With the institution she leads, the University of Miami, in the midst of a football scandal that threatens to be among the worst in National Collegiate Athletic Association history, Donna E. Shalala might be forgiven for trying to change the conversation about Miami's sports program away from acknowledged rule breaking by current and former players, possible wrongdoing by university employees, and the potential imposition of the NCAA's "death penalty."
In the latest in a series of public statements she has made since the controversy broke several weeks ago, Shalala shifted the focus this week to the academic performance of Miami's athletes. In doing so, however, she engaged in some hyperbole about the institution’s standing and the company it keeps.
"Nationally, the academic achievements of our student athletes are mentioned in the same breath and spirit as Notre Dame and Stanford,” Shalala said in the video . “This is because we are first and foremost an academic institution."
Here's the problem: by the standard metrics used to gauge athletes’ academic performance -- graduation rates, eligibility and retention, and the majors athletes choose to study -- Miami does not approach the other two universities, which are often held out as models of institutions that have meshed academic excellence with high-octane athletics.
Miami’s 2010 federal graduation rate for all its scholarship athletes was 67 percent -- meaning that 67 percent of athletes who enrolled in the four years from 2000 to 2003 had earned their degrees within six years. While the federal rate counts students who transfer as non-graduates, the NCAA’s Graduation Success Rate – which the NCAA created to respond to institutions’ complaints about the federal rate – does not, so the latter is always more favorable. Miami’s 2010 GSR was 86 percent; the university points out that that is up from 77 percent in 2005, and that it since then has been consistently higher than the average Division I GSR.
Yet neither of those numbers places Miami anywhere close to Stanford or Notre Dame, which in 2010 tied as the universities with the highest federal graduation rate for athletes -- both graduated 91 percent of their athletes over all. In the GSR, meanwhile, Notre Dame came in first with 99 percent of athletes graduating, and Stanford seventh with 94 percent. (Their football players and male athletes score higher as well: Notre Dame football players are fourth, with a federal rate of 85 percent, and Stanford comes in sixth with 82 percent. For male athletes generally, the two universities tie for first with 87 percent. Miami's rates are 64 and 56 percent, respectively.)
Other institutions that made the top 10 in the federal rate are similarly unsurprising: they include Duke, Northwestern, Penn State, Rice and Wake Forest Universities, and Boston College. The Universities of Virginia and Miami of Ohio tied for 10th, with rates of 77 percent.
Asked to provide evidence that supports Shalala’s comparison, a Miami athletics spokeswoman pointed to  the baseball team’s most recent Academic Progress Rate, which the NCAA uses to measure eligibility and retention to indicate eventual graduation rates. (Teams must have at least half of their players on track to graduate -- which translates to APR of 930 -- or risk financial penalties or bans on post-season play.) Miami and Notre Dame baseball share an APR score of 989, and rank 20th in the nation. Miami's football APR actually beats out both Stanford and Notre Dame: those scores are 979, 977 and 971, respectively.
But Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College who has written extensively on sports at the collegiate and professional levels, called Shalala’s statements “preposterous.”
“[Miami is] not an awful school, but they’re certainly not one of the better schools in the country, and she’s trying to compare it to two of the better schools in the country,” Zimbalist said. “Students at Miami should not be spoken of in the same breath as students at Stanford, and probably not at Notre Dame.”
Since the NCAA invented the APR in 2003, critics have worried that it would discourage athletes from choosing difficult majors or from changing course once they started down a given track. Some have anticipated a “clustering” of athletes in certain majors, such as sociology or communication, and others have expressed concern about the creation of broad programs such as general studies with athletes in mind.
A 2008 analysis  by USA Today found that clustering happens at most institutions, and of the three sports programs Shalala compares, Miami football is most questionable, with 62.5 percent of the team studying one of two majors. While clustering on a small scale isn’t necessarily unusual, researchers who study the phenomenon say the 25-percent mark is where things start getting fishy.
A full 37.5 percent of Miami’s junior and senior football players were majoring in liberal arts in 2008, and 25 percent in sports administration. The same 37.5 percent of Stanford’s junior and senior softball players were in one major -- but it was human biology -- and 36.8 percent of baseball players majored in sociology. Notre Dame athletes didn’t cluster at all, according to USA Today's analysis.
Shalala's desire to compare Miami to Stanford and Notre Dame is understandable; they are among the most common examples (along, more recently, with Duke University) cited by presidents who hope to ride their universities' sports programs to greater public visibility and, ultimately, acceptance as scholarly powerhouses. But those institutions have sports programs that, in addition to their relatively strong academic performance, have also generally operated in accordance with NCAA rules and records of good sportsmanship -- areas in which Miami's football program, particularly, has sometimes fallen short.
Murray Sperber, a visiting professor in the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, said that after a scandal like this, it’s hard to believe anyone will equate Miami to Stanford.
“I assume that, like all universities, they have PR consultants,” Sperber, who has written several books on college sports, said of Shalala's statement. “It sounds like part of the advice is to be aggressive and get out front and say what a great school this is.... But it seems pretty transparent. It seems like a response to a situation rather than anything more.”