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Experts’ Roundtable: Academics

By Justin Miller, American, Derek Cowherd, SEC, Jason Linders
18 min read

How has the new NCAA Academic Integrity legislation altered how your department operates on a daily basis?


Justin Miller – Temple (Senior Director, Resnick Academic Support Center for Student-Athletes): Establishing and maintaining a culture of earned academic success remains the top priority of our department. The new legislation raises the stakes and adds new layers of consequences for student-athletes and other parties involved. The most obvious adjustments we have had to make is a close review of Temple’s policy on academic integrity, as well as our internal processes and written protocol on matters of academic dishonesty. We have worked to eliminate any potential perception of interference by members of the academic staff and fully deferred to Compliance. Additionally, through collaboration with our Faculty Athletics Representative and Compliance Department, we have implemented an education outreach plan for Temple’s faculty on the new legislation and its potential impact on them and their students.


Derek Cowherd – Ole Miss (Senior Associate AD for Academic Support): There have been no wholesale changes to the way we or our Compliance department operate or monitor potential academic integrity cases. Our role is to simply assist faculty and academic departments in delivering a great curriculum to all students. And if that means digging a little deeper than they are accustomed to on a potential academic integrity matter, the faculty do not frown upon that. They welcome it. We take all academic matters very seriously and do our absolute best to follow all institutional, NCAA and SEC guidelines in all that we do, but especially in academics. So assisting faculty or staff starts and ends with their recommendations to us on how they handle their own situations in accordance with the Mississippi Creed, student M-Book or university catalog. In some cases we have even taken potential matters to them, only to find that there was nothing there.


So from my vantage point, the new legislation has been beneficial because it has opened up dialogue among athletics administrators and campus academic officials and fostered greater confidence in what we do in academic support. The new legislation has given us an opportunity to share the great lengths we go to ensure our student-athletes are performing well in the classroom as well as on the field with the utmost integrity. I’ve seen living proof that this openness and transparency has improved on campus relationships.


Amy Crosbie – Weber State (Associate AD & SWA): The new legislation has caused our department to renew its commitment to strengthening relationships with campus entities involved with the enforcement of academic integrity. Collaborative efforts have increased to improve the way we monitor and adhere to campus policies. The more you preach a culture of academic integrity the more likely student-athletes will be successful.


At Weber State, we have increased communication with boosters and partnered with campus to train mentors and tutors to assist student-athletes appropriately. It is important to express to the campus community that academic integrity issues are taken seriously within the athletic department. I have been able to speak annually at new faculty orientation and I let the faculty know they have a direct line to the athletic director and/or myself to discuss student-athlete concerns. The level of engagement from the athletic director regarding academic integrity issues is paramount. The athletic director along with staff works to educate coaches and student-athletes on the standard of excellence and the role they each play in fostering an environment of academic integrity. We weave this message into rules education sessions, head coaches meetings, student-athlete orientation, and when we meet with individual teams. When a question of academic misconduct occurs involving a student-athlete the athletic director, faculty athletics representative, senior woman administrator, head coach, compliance and academic staff are all involved to properly deal with the situation and ensure institutional policies are followed.


Jason Linders – Grand Canyon (Senior Associate AD for Student-Athlete Development): The new legislation didn’t really alter how our Athletics department operates. With our transition to Division I and new hires within our athletic administration, we have been implementing policies consistent with campus academic integrity policies that apply to the entire student body. Being involved in the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics (N4A), we’ve been discussing the new legislation for some time and I think all of us in this industry appreciate the rules designed to assist with academic preparedness, proper emphasis on coursework, and an opportunity for the student-athletes we work with to meet progress toward degree benchmarks.


One thing we pride ourselves on at GCU is there are no silos on campus, so the way campus operates makes it easier to communicate between campus administration and athletics regarding academic integrity issues involving student-athletes. Additionally, over the last year, we have worked to educate our faculty, staff, and other employees that may work with student-athletes on impermissible academic assistance compared to the type of academic assistance generally available to all students.


