Thursday, 13 December 2012

Why have we failed ourselves as we have failed our student-athletes?

The recent attention that Western Oklahoma State College has received for its 2-week online accelerated intersession courses provides an opportunity for universities to reflect on their purposes and the obligations they have to their students and faculty.

When I started writing I felt that this posting would be a bit of a diversion, but now I am not so sure. I think that we could extend the relevant points about our treatment of student athletes to any student. David Wicks’ (@dwicksspu) recent tweet drew my attention to an article in the New York Times by Kevin Carey titled Who Will Hold Colleges Accountable? that I found very interesting. Carey’s article was based on one by Brad Wolverton appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education a while ago, which was titled Need 3 Quick Credits to Play Ball? Call Western Oklahoma. Unfortunately there was no opportunity to share thoughts in the NY Times and the Chronicle article was 3 weeks old so the discussion has obviously gone stale. Now, I am left with this short posting.

The story covered in these articles resonated with me because it points to what seems to be a lack of accountability, sense of purpose, and reflection at some institutions that really should know better - our traditional research universities. The background of the articles is pretty simple. There has been a bunch of student athletes attending reputable national research universities who have been taking 2-week online courses from Western Oklahoma State College and are earning 3 “easy” and cheap credits. The articles focus on how such courses can keep a prized player on the “field” and away from academic ineligibility. Kevin Carey smartly outlines the problems with accreditation and the credit hour, which are topics that deserve and have gotten plenty of attention. Wolverton poked a bit at the major groups involved in the story including accreditors, athletes, the NCAA, Western Oklahoma State College, and the schools accepting credit.

I am taking the time to write this because this story strikes at what I think is a very serious integrity issue and a missing element in the dialogue. I reviewed the 60+ comments following the original Chronicle article and a few dozen others following related articles and although a lot of interesting comments were made about the integrity of college athletics, Western Oklahoma State College, and regional accreditation agencies, there was no real dialogue about the responsibilities that we have as academic communities to our students. When I refer to our students, I am thinking about those whom we have admitted into our academic programs, invited to participate in our community, and have pledged to serve as if the university will function as their alma mater. These students represent one of the principal purposes of our universities. The fact that some students are gifted athletes and have been awarded athletic scholarships, does not make them second-class students.

Just because a credit bearing course issues forth from an accredited school, and is ready for transfer, does not mean that the University is obligated to accept it. I would argue that it is the responsibility of everybody at the University from the registrar, to the student’s academic advisor, to the athlete's coach to review the credits and to ensure that the credits equate to those offered at the home campus and that the institution offering the credits has a pattern of doing so with integrity.

Judging by the following quote from Wolverton’s article, there is not only a pattern at Western Oklahoma, but the pattern is well understood and apparently accepted by university professionals charged with caring for the student’s development.
It's not just the speedy credit that appeals to many players. According to dozens of academic advisers, athletes, and coaches, Western Oklahoma offers some of the easiest classes around. One Division I football player who reads at a fifth-grade level completed a three-credit health class in three sittings, his academic counselor says. Other students struggling to stay above a 2.0 on their own campus have landed A's and B's from Western Oklahoma—all in the academic blink of an eye.

Although perhaps I should not be, I was astonished by what I read as it represents a profound lack of integrity at the universities accepting credits, a disservice to the public, and a truly horrible lack of respect for the students involved. It is my belief and sincere hope that this is not “best practice” or acceptable practice at our universities, yet I am left wondering why there was not much evidence of outrage directed at the universities accepting the transfer credit. Although I have read that as a result of Wolverton’s article the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges has committed to investigate western Oklahoma State College, I have not read anything from the universities that have accepted credit or who have actively referred their students to Western Oklahoma 10-day intersession courses.

I am not defending Western Oklahoma. I am not sure that there is anything to defend. After visiting their web site, I cannot discern any Western Oklahoman secrets that were unveiled by the stories in The Chronicle. Descriptions of their programs are open and easy to find, they describe their accreditation and governance, their faculty are listed, their purpose and mission are clearly stated, and so forth. I do not see any evidence of deception or misrepresentation on the part of Western Oklahoma State College. If there is any misdirection, it has to be happening at the students’ home institutions where apparently, at least for these students, the fact that the credits are from an accredited college is good enough for transfer. There was no felt need to review the courses for quality or for curricular coherence, even though everybody understands the pressure these young adults feel to remain eligible to perform in their school colours. Even though we know what these same pressures have done to mature professionals and we know the consequences. No flags were raised, no special attention was paid. Now if these credits were awarded for courses offered by their research intensive destination university would the courses be better, have more academic rigour, or be taught by more qualified faculty? I am guessing that they might be, but for one reason or the next that has not seemed to matter.

As mentioned above, these reports strike a chord. In my past few posts I have outlined which characteristics separate the “University” from other higher education institutions. The characteristics are complex and point to rather lofty purposes, but little of it matters if the universities themselves do not practice with integrity and care for their principal charges; students and faculty. Unlike suspending a professional athlete who breaks team rules or commits a crime, keeping a college player off the field due to academic disqualification is not a punishment, it is an obligation that an academic institution assumes when it admit the student. It is an opportunity to care for the academic needs of a student. The obligation is about setting priorities and about making good on our commitment to care for our students. It is also about respecting the integrity of an institution meant to seek truth above and beyond all else, and to which thousands of faculty have dedicated their scholarly lives. After all, without the students and without the faculty, we are left with athletes, coaches, and administrators. In this way we could shed some of our obligations.

A University is, according to the usual designation, an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill.

-Newman, John Henry

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