Stanford University on Wednesday found itself in an unaccustomed place: in the middle of a new media maelstrom about whether the academically elite institution's athletes were cutting corners — with the help of campus officials.
Trouble is, the allegation that provided the easy headline — that the university's athletics counseling staff was providing a list of "easy courses" to players — isn't fully accurate. But it's also true that Stanford officials' explanations for why the athletics department was providing a special (and selective) list of "courses of interest" to players in the first place were not entirely persuasive.
News of the existence of a list of courses for athletes prepared and distributed by Stanford's Athletic Academic Resource Center was first reported Wednesday on the California Watch website produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting. The article was produced by a group of Stanford students studying investigative reporting, and The Stanford Daily later republished it.
According to the article, the list included 41 classes offered during Stanford’s winter 2010-11 quarter in sections starting from 9 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., which tends to be the best part of the day for athletes to take courses, given their busy early morning and afternoon practice schedules.
The article's headline — "Stanford athletes had access to list of 'easy' classes" — and quotes from several athletes saying things like the courses were "always chock-full of athletes and very easy A's” left the clear impression that the list was purposely designed to point athletes to academic shortcuts.
Stanford officials strongly disputed that suggestion, but their protestations left some key questions unanswered.
When contacted initially, a Stanford spokeswoman confirmed the authenticity of the list, but said it contained all of the general education courses available during the identified times during the winter quarter — suggesting that the list was all-inclusive, and therefore not a guide to "easy" classes.
But Ryan Mac, a senior American studies major and one of the student reporters who discovered the list, walked an Inside Higher Ed reporter through the university’s online course directory to verify that there are general education courses that meet during that timeframe this winter quarter that were not included on the list. For example, ANTHRO 6, “Human Origins,” meets Monday and Wednesday at 1:15 p.m., and fulfills the national science general education requirement. ENGLISH 164, “Shakespeare,” meets Friday at 10 a.m., and meets the humanities gen ed requirement.
And some courses that do not fulfill general education requirements are also on the list, such as ATHLETIC 187, “Analysis of Human Movement.”
When that information was shared with Lisa Lapin, the Stanford spokeswoman, she said the list was never meant to be a collection of “easy courses,” as she says the student news story has led some to believe.
“The courses were placed on the list by a group of staff academic advisers, but there was not a formal process by which classes were chosen,” Lapin wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. “The criteria included: They meet common General Education Requirements, they are offered at times of day when more athletes are available, they are 1- or 2- unit seminars that athletes often will need to make sure they are meeting their 12 unit enrollment requirement (i.e. the dance class), they are very popular classes with all undergraduates, or classes that could provide information that would be particularly helpful to athletes, such as public speaking, financial literacy, and entrepreneurial thought.”
Lapin said she could not explain why certain courses that both met general education courses and were available at the chosen times were left off the list, or why some classes that did not fulfill the requirements appeared. She simply confirmed that there was "not a formal process by which classes were chosen."
She also took issue with the student news story's assertion that the practice of distributing this list to athletes had been discontinued. She said no formal action had occurred, but added that certain administrators felt that such a list might no longer be necessary, as students can search for courses which do not conflict with their athletic responsibilities on their own.
Gerald Gurney, president of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics, said he did not have firsthand knowledge of the list at Stanford, but the student reporters brought it to his attention. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, he questioned why such a list would be needed at all, and expressed concern that it appeared to select certain courses over others.
Pointing to his association’s code of ethics, he said, “It’s very specific that choosing the easiest path to ensure eligibility of student-athletes is unethical.”
Stanford athletes regularly receive high marks under the National Collegiate Athletic Association's benchmarks and measurements for academic success. The six-year federal graduation rate for its athletes is 91 percent. The NCAA-derived Graduation Success Rate for the university's athletes, counting transfers and not counting those who leave in good academic standing, is 94 percent.