Monday, March 17, 2008

Michigan Athletics- I Should Probably Keep My Mouth Shut...

The New York Times has a headline come across my reader... Not a shock, but upsetting nonetheless:

Michigan Athletes Steered to Easy Classes, Report Says

And then it gets worse...

The Ann Arbor News reported on Sunday that the psychology professor John Hagen taught at least 294 independent studies from the fall of 2004 to the fall of 2007, 251 of them taken by athletes. Such courses are generally one-on-one classes between the student and the professor for a subject not offered by the university.

Why am I not jeering and hooting along with all y'all?

Because of my Bachelor of Science in Psychology (High Distinction) from the University of Michigan. Yes, I said it. Go Blue. Moving on...

Like anybody who follows either education or athletics, I know that athletes get more assistance with their academic work than most other students, priority scheduling, on-demand tutoring, etc. Like many, I think that those things are actually not a problem, and don't begrudge the athletes those things which compensate for the lack of individual study time and lack of flexibility in scheduling necessitated by their participation in sports. Like many, however, I have also always suspected that the average athlete was not putting as much academic effort into their degree as the average non-athlete.

Included in that latter "many" is Jim Harbaugh, a former star athlete at Michigan and current coach of Stanford's football team. His point was about the General Studies major at U of M. He was spot on. Despite what was said by some in our administration, the BGS is looked upon as a second-class degree. Given the disappointing official response to those and similar allegations, I assumed a raging fire was beneath the latest smoke.

But actually, no.

I remember telling people about the single stupidest piece I had ever seen written by sportswriter. It was by Rob Oller in the Dispatch. Mr. Oller got it into his head that the U of M faculty would be offended by Mr. Harbaugh's statements, but that the winning-obsessed trustees would easily forgive-and-forget.

Mr. Oller must not have spent a lot of face time with his professors. Or with the thin-skinned non-alums (including many Regents - not Trustees, Regents - over the years) who choose to associate with U of M because of its reputation. It might surprise him to know that in this latest set of allegations at Michigan, the academics investigated first. Then, a disgruntled faculty member wanted more investigation, and got it. When both of these investigations turned up no evidence of wrongdoing, that faculty member cooperated with a media investigation. The kicker here is that the muck-raking included, in part, a quote from a former U of M employee that many athletes worked with Professor Hagen because there was little interest among other professors at Michigan. Rather than Oller's imagined "over my dead body..." I'm surprised that there wasn't a faculty petition to recruit Harbaugh even before Stanford upset USC.

My opinion of the current allegations is probably obvious by now. Although I tend to identify strongly with the individuals who initially raised these concerns, I've taken Independent Study credit in Psychology at U of M. I've never met Hagen, but I've met the "disgruntled" professor, and I've worked with one of the other profs quoted in the AA News article who corroborates the suspicious nature of Hagen's enrollment patterns. I met with him about as often as I met one-on-one with the Prof who was technically teaching my independent studies - 3 or 4 hours across two semesters. It wasn't because I was being neglected. I spent much more time interacting with the post-docs and grad students who were actually conducting the day-to-day operations of a research lab, which was certainly much more valuable in the long run than extra time shooting the breeze with the prof would have been. I should say that all of the faculty referred to here are extremely intelligent world-class scholars, who work very hard to maintain U of M's top Psychology reputation. I benefited immensely from my association with them. I'm just not sure that if you asked their students, off the record, about their class-related activities, that they would meet the level of specific standards being laid out in the allegations against Hagen. And I trust the University, the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, and the Department of Psychology who seem to be of a similar opinion.

It does, however, sound like I put more time in and had a more rigorous experience than some of the athletes in their classes. It also sounds like athletes took Independent Studies with Hagen in part because they knew they could get better grades with less effort than they could taking other classes. It even appears that some of the athletes' academic advisors were aware that their athletes tended to get good grades in Hagen's classes, and advised their students accordingly. If the intent is for these student-athletes to get the kind of research experience that will help them get into competitive grad programs in Psych (my reason for taking Independent Study), there is a major problem here. If the intent is to get through U of M using the path of least resistance, the athletes are unfortunately joining many of their non-athlete peers along the way.

There are three more installments of the Ann Arbor News 'expose', and the shocking disappointment may be yet to come. When the story is athletes like Harbaugh being steered away from classes they want into classes the coaching staff think will be the least distraction from 'more important' pursuits, we've got a real problem that needs to be addressed. When the story is about athletes figuring out what the easy courses are and passing them with minimal effort, just like their non-athletic classmates, it's almost like an innoculation against further charges.

And certainly a relief for one alum living in the middle of the community happiest to read about shocking disappointments up north.

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