When Independent Study Raises Red Flags

Allegations that U. of Michigan athletes were steered into courses with a single professor raise broader questions about the academic arrangement.
March 18, 2008

When it comes to the academic clustering of athletes, the question typically is "in what major?" The suggestion: Members of a given sports team are enrolled in a particular program at a much higher rate than are other students at the college. But what about when the question is "with what professor?"

That's the case at the University of Michigan, where officials Monday were responding to an Ann Arbor News article that alleges athletes there have been steered to independent study courses taught by a psychology professor who often requires little of the students and gives them high grades. The investigation found that the professor, John Hagen, taught 294 independent studies for students, 85 percent of them athletes, from the fall of 2004 to the fall of 2007.

Michigan doesn't dispute those numbers, but it refuted the article's description of Hagen as a safety net for athletes who might need a quick grade-point-average jolt. The university also denies that athletics department academic counselors are directing students to Hagen, or that any athlete has been forced to take an independent study course with him.

The Michigan allegations come less than two years after the New York Times published findings that a large number of Auburn University athletes were taking “directed studies” with the same professor and earning significantly higher grades on that work than in regular courses. As a result, Auburn announced new limits on the number of students whose independent study work can be supervised by a single professor.

That the practice of independent study, commonly reserved for students with unique intellectual interests, is at the center of a controversy over special arrangements and academic rigor comes as little surprise to some faculty members. Among them is R. Scott Kretchmar, a professor of exercise and sport science at Pennsylvania State University's main campus and a sports philosopher. He said in a recent meeting with academic support staff at Penn State, independent study emerged as one of several potential red flags.

"It's clearly an area of risk," Kretchmar said. "Any student can go to any faculty member and work out a deal, and there aren't many checks on that. It's one of those slippery areas in higher education that probably deserves a little more scrutiny -- both for athletes and generally speaking."

The content of independent study courses can be met with skepticism, Kretchmar said, because it often doesn't undergo Faculty Senate review as new courses typically do. In many cases, a department chair signs off on the topic.

David Goldfield, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and past president of the Faculty Athletics Representatives Association, said that despite the fact that the majority of independent study arrangements would pass an academic merit test, the possibility of impropriety is significant.

"The great advantage of independent study at a public institution is that it gives students an opportunity to work one-on-one with a particular faculty member in a subject area that's of interest to them," said Goldfield, the current faculty athletics representative at Charlotte who has served on the academic eligibility and compliance cabinet of the NCAA. "The most disturbing aspect of [the Michigan case] is that there appears there was no monitoring, and it's mind boggling that nobody picked up on this."

For its part, Michigan says that the psychology department closely monitors independent study, and that two internal investigations have showed no wrongdoing on the part of Hagen or the department. (More on that later.)

Still, Goldfield said based on what he's read, it looks to him like a case of academic advisers feeling the heat to boost athletes' academic standing. When the National Collegiate Athletic Association lowered initial eligibility requirements and raised the stakes for athletes remaining eligible, it placed an increasing strain on institutions -- and in particular academic support staff within athletics departments -- to keep athletes eligible, Goldfield said.

The question, then, is who should set the tone on independent study? While the NCAA has talked recently about taking a closer look at which majors athletes tend to choose, Erik Christianson, an association spokesman, said that it's up to campuses to come up with independent study policies that best fit their institutions.

Kretchmar said such decisions as how many such courses an athlete (or non-athlete) can take, or how many students a professor can take on should be handled internally.

"I worry about the NCAA regulating it, because we aren't all cut out of the same mold," he said. "Clearly, each institution should be vigilant about keeping statistics on number of students in a major, number of students taking a course from a professor and grading differences.

"Our general philosophy is we don't want to be draconian in prohibiting athletes from taking independent study, but we don't want to be stupid about ignoring particular problems."

Goldfield agreed that the NCAA "can't micromanage academic integrity" and that its role is to "set a standard and hope universities live up to it." Faculty athletics representatives have the responsibility to monitor statistics on who's choosing what major, Goldfield said.

