Five years ago this summer, one of the most embarrassing articles ever written about Auburn was printed in the New York Times. Pete Thamel reported that more than 100 students, some of them athletes, received sociology class credit for writing a 10-page term paper instead of attending a traditional class.
It was presented as an athletic scandal, and there was that aspect to it, but the option was offered to many students, athlete and non-athlete, in the department that included sociology, social work, criminology and anthropology. Almost all of the credits granted were in sociology and criminology.
The Times was contacted by Jim Gundlach, a professor of sociology. Gundlach had discovered the practice after seeing an Auburn football player (and sociology major) recognized on television for academic achievement. Gundlach had never had the athlete in class; neither had the colleagues he asked about it. He said he tried to get the situation addressed, with no response. So he called the New York Times.
Side story: A Times reporter actually came to the Department of Communication and Journalism to interview our administrator, who was the secretary in the above department when all this was happening. Thanks to great timing, I was out with the flu that week, but I didn’t find out about the interviews until the actual story broke. No one in the department thought a journalism professor would be interested in a New York Times journalist visiting, it seems.
The story was cast as an independent study scandal, but in fact, it went deeper than that. The faculty member involved (I will not name him here because it seems he has suffered enough misery for what he did) did not merely grant independent study credit to students. He actually granted them credit in required sociology classes, with some students using the option in several such classes.
Even crazier: The faculty member involved was a criminology professor. So he was granting credit in a discipline and major where he did not even hold faculty rank. How did this get approved? The faculty member also happened to be the department chair, so he approved the independent studies without the other faculty members’ knowledge.
To draw an analogy, it would be like me, a journalism professor, granting students credit in required radio-television-film classes, requiring only 10-page papers. If that had happened, in marking the anniversary, you would have recognized it as the 5-year anniversary of my death at the hands of my colleagues.
Although this was an academic situation — and a bad one — the athletic angle got the most attention, and the story caused Auburn to suffer great embarrassment, and more than a few mean jokes. My personal favorite was the gas station sign: “Three Auburn credits in sociology with fill-up.”
I don’t blame the students who took advantage of this situation. The problem lies with the supplier, not the consumer. All students, regardless of their situations, look for the most efficient way to complete their degrees. When an easy class is presented, they take what is offered. It’s the institution’s responsibility to do the policing.
And police they did, to their credit. Now, independent studies are a lot more involved. We need to submit multi-page syllabuses, not just a signed form with a paragraph description, before the student is registered. Another change is that, not surprising, faculty members make all sorts of unpleasant faces when approached to do independent studies.
The faculty member involved is at Auburn University-Montgomery. I’m not 100 percent certain what his situation is. His major at Auburn, criminology, is no longer offered.
Thamel continues to write about college football and Auburn. Some feel that he jumped on several Cam Newton-related stories with poor sourcing. Suffice it to say that he has not had a story with this level of information as it relates to Auburn’s Heisman Trophy winner. Realize too, of course, that this story came to him; his digging was minimal.
I tried to contact Gundlach for an update, but I have not heard back. If and when I do, I will publish an update here. He did retire from the Auburn University faculty. I met him at a party at a mutual friend’s house. When the story broke, he told me, he got quite a few angry e-mails and phone messages from Auburn fans. He also got a lot of positive recognition for bringing this information to the public’s attention. I am curious what the response is now.
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