University of Michigan faculty members who advise athletic department, rule on athlete eligibility get free trip to bowl game
University of Michigan faculty members who help guide the university's athletic department and determine the eligibility of student-athletes will travel on the department's dime to the Wolverines' bowl game this winter.
It's a practice the U-M Senate Advisory Committee on Academic Affairs unsuccessfully attempted to halt in January 2009 to eliminate any real or perceived conflicts of interest.
The athletic department, using its National Collegiate Athletic Association travel allotment, pays for members of two oversight committees to join the team on trips to bowl games, including airfare and lodging.
The faculty senate called on President Mary Sue Coleman to end the free trips — but that didn't happen, and the committees will follow the football team to whichever bowl game it lands this year, university spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said.
Michigan’s football team hasn’t been in a bowl game since January 2008, but won the minimum six games this year to be eligible for post-season play.
“The faculty members are a part of all aspects of the athletic department program,” Cunningham said in an e-mail. “They play a critical role and are part of our student-athlete experience.”
The faculty will travel as part of the university’s official party, and each person will be allowed to bring a guest. Committee members eligible to attend include eight current faculty members, as well as a handful of students, alumni and others.
Physics Professor Keith Riles, who led the charge to end the free trips last year, relaunched his campaign on Nov. 8, and received an e-mail from Provost Phil Hanlon on Nov. 13 telling him the university was “managing” any conflicts of interest inherent in the free trip.
Faculty members serve as part of two committees. The first is the Advisory Board of Intercollegiate Athletics, a larger group that also includes student-athletes, alumni and administrators.
The faculty members of the ABIA make up the Academic Performance Committee, along with a representative of the Registrar’s Office and a member of the Office of the Provost. That committee is “advisory to the provost on all matters pertaining to the academic welfare of student athletes.” The APC also determines whether athletes are eligible, subject to the final authority of the provost, university policies state.
“It is worth pointing out the logic behind having the same faculty members serve on both the ABIA and APC,” according to a university management plan about the committees. “Matters considered by the ABIA often pertain to the academic interests and welfare of student athletes. So it is in the university’s best interests that the faculty members on the ABIA have as full an understanding of the challenges student-athletes face in being successful in the classroom and in their athletic pursuits. Members of the APC have much greater knowledge of the pressures and constraints on student-athletes than do ordinary faculty.”
The Academic Performance Committee makes recommendations, such as a push for priority registration for student-athletes, Cunningham said. The group also reviews practice schedules and competition calendars for appropriate study days and final exam times, she said.
Before a 2003-04 NCAA Re-accreditation Self-Study, the Academic Performance Committee was a free-standing body that didn't report to anyone and made all decisions on the eligibility of student athletes.
The study recommended — and the Board of Regents agreed — to have the committee report to the provost.
The committee now acts as an advisor to Hanlon on eligibility issues. Cunningham did not say how many cases it had advised on over the past several years but noted that the two provosts preceding Hanlon — who started this year — made decisions contrary to the committee’s advice. She said Hanlon has agreed with the committee’s recommendations in the two eligibility cases this year.
“Disagreements are rare because the APC takes its responsibilities so seriously,” Cunningham said.
In January 2009, the full faculty senate voted 19-11 to approve a resolution calling for the free trips to end. Administrators haven't responded.
Riles pushed the issue again after the Wolverines qualified for a bowl game this year.
“In light of that prospect and of the concerns about potential conflict of interest that drove the assembly resolution, have you decided yet on whether or not to continue APC bowl game reimbursements?” Riles wrote in a Nov. 8 e-mail to U-M President Mary Sue Coleman. “I realize that you stated publicly before the assembly meeting that you yourself were not troubled by the potential conflict of interest because you had full confidence in the APC faculty. But I hope that the fact that elected faculty representatives are themselves troubled by this compensation policy will lead (or has already led) you to err on the side of eliminating any appearance of such conflict in the future.
“At a time when our football program is under NCAA probation, ending the reimbursement policy voluntarily and unilaterally would send a strong message that U-M is moving in a positive and leading direction.”
Riley received a return e-mail from Hanlon, who said that because the committee reports to him, it is more applicable for him to address the issue.
“We are in complete agreement that potential conflicts of interest need to be managed,” Hanlon wrote. “A written management plan should be on file in the appropriate office whenever a potential conflict of interest arises, and that plan must be scrupulously followed."
In this case, Hanlon said, such a management plan has been on file in the Provost’s Office for a number of years, and steps have been taken to put it into practice.
That plan acknowledges “there is an appearance of conflict of interest in this situation. The faculty members who jointly serve on the ABIA and APC are asked to render advice to the provost on eligibility of student athletes and are simultaneously being offered an opportunity to participate in the official party at bowl games with expenses covered by the athletic department.”
The management plan says the conflict of interest possibility is mitigated because faculty members on the ABIA — who therefore serve on the Academic Performance Committee — are appointed by the president. Of the eight, six are chosen by the president based on faculty senate recommendations, and two are chosen based on athletic director nominations.
“So the athletic department is not involved in the ultimate choice of these faculty and is not even involved in the nomination of most of them," the management plan reads.
The plan also says the provost holds ultimate authority to make all decisions on eligibility of student-athletes, and the vice-provost attends Academic Performance Committee meetings and relays its recommendations to the provost. Neither the provost nor the vice-provost receive any financial benefit or bowl game trips subsidized by the athletic department, according to the plan.
In a return e-mail to Hanlon and Coleman, Riley said he’s seen the plan and believes U-M needs to go further. He also questions how attending bowl games enhances the ability of APC faculty to oversee the academic performance of U-M athletes.
“One can mange a conflict of interest or eliminate it,” Riles wrote. “I believe that the explicit preference of elected faculty representatives simply to eliminate the conflict should be respected.
“Although I can well understand why the athletic department favors reimbursements, I do not understand why you or Mary Sue would favor them. I urge you to reflect further on whether management or elimination is the appropriate way to address concerns voiced by the assembly.”
David Jesse covers higher education for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or at 734-623-2534.