The Ann Arbor News continued its series Monday with a look at the rise in general studies majors among Michigan athletes. Critics of clustering say that athletes are funneled year after year into programs that are seen as less rigorous. Others argue that if a major isn't up to university standards, it's not the athletes or academic advisers who should be faulted -- it's the committee that approved the program.

Goldfield said he has never asked his department about the number of independent studies athletes are taking. "I believe in the integrity of the athletic-academic support center," he said.

Fallout at Michigan

In his experience running independent studies, Goldstein said there's "no way to provide any semblance of academic rigor" by directing as many students as Hagen did over several years. There's simply not enough time and energy to go around, he said.

Others quoted in the News article make similar points. They say that athletes have signed up for several of Hagen's independent studies knowing that they'll have to put in minimal effort -- earning three or four credits for meeting with him as little as 15 minutes every two weeks, the investigation found. An analysis of transcripts also showed that athletes performed better in his classes than they did in other classes.

Hagen issued a statement defending his academic record and said in an e-mail Monday that he takes issue with some of the data cited in the News article. He said that students in his courses do demanding work.

A FAQ response posted on the university's Web site says that faculty such as Hagen make themselves readily available to students. "The independent study model is very flexible," it says. Hagen scores high in accessibility and time spent with students in student evaluations, Michigan added.

Percy Bates, Michigan’s faculty athletics representative and a professor of education, said “it’s clear to me that the monitoring that we do is pretty adequate, even around the issue of independent studies. We make sure that what people are doing is legitimate work for students, and these aren’t professors who are willy-nillying.

"Given all that's out there, that doesn't mean we won't take another look at what we're doing," Bates added.

Two summers ago, after the Auburn case became public, Michigan's provost office asked deans in each undergraduate college to look into how independent studies courses are vetted. A professor in the psychology department has since raised concern with Hagen's arrangement.

Two subsequent reviews -- one by his department's executive committee and another by the College of Literature, Science and the Arts -- found Hagen clear of wrongdoing, saying that the courses are academically rigorous and that the professor's grading patterns caused no concern. The latter report concluded “not only that there is nothing about Professor Hagen’s independent study program that should concern us, but that in fact he is performing a valuable service for the students in those studies and to the university by having them available.”

But are enough non-athletes getting that experience? Michigan says that the ratio of athletes to other students in Hagen's independent study courses is often 2:1 in a given semester. University research shows that other psychology professors have a proportion of athletes to students that ranges from 0 to 60 percent.

Phil Hanlon, vice president for academic and budgetary affairs at Michigan, said Hagen's focus on developmental psychology -- and in particular student learning and teaching style -- attracts many athletes who are interested in becoming coaches or teachers. According to Michigan's FAQ explanation: "Much of Professor Hagen’s scholarly work addresses learning styles and skills among college students who excel in physical attributes and performance."

Word of mouth, Hanlon said, is another reason to explain the high number of athletes in his independent study courses.

The university's FAQ explanation also says that "in a recent term, more than 20 students with identified learning problems or disabilities took Independent Study with Professor Hagen because his expertise and interest in working with students in this area is well known."

Hanlon said because the university doesn't disaggregate students by disability status, he couldn't say whether more athletes had learning disabilities than students over all at the institution. “I have no reason to think there’s any kind of connection,” he said.

Bates, the faculty athletic representative, said he didn't find the number of athletes in Hagen's courses alarming. "What he was doing was focusing on a number of athletes who might be labeled at-risk and with learning problems." Bates said he's unsure if they are athletes with documented disabilities or not, but that many students heard from past students that Hagen had a record of helping students with different learning styles.

"I can't think of a professor who’s been more concerned with at-risk students than Hagen has over his time here," Bates said.

According to Michigan, in academic year 2006–7, nearly 4,000 undergraduate students enrolled in one or more independent study course. This year, Michigan has 716 athletes, but the university said it couldn't immediately provide data on how many athletes took independent studies courses.


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