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The men's basketball teams of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Syracuse University

Prescott Rossi | Flickr

Citing high-profile cases of academic fraud at some of the country's most visible universities, the American Council on Education released a report today urging colleges and universities to better align their athletics departments with their academic mission and to “ensure a culture of integrity.”

The report is based on a roundtable discussion, organized by the council in April, that included college presidents, coaches, athletes, faculty members, researchers, conference commissioners and the president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The panel was convened, ACE said, in the wake of a series of cases of academic fraud. Earlier that month, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Syracuse University -- two men’s basketball programs that had recently been investigated over academic fraud by the NCAA -- met in the Final Four of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. A week later, the NCAA punished the University of Southern Mississippi for academic fraud.

Since the April meeting, more cases of academic fraud emerged at the University of Mississippi, Georgia Southern University, the University of Notre Dame and California State University, Northridge. In total, the NCAA has punished Division I institutions at least 17 times for academic fraud in the last decade, with NCAA officials saying last year that 21 institutions were being investigated. Nine cases have occurred in the past two years.

“I think it’s moderately widespread and worth the attention of the university presidents and governing boards,” said Walter Harrison, president of the University of Hartford and former chair of the NCAA’s Committee on Academic Performance. “The problem is, in my view, that there is an enormous amount of money and attention flowing into athletics. College campuses are complex places, and within athletic departments, it’s pretty easy to sort of hide some of the problems that are happening.”

The ACE report focuses on three areas: culture of integrity, management of risk, and integration of athletes into the student body.

The panel recommended that institutions should have to cross a "very high bar" in adopting policies or practices that separate athletes from other students. Academic misconduct involving athletes "should be a functional responsibility of campus officials outside of athletics," the report stated.

Calling it a “top-down issue,” the ACE panel also stressed that institutions should not only offer study abroad and internship opportunities to athletes, but actively encourage them to pursue those opportunities. Coaches, the panel wrote, “need to understand and appreciate that student-athletes are students first, and need to be flexible in scheduling practices and travel to ensure academic preparation and opportunity.” This point previously emerged as a major theme at this year’s National Collegiate Athletic Association meeting, with Mark Emmert, the NCAA’s president, calling for a “rebalancing” of athletics and academics. The association has since agreed to consider proposals at next year’s meeting that would aim to better address access to internships, student teaching and study abroad programs for athletes.

While this recommendation does not address academic integrity specifically, the panel wrote, if colleges are going to better align athletics with academics, then "athletics should not be siloed and managed in a way that ignores its integration in and support of the academic mission of the institution."

Similarly, the report’s recommendations for integration included telling institutions to pay particular attention to diversity in hiring within athletics and the broader administration.

“Because of the opportunities for multicultural relationship building and recruiting in athletics, colleges and universities should make an effort to hire athletic directors, athletic staff and coaches from different backgrounds who can be relatable role models for student-athletes,” the ACE panel wrote.

According to a study released last month by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, more than three-quarters of presidents at the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision colleges were white men, as were nearly 79 percent of athletics directors. About 7 percent of athletics directors were women, and all of them were white. Nearly 90 percent of faculty athletics representatives were white, as were 100 percent of conference commissioners.

While more than half of college football players are black, 87 percent of Football Bowl Subdivision head coaches are white.

In September, the NCAA urged college presidents and conference commissioners to sign a new pledge promising to “specifically commit to establishing initiatives for achieving ethnic and racial diversity, gender equity, and inclusion with a focus on hiring practices in intercollegiate athletics.” While many in college sports praised the creation of the pledge, the effort was also criticized for its lack of sanctions for those who do not honor it.

The report also comes at a time when the NCAA’s members are debating what role the association should continue to play in preventing and punishing academic fraud. Earlier this year, just prior to the ACE’s April meeting, the NCAA's Division I Council adopted new rules designed to update its academic integrity policies for the first time since 1983.

For decades, the NCAA has laid out what counts as academic misconduct, clearly barring college employees from completing athletes’ course work for them, for example, and banning any “knowing involvement in arranging for fraudulent academic credit or false transcripts” for athletes.

Colleges must now “maintain and adhere to written academic integrity policies that apply to the entire student body.” If a college breaks its own rules, the NCAA would consider that to be a case of academic misconduct. At the same time, the new rule redefines “impermissible academic assistance” as “academic conduct involving a staff member or booster that falls outside of a school’s academic misconduct policies, provides a substantial impact on the student-athlete’s eligibility and is not the type of academic assistance” generally available to all students.

“We did not have a regulatory framework in place to ensure appropriate guidelines for all of our institutions,” John DeGioia, president of Georgetown University and chair of ACE’s Board of Directors, said. “That was what led the NCAA to go down the route of crafting new legislation. But it also created the context in which [ACE] recognized there is more we can do create this culture of integrity that is at the heart of this report.”

The panel also recommended that colleges “publish and operate under clear mission statements that stress that educational values, practices and mission will determine the standards by which intercollegiate athletics programs are conducted.” College presidents must “be engaged, informed and realistic,” the report states, “and hold staff and student-athletes accountable.”

Staffers in academic advising and support services for athletes, the panel wrote, should report to senior academic officials, ensuring that there is “regular access, communication and oversight. Athletic directors, coaches and faculty athletics representatives should never be perceived as operating outside of presidential oversight.” Colleges and universities should have processes in place to identify “unusual course or major clustering” involving athletes, and institutions should conduct annual audits of the athletics program in areas including admission, academic progress and graduation rates.

David Ridpath, professor of sports administration at Ohio University and president of the Drake Group, an organization pushing for more emphasis on academics in college sports, said the recommendations were "sound and good," but criticized the report for not going far enough. He said that ensuring academic integrity in big-time college sports would require a "paradigm shift," not a series of best practices. The Drake Group was not involved in ACE's roundtable discussion in April.

"Talk is cheap," Ridpath said. "Are they willing to drop non traditional seasons? Move academic advisement completely out of athletic control? Restrict summer volunteering voluntary training? Adopt the Drake Group's freshman ineligibility plan? I could go on. It's a nice report that will gather dust, essentially."

Some of the report's recommendations are “blindingly obvious,” members of the ACE panel admitted in a phone call with reporters Monday, and similar guidelines and auditing processes are already in place at institutions for monitoring the integrity of scholarly research, for example. But the panel said recent cases of academic fraud demonstrate a need to better apply those practices to athletics departments.

“We know how to sustain a culture of integrity,” DeGioia said. “We have quite a bit of experience in sustaining this in a context involving research. This is a time to connect the deep aspects of what we know to our intercollegiate athletics programs.”

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