U aims to improve athlete academics

A study released last year outlines recommendations for improving performance.

Jake Grovum

As part of an ongoing effort at the University to improve student-athlete academic performance, officials have spent the past year implementing recommendations stemming from a study released last year.

University President Bob Bruininks and Provost Tom Sullivan asked the Academic Support and Performance for Student-Athletes Task Force to review and address issues related to student-athlete academic performance.

Following the completion of the report, the task force made five recommendations to officials to address concerns over student-athlete academics.

Task force co-chairwoman and kinesiology professor Mary Jo Kane, who also serves as vice chairwoman of the University Senate, said Sullivan took personal responsibility for implementing the recommendations.

The first recommendation was to centralize the collection and management of student-athlete academic information, which is intended to help streamline the monitoring of student-athlete academic performance, Sullivan said.

This process is already underway, Sullivan said, but officials plan to bring on one statistician to “centralize and take charge” of the process this summer.

One important part of monitoring academic performance is getting midsemester grades for student-athletes from faculty, said Tom Brothen, psychology professor and chairman of the Faculty Athletic Oversight Committee on Intercollegiate Athletics.

“How do we get the (McNamara Academic Center) involved with people they think should be doing all right, and all of a sudden aren’t?” Brothen said. “They know that early if the faculty responds to the requests for grades.”

Another recommendation of the task force was to identify “academically fragile” student-athletes and help them transition into college life.

The report states first-semester performance is the most critical predictor of academic success for student-athletes.

“That first semester performance stood out to me like a red flag,” Kane said. “You got to get academically fragile students off to the right start; otherwise they’re going to be in trouble.”

To address this issue, the University started the Summer Bridge Program last year, which was recommended by the task force.

The program brings student-athletes and nonathletes onto campus to attend classes and help ease them into college. Sullivan called the program a success and officials are now looking to expand it. Student-athletes were told to participate, Brothen said.

“It illustrates that the needs of the athletes might be different from the regular student body,” he said.

Another recommendation was to increase access to academic programs that are relevant to student-athletes, such as sports marketing or sports journalism.

Kane and Sullivan both said, like all students, student-athletes tend to do better in subject areas that interest them.

“This is an opportunity to identify classes students themselves say they would like an opportunity to take,” Sullivan said. “It’s not our effort to tell students what majors they should be in and then group or cluster them.”

As part of the task force recommendations, officials also look to track down student-athletes who were close to graduation, but never completed their education.

Sullivan said the streamlining of student-athlete academic information will assist in bringing back those student-athletes who never graduated.

Finally, the task force recommended increased efforts to integrate athletics with the broader University community.

Following the men’s basketball academic scandal in the 1990s, a number of “firewalls” were set up to prevent future problems, Kane said, which could have caused tension between athletics and the University.

Associate sociology professor and chairman of the Advisory Committee on Athletics Doug Hartmann said a luncheon series between faculty members and coaches has been held to help each side understand the other.

Hartmann said about 20 faculty members and coaches attend each event, a reality that can stunt change although the events have been effective to an extent.

“Twenty coaches is a big percentage of the coaching staff; 20 faculty is like a drop in the bucket,” he said. “They’re good, but they’re not going to have a big institutional change.”

Funding has been an issue, Hartmann said, as each event is as big as it can get financially.

“(That’s) one of the big issues with that whole task force report,” he said. “They have a lot of great ideas, but the question is which of those is the institution putting money to and what are they really supporting?”

The University if putting a “substantial” amount of money into each recommendation, Sullivan said, and officials are in the process of allocating funds to ensure the success of the programs.

“That’s the importance of the ongoing oversight,” Sullivan said, adding that all of the committees charged with following up on the task force’s recommendations are on schedule.