Bad News Binghamton
A scathing investigative report of myriad academic improprieties committed by the men’s basketball program at the State University of New York at Binghamton implicates its outgoing president and former athletics director for their lack of oversight.
The independent audit, commissioned last fall by Nancy L. Zimpher, SUNY's chancellor, was led by Judith S. Kaye, former chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals. The report, which cost SUNY $913,381, was released Thursday.
In it, Kaye chronicles Binghamton’s rapid transition in the National Collegiate Athletic Association from a low-profile Division III, or non-scholarship, program to a high-profile Division I program with a surprisingly successful men’s basketball team during the two-decade tenure of Lois B. DeFleur, who announced her retirement as president last month, and Joel Thirer, its athletics director, who retired amid scandal last fall.
The report – rife with details of a coach who unabashedly recruited academically unprepared players, an athletics director who pushed for exceptions to the university’s admission process to land them, and students who ran into trouble both in and outside the classroom once admitted – reads like a cautionary tale for any institution thinking of making the move to the big time.
“As the events that have occurred at [Binghamton] confirm, colleges and universities that have chosen to compete at the NCAA Division I level are subject to an intense and unremitting struggle to balance the desire to win games with the primary academic mission of an institution of higher education,” Kaye writes. “At times, as this report shows, the intensity of the desire to win may undermine and compromise that primary mission.”
Straight to the Top
The first signs that something was amiss in Binghamton’s basketball program came to light mere weeks before it participated in its first ever Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament last year, when The New York Times ran an article detailing the well-known and risky recruiting methods of Kevin Broadus, who is still on paid leave from his post as head coach. Kaye’s report notes that, at the time, Broadus had the support of the administration in his desire to soften the university’s admissions for his recruits.
“Although [Binghamton] admissions personnel previously had admitted basketball applicants with weak academic backgrounds on an exception basis, Coach Broadus assumed wider latitude to apply minimum NCAA standards for all player-applicants, including candidates who had struggled at prior institutions and non-scholarship applicants who had expected to ‘walk on’ the team,” Kaye writes.
“In several instances, Coach Broadus sought the admission of athletes who had exhibited serious behavioral problems at prior institutions. When admissions personnel resisted this change in standards, the head coach and the athletic director pushed back strongly, in at least one instance enlisting allies in the [Binghamton] administration to overturn a rejection decision by admissions, ultimately overcoming the resistance.”
In one illustrative incident from the report, Sandra Starke, vice provost for enrollment management, noted that during a contentious meeting with Broadus and James Norris, then associate athletics director and currently interim athletics director, she was asked, “Why shouldn’t athletics make the admission decisions?” and “Why do you care if we take six players who don’t attend classes?”
Months later, after Starke repeatedly questioned the admissibility of certain recruits put forth by Broadus, the report notes that Broadus and Thirer accused her and the admissions staff of “making decisions on basketball player-applicants based on race.”
Concern about the nature of Broadus’s recruits, however, was not limited to Binghamton. The report notes that, at various times during the past three years, officials from other member institutions within the America East Conference openly and strongly questioned Binghamton’s recruitment of “players who were outside the typical profile” for the conference.
At a meeting of conference presidents last summer, DeFleur “vigorously defended” her institution’s recruiting practices, telling her colleagues that the players they considered risky were admitted to the university using New York’s Economic Opportunity Program, which allows institutions to consider students “who show promise for mastering college-level work, but who may otherwise not be admitted.”
Kaye’s report, however, revealed that “no players on the 2008-9 team had been admitted through [Binghamton’s] EOP program.” DeFleur went on to say that the university “was committed to giving students second chances and to attracting a more diverse student body, and that [Binghamton] was very effective in carrying out that mission.” Other presidents at the meeting testified in Kaye’s report that they “left with a sense that President DeFleur and [Binghamton] were unwilling or unable to acknowledge that any problem existed.”
Not So Independent Study
After Broadus successfully lobbied Binghamton to broaden its admissions policy for his troubled recruits, the report notes that “the pool of student-athletes requiring extensive academic and other support services” ballooned to the point where “the coaching staff and athletic department were not yet fully equipped” to help them all.
Among academic improprieties, the report details that two players’ failing grades were turned into passing grades after late work was eventually turned in, other players dropped classes they were failing and instead took independent study courses to maintain their eligibility to play, and coaches pushed some instructors to hold summer courses to catch up players who were falling behind on their credits.
“It is important, and admirable, for a university to create opportunities and second (or more) chances for particularly challenged student-athletes,” writes Kaye. “But, those opportunities become illusory if the institution does not have a sufficient support network already in place to help these individuals succeed.”
In another incident, hinting at potential cheating within the program, a player requested that Marc Hsu, an assistant coach, finish a paper for him. In text messages cited in the report, the player asked Hsu to change a segment of his paper that he copied “from the internet.” Hsu, however, told Kaye and investigators that he did not offer any inappropriate help to players on their schoolwork.
Outside the classroom, the report reveals that the coaching staff may have also stepped over the line by giving players who had been arrested for drug charges advice as to what to tell the police. Binghamton personnel, the report also notes, actively tried to keep news of players' arrests quiet.
“The balance between appropriate supportive efforts and insistence upon personal responsibility is not always easy to strike,” Kaye writes. “Nevertheless, the reactions and involvements of BU personnel, taken as a whole, leaned too heavily in the direction of managing the fallout and too lightly in the direction of maintaining a code of conduct through expectations of appropriate discipline.”
The report bluntly concludes that neither DeFleur and nor Thirer “reacted with sufficient objectivity and self-inquiry when faced with growing concerns from the [America East Conference] and its member institutions regarding the direction of [Binghamton’s] men’s basketball program.”
As a result of this lack of oversight, Kaye recommends that Binghamton’s Faculty Senate and its constituent athletics boards take a greater role in “supervising the direction and operation” of the men’s basketball program in the future. She also suggests that the SUNY system appoint an “athletic oversight officer,” which would report to the Board of Trustees, to consistently monitor “the admission, academic progress and behavior of student-athletes attending SUNY schools.”
Binghamton officials, including DeFleur and Norris, were not made available despite multiple requests. Still, the university did release a statement noting that its officials “have had limited opportunity to examine [the report] and are now in the process of reviewing it carefully.”
Zimpher remained guarded about the report and its implications during a conference call with reporters Thursday. She said that, at the moment, the system would not censure DeFleur, Thirer or any other Binghamton officials. Still, she said the Board of Trustees would take some sort of action at its next meeting in March and that she would have further comment then.
“I am disappointed that a great institution like Binghamton University would, in any way, because of its athletic program, compromise its terrific academic reputation,” Zimpher said. “I’m absolutely confident in short order we can reinsert the integrity into the academic and athletic program at Binghamton."