With her nearly 20-year presidency at the State University of New York at Binghamton besmirched by a basketball scandal in recent months, Lois DeFleur is taking some subtle steps to answer critics and, perhaps, shore up her legacy.
DeFleur announced in January that she'll retire in July, and the rocky past few months at Binghamton have appended a troubling coda to what many regard as an otherwise successful presidency. A scandal in Binghamton’s men’s basketball program came with high doses of nearly every undesirable element one could imagine: Charges of off-court drug use by players, claims of heavy pressure by coaches to admit unqualified students, and allegations that an athletics fund raiser was tarted up as a sexual “plaything” for donors.
DeFleur has remained relatively silent about the basketball controversy since the February release of a damning independent audit that faulted the actions of many, including her. In a recent meeting with faculty and a subsequent interview with Inside Higher Ed, however, DeFleur has taken steps to play down the controversy. Her defense essentially hinges on the contention that the misbehavior at the core of the controversy is likely to result in relatively little in the way of findings of violations of National Collegiate Athletic Association rules.
While that may be true, her critics say her analysis skirts the larger question of whether Binghamton lost its way, not only by operating in the margins of NCAA rules, but by losing sight of the proper balance between academics and athletics.
DeFleur has also suggested that system officials fanned the flames of controversy by commissioning an independent audit, which looked beyond the question of NCAA compliance, exploring broader allegations of pressure on admissions officials to admit students with known behavior issues and suspect academic credentials.
“The system took it over, and I think that gave it a greater life,” DeFleur told Inside Higher Ed last week. “As you know, it is very unusual, the kind of investigation they had. That is not what you do when you’re looking at ‘Do you have issues, are there infractions?’ You work [instead] with the N.C.A.A. It took a very unusual twist.”
Unusual indeed. Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher, who had been on the job for less than a year at the time, commissioned an independent audit of the basketball program in November of 2009. Charged with leading the task was Judith Kaye, retired chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals. Kaye’s 99-page report, issued in February, was a bombshell, detailing the exploits of a swiftly rising Division I club that appeared to value winning over high ethical standards.
At times, the report suggests that DeFleur was at least complicit in efforts by athletics officials to override admissions personnel who worried about particular recruits.The report conveys the concerns of presidents of other colleges in the America East Conference, for instance, who said that DeFleur appeared "unwilling or unable to acknowledge" that the recruitment of risky players was a problem. When admissions officials argued that a valued recruit should be admitted only "conditionally," Binghamton's then-athletics director, Joel Thirer, told them DeFleur would be "disappointed by such a decision."
At another point in the report, DeFleur's provost describes the president as having a "blind spot regarding athletics."
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DeFleur sounded ambivalent when asked about the report's charge that she and Thirer did not react “with sufficient objectivity and self-inquiry” when other members of the conference raised concerns about the recruitment of risky players.
“I don’t know. I acted forcefully when there were problems,” DeFleur said. “What the report seems to claim is there should have been things done earlier. Maybe so. That’s history. You can’t go back and 'would’ve should’ve.' ”
Beyond admissions issues, Binghamton has endured criticism for its handling of athletes' off-court behavior. When team members ran afoul of the law -- among them a player charged with selling crack cocaine -- athletics officials reacted in a manner where “damage control was emphasized at the expense of constructive discipline and personal responsibility,” the report found.
DeFleur still describes the off-court behavior of the athletes as "unacceptable," and she defends Binghamton's handling of those issues. Five players were ultimately dismissed from the team following Emanuel Mayben’s cocaine charge. The report makes note, however, that "the rules changed" after the cocaine charge, prompting the dismissal of players who had had their brushes with the law in previous days without being kicked off the team.
Views Differ on DeFleur's Role
Prior to a March 16 meeting of the Faculty Senate, DeFleur had not expounded on the audit's findings in a public setting. During that meeting, DeFleur defended the controversial decision to move to Division I athletics, and further noted that “NCAA standards” were followed when basketball players were admitted.
Speaking with Inside Higher Ed, DeFleur reiterated that -- despite a cascading of charges and bad press -- the program did little outside of the boundaries of NCAA regulations.
“That [independent audit] helped keep it going in the press in some ways,” she said. “Right now if we have any violations, they revolve around maybe some text messages, but that’s it."
The audit notes, for instance, that assistant coach Marc Hsu discussed providing one of the players, Malik Alvin, money to pay for gas and a court fine after Alvin was arrested for stealing condoms from a Wal-Mart. Such cash payments, if made, would have violated NCAA rules.
DeFleur may well be right that the NCAA won’t take issue with some of the aspects of the report that faculty find most troubling -- but that’s a big part of the problem with college athletics, critics charge. While some faculty may object to offering admission to players who meet minimum NCAA eligibility standards -- and not necessarily Binghamton’s own academic standards -- the association isn’t going to raise an issue as long as its own standards are met. Moreover, the use of “special admissions” for talented student athletes is a widely accepted practice across higher education.
To determine eligibility for Division I play, the NCAA has a sliding scale that factors in grade point averages and standardized test scores. The scale allows students with GPAs as low as 2.0 in 16 core courses to participate, so long as that average is balanced out with Scholastic Assessment Tests scores of 1010 on the verbal and math portions combined. By the same token, a student with a 3.55 GPA can have test scores as low as 400 -- the test's bare minimum -- and still play ball.
While students are required to complete 16 specific courses to be eligible, the rigor of those courses -- a key evaluatory criterion for institutions with competitive admissions -- is not a factor.
