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Thursday, August 10, 2006
Auburn clears athletic officials of grade wrongdoing

Associated Press

AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn athletics officials were cleared of wrongdoing by a university probe of claims that athletes improperly boosted their grades with easy independent study courses.

Interim university president Ed Richardson said at a news conference Thursday that an internal investigation determined athletes were not steered to the courses of sociology professor Thomas Petee, who was accused by a colleague of helping football players stay eligible by offering classes that required little work or no work.

"In addition, the investigation has not produced any evidence that the athletic program, coaches, counselors, or athletic staff ... had improper communication with or pressured faculty in any way," Richardson said.

Petee and another professor, who also gave "directed-reading" courses, have resigned their administrative posts. Both professors have tenure at Auburn and will continue to be members of the faculty, Richardson said.

Richardson said the probe, launched after sociology professor James Gundlach made the allegations reported in The New York Times last month about Petee's courses, found it was purely an academic matter. He said 82 percent taking the courses were non-athletes, 18 percent played a sport of some kind and 7.5 percent were football players.

The Times reported 18 members of the undefeated 2004 Auburn football team, including star running back Cadillac Williams, took a combined 97 hours of Petee's courses during their careers.

He said the school is now limiting the number of such "directed-reading," or independent study courses a professor can offer. In the 2004-2005 academic year, Petee had allowed some 250 students to take the courses, which don't require classroom attendance but one-on-one work with the professor.

Richardson said the investigation centered on the sociology department initially but also found problems in the adult education department.

He said Petee was resigning as interim director of the sociology department and James Witte was stepping down as program chair of adult education. Witte also had been allowing students to take independent study courses, but the numbers involved weren't immediately available.

Gundlach alleged that athletes who were at risk of losing eligibility were steered by university athletic officials to easy courses taught by Petee and others.

Richardson said 63 people were interviewed in the investigation and the panel handling the probe had access to more information than Gundlach. He said he is confident athletes were not being steered toward the courses as alleged, but those findings did not make the matter any less serious.

"Our academic reputation is far more important than all the athletic programs put together," he said.

Petee said Thursday he had no problems with the new policies and had anticipated having to give up his administrative duties.

Richardson said the investigation is expected to last about two more weeks. Some students who have graduated still need to be contacted.

He said he has been in contact with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which is Auburn's accrediting agency, and the NCAA, which governs college athletics. He said the completed report will be made public after it is reviewed by SACS.