee erased many of the directed-reading courses offered for the next semester. That prompted a rush of dozens of students, including many athletes, to Professor Gundlach to try to sign up for directed readings. So many prospective students approached him that he posted a sign that said: “Directed readings should be viewed as an opportunity to study in an area of interest, not a way to get some hours.”
He said students would need to read at least 1,200 pages of upper-division text and could not have a history of taking easy courses.
“After I stated that kind of approach, I got only one student who wanted to do a directed reading,” Professor Gundlach said.
Also after the confrontation in the faculty meeting, Professor Petee’s grades for the football players dropped sharply. Professor Gundlach found that before the meeting, the players received 81.1 percent A’s and 16.8 percent B’s in directed-reading courses with Professor Petee. After the meeting, those numbers fell to 40.9 percent A’s and 51.7 percent B’s.
Professor Petee defended his record on directed readings, saying he provided so many because of an influx of students, a shortage of faculty and the convenience of using the Web to communicate with and teach students. Professor Petee said that the classes were structured, even though he did not meet with the students regularly, if at all. The department office assistant at the time, Rebecca Gregory, said Professor Petee managed the work with students primarily through e-mail messages.
“I would give you a readings course that amounts to substantively reading the stuff,” Professor Petee said. “You’re going to be going through the process of doing the work in the course. You’re going to have to take exams. You’re going to have to write a paper.”
Professor Petee’s mentor, the former sociology department director Gregory Kowalski, said he considered Professor Petee like “a brother.” Still, he said, he could not find any comparable situation at Auburn in which one teacher taught so many directed-reading courses.
“I don’t think it was anything malicious or that he had anything to gain,” Mr. Kowalski said. “He’s always been a very accommodating faculty member.”
But the numbers baffled educators around the university. “I have never heard of anything of this magnitude in any discipline at any university,” Mr. Cicci said.
Auburn’s Past Problems
Auburn University has had its share of embarrassing incidents involving athletes.
In 1991, tapes of the football coach at the time, Pat Dye, talking about arranging a loan for a player were aired on “60 Minutes.” In the late 1990’s, a star tailback from two decades earlier, James Brooks, told a judge in a child-support case that he was illiterate and had used his athletic prowess to skate through high school and college. Brooks did not graduate.
In November 2003, the university president and the athletic director flew on the private plane of a booster and trustee, Bobby Lowder, to the outskirts of Louisville, Ky. They held a meeting with Bobby Petrino, the University of Louisville coach, to gauge his interest in replacing Tommy Tuberville as the head coach at Auburn. No permission was sought from Louisville, and both coaches were still under contract.
Through a spokesman, Mr. Tuberville declined to be interviewed for this article.
The news of the visit emerged, and William Walker, Auburn’s president, resigned under pressure two months later. Mr. Tuberville remained as coach and led the Tigers to a 13-0 record the next season.
Auburn admitted two football players in the fall of 2004, Lorenzo Ferguson and Ulysses Alexander, who attended University High School in Miami. That school, an investigation by The Times found, gave fast and easy grades to talented athletes. Ferguson said that during his senior year at University High his grade-point average went to 2.6 from 2.0 in one month. Auburn defended their admission by saying that both players met N.C.A.A. standards.
Once players arrive at Auburn, they tend to find themselves clustered in the same classes.
“When you’ve got more than five or six athletes in one class, you’re guaranteed to have fun,” said Robert Johnson, a tight end who left Auburn in 2003 and now plays for the Washington Redskins. “Class is guaranteed to not be as hard as the rest of your classes, especially if you’re winning.”
Auburn was coming off its 13-0 season in the spring of 2005 when Mr. Heilman met with Professor Petee in the aftermath of Professor Gundlach’s initial accusations. Mr. Heilman refused to offer any details of their conversation.
Professor Petee said: “I got chastised by the provost’s office for it. He said you’re teaching too many independent study courses to try to accommodate the students. In essence, you know, you really need to stop that practice. And I did.”
After the confrontation, Professor Petee’s directed readings dipped to 25 last fall from 152. His full-time-equivalent number dropped to 1.0 from 3.67.
Mr. Heilman left Professor Petee in charge of the sociology department, something that stunned many around the university. That left the department divided, and it was what led Professor Gundlach to decide to retire after next year.
“Things have reached a point where we’re getting ready to produce more James Brooks incidents,” Professor Gundlach said. “It’s embarrassing.”