One of the university’s prominent football players was being honored as a scholar athlete for his work as a sociology major. Professor Gundlach, the director of the Auburn sociology department, had never had the player in class. He asked two other full-time sociology professors about the player, and they could not recall having taught him, either.
So Professor Gundlach looked at the player’s academic files, which led him to the discovery that many Auburn athletes were receiving high grades from the same professor for sociology and criminology courses that required no attendance and little work.
Eighteen members of the 2004 Auburn football team, which went undefeated and finished No. 2 in the nation, took a combined 97 hours of the courses during their careers. The offerings resemble independent study and include core subjects like statistics, theory and methods, which normally require class instruction.
The professor for those players and many other athletes was Thomas Petee, the sociology department’s highest-ranking member. The star running back Carnell (Cadillac) Williams, now playing in the National Football League, said the only two classes he took during the spring semester of his senior year were one-on-one courses with Professor Petee.
At one point, Professor Petee was carrying the workload of more than three and a half professors, an academic schedule that his colleagues said no one could legitimately handle.
“It was a lot of work,” Professor Petee said. “And I basically wore myself out.”
Colleges have long offered easy courses, and athletes are by no means the only ones who sign up. Under new National Collegiate Athletic Association rules, however, colleges whose athletes do not meet academic standards can be penalized, sometimes by having the number of their athletic scholarships reduced. That change is intended to help ensure that student athletes receive a legitimate education. But the change can also increase the pressure on colleges to find ways to keep athletes from failing.
In Auburn’s case, the sociology department and one of its leaders became just the ticket.
Auburn, a public university in eastern Alabama with more than 23,000 students, has a storied football tradition. The team won a national championship in 1957 and has a track record of producing professional players, most notably the football and baseball star Bo Jackson.
Professor Petee’s directed-reading classes, which nonathletes took as well, helped athletes in several sports improve their grade-point averages and preserve their athletic eligibility. A number of athletes took more than one class with Professor Petee over their careers: one athlete took seven such courses, three athletes took six, five took five and eight took four, according to records compiled by Professor Gundlach. He also found that more than a quarter of the students in Professor Petee’s directed-reading courses were athletes. (Professor Gundlach could not provide specific names because of student privacy laws.)
The Auburn football team’s performance in the N.C.A.A.’s new rankings of student athletes’ academic progress surprised many educators on and off campus. The team had the highest ranking of any Division I-A public university among college football’s six major conferences. Over all among Division I-A football programs, Auburn trailed only Stanford, Navy and Boston College, and finished just ahead of Duke.
Among those caught off guard by Auburn’s performance was Gordon Gee, the chancellor of Vanderbilt, a fellow university in the Southeastern Conference and its only private institution. Vanderbilt had an 88 percent graduation rate in 2004, compared with Auburn’s 48 percent, yet finished well behind Auburn in the new N.C.A.A. rankings.