“I think that the sliding scale the NCAA established has opened the door for institutions to justify the admission of students who are unable to compete academically,” said Carole Browne, a biology professor at Wake Forest University and co-chair of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, an alliance of faculty senates seeking athletics reform.
The NCAA has yet to issue a report on Binghamton’s potential violations, but the notion that it might be soft in its criticism is troubling, Browne said. The Kaye audit notes efforts by officials to “fast track” athletes through admissions so they wouldn’t be lost to other teams, and details intense -- and ultimately successful -- efforts to admit a student with a GPA “significantly below” 2.0 in academic courses.
“There was an end-run around the admissions office,” Browne said. “So if the NCAA does not set minimum standards that guarantee the students admitted to college have the minimum qualifications to do college level work, what is the purpose of the NCAA at all?"
The NCAA does not suggest its eligibility standards are synonymous with admissions standards, even if some college coaches push admissions officials to admit all or most eligible players.
"Admissions decisions are made by the individual schools -- not the NCAA -- to ensure they are appropriate for each institution’s educational missions," Stacey Osburn, an NCAA spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. "NCAA eligibility standards are not admissions standards. The NCAA standards outline the minimum requirements a student-athlete must meet in order to be eligible to compete in college athletics or receive athletic aid."
Given the NCAA's stated position on the purposes of its eligibility standards, DeFleur's defense that those standards were met misses the point, Browne said.
“What we’re seeing at Binghamton is everything that’s wrong with intercollegiate athletics,” she said. “The president can say this was blown out of proportion, but they did everything wrong. They admitted unqualified students. They admitted students that had behavioral and drug issues. What didn’t they do?”
Not everyone, however, is ready to lay those issues at the feet of the president.
“The fairest thing to say is that I can’t see clearly enough through the whole basketball scandal how much to blame the president really was,” said Sara Reiter, chair of the Faculty Senate and an accounting professor.
The Senate approved a resolution last month, stating it was “deeply troubled” by the basketball controversy. It stopped short, however, of condemning DeFleur or any specific official. Indeed, when DeFleur concluded her remarks about the controversy before the Senate, one faculty member suggested she be lauded for her years of service.
“The body heartily applauded the president,” the minutes reflect.
The Senate also declined in its resolution to disagree with Zimpher’s decision to conduct an independent audit, and faculty say there is widespread disagreement on campus about whether the move was appropriate or necessary.
"To get involved trying to criticize the report in general or in detail, we didn't feel that was a productive thing to do," Reiter said.
After six players were dismissed from the team for off-court behavior, DeFleur took her own steps to hire a compliance firm to review potential violations, she told faculty. But Zimpher, known for taking tough positions on athletics when she was president of the University of Cincinnati, wanted the investigation to come from the system office, and she brought in Kaye at a cost of about $913,000 to conduct the audit.
DeFleur noted in her remarks to faculty that Zimpher’s approach “left Binghamton with no chance to review the final document for needed content or clarification,” Senate minutes said. The minutes do not reflect any specific errors Binghamton might have flagged.
While DeFleur called Zimpher’s approach “unusual,” she stopped short of telling Inside Higher Ed whether she felt Zimpher’s actions were inappropriate.
“There is no point going there,” she said. “It just took a very unusual direction. I think that gave it a different aspect. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Zimpher declined interview requests.
Not surprisingly, some of DeFleur’s fiercest critics take umbrage with her public suggestions that the chancellor didn’t need to step in as she did.
“I thought it was essential that the chancellor got involved. I thought internally we couldn’t do it,” said Dennis Lasser, an associate professor of finance and former faculty athletics representative at Binghamton. “I think the NCAA probably will be the ultimate decider of what happens, so we’ll see what the NCAA does. I think we have a better chance of minimizing the amount of penalty by having the chancellor get involved and actually taking as much responsibility as we can.”
The system will certainly be even more involved going forward if the audit’s recommendations are followed. Charles (Roger) Westgate, a professor in Binghamton’s department of electrical and computer engineering, is now serving as “special adviser” for academics and athletics across the system. Westgate will conduct a systemwide review, and use the Binghamton case to develop systemwide guidelines “at every level of intercollegiate athletics and in every sector,” according to a news release.
Moreover, SUNY will seek a permanent athletics oversight officer to report only to the Board of Trustees and the chancellor.
Lingering Issues May Delay Closure
Binghamton officials have expressed a desire to look forward, learning tough lessons from a very difficult episode. But there are lingering issues that may make that difficult.
Some faculty are still pushing a resolution to move from Division I athletics back down to Division III. Beyond that, key personnel issues remain unresolved. The head basketball coach, Kevin Broadus, is still on indefinite paid leave, and Zimpher has publicly stated that a new coach and permanent athletics director won’t be named until a new Binghamton president is in place. In the meantime, Broadus has filed a complaint alleging he’s a victim of racial discrimination.
In another legal matter, Elizabeth Williams, a fund raiser for Binghamton athletics, has filed a suit in federal court, alleging that she “discovered that her new bosses viewed women as playthings and expected women in the department to raise money by exploiting their sexuality."
Moreover, a report from the NCAA is said to be forthcoming. While the report may validate those who say the violations will be minor, it’s sure to provoke a revisiting of the issues that prompted the association’s involvement in the first place.
Kevin Wright, a professor of human development and outspoken critic throughout the controversy, said it will take a lot of work and a change of culture for Binghamton to truly heal and move forward.
“Our problems go beyond basketball,” he said. “We’re not playing by the rules in a lot of things.”