We’re in the midst of another season of Football Head Coaching changes. Every Head Coach around the nation says they are “totally committed” to student-athlete academic success. What does that really mean for a new Head Coach & his/her staff within their first 90 days at a new institution? What should the coaching staff & the academic staff be establishing right out of the gates? 


Miller (Temple): The first 90 days of a new head coach’s tenure is imperative for establishing a culture of academic success. Their message and actions will set the tone for the semester and beyond. For a coach to be totally committed it would include meeting with the academic services staff to understand the culture he/she is inheriting. A full review of academic performance of individual students, APR and GSR would assist in providing context for the program and allowing the new coach to determine next steps and what is needed for their program. It is essential for a new coaching staff to establish a comprehensive communication plan to set expectations on what information will flow to whom and when throughout the semester. Also, establishing clear expectations on academic performance and behaviors with the student-athletes – including an accountability plan – will set the groundwork for a smooth transition and successful semester.


Cowherd (Ole Miss): Our Athletics Director, Ross Bjork, made a commitment almost five years ago to try to keep consistency among our FB coaching staff and that has paid off. We have seen rising graduation rates, APR rates and GPAs across the board each year. Thankfully, in my 15+ years in the profession, I’ve not seen much coaching turnover. But like anyone who takes over a new post, in the first 90 days, a new Head Coach and his/her staff should take time to evaluate all of the things that work and all of the things that could use improvement. I can only imagine all of the pressures a new Coach to a new university must be going through, but as an academic leader, the same goes for the staff that supports him or her.  We, in general all have the same interests at heart, the student-athletes’ academic success. So, getting on the same page philosophically with the existing staff and setting expectations, from both ends, is paramount.  A new Coach who announces at the first team meeting that academics is a priority and backs it up with consistent action and accountability measures among all position coaches is ideal.


My staff and I were blessed to have come into a situation in 2012 with Coach Freeze who truly made academics a priority. We came together to set up a support plan that has worked for us with weekly coaches’ meetings with all coaches present, as well as attention to the details of the Daily Report for our student-athletes. But, it is my opinion that only after a full semester, can a coach see what low hanging fruit is in the existing support structure and what recommendations they need to make with the administration. There may be some situations where more immediate action needs to be taken, but when a coach starts to show interest in a program, it has been my experience that greater attention to an area draws greater focus and resources. And, if someone really knows what they’re doing, has the best interest of the student-athletes at heart, and the coaches back them, there is nothing that cannot be accomplished.


Crosbie (Weber State): First and foremost, student-athletes are central to our concerns when we have a coaching change, and we help them recognize they must stay focused on their academic work through the hiring process. A new coaching staff must quickly evaluate the academic needs of their program and work with the academic staff to ensure that everything is in place to assist the student-athletes. Evaluating the commitment level of each student-athlete to his or her own academic success can be identified by meeting with them one-on-one to review their academic profile and establish expectations. Then those expectations must be followed with a consistent enforcement for all team members. New coaching staffs must have a strong plan in place on how they plan to monitor the academic progress of their student-athletes and each assistant coach should be involved in that plan.


We hold coaches accountable to their team APR score and frequently review APR projections for each program and share those numbers with the FAR and President. In addition, the President meets with coaches annually to discuss head coach responsibility and spends time on their role in developing a culture of academic integrity. Coaches’ contracts include financial incentives for APR scores at 950 or above. Winning is important, but coaches must be equally invested in the success of their student-athletes in the classroom.


Linders (Grand Canyon): For me, having worked with three new Head Coaches at two of my previous institutions, it’s all about creating a culture of accountability! Within their first 90 days at the new institution (between building their staffs and recruiting), they should be building relationships with the student-athletes, support staff, administration, and anyone who is working with their student-athletes. I’ve never been in a situation where we were successful academically without the support, collaboration, and expectations from the top down. Out of the gate, if they are setting the same expectations off of the field and in the classroom as they are on the field and the consequences for academic misses are parallel, the culture established will take care of itself!


A head coach is recruiting a prospective student-athlete you’ve thoroughly checked out from an academic standpoint & just don’t think will be able to hang at your institution. How do you frame an “academic mismatch” situation to the Head Coach? Are there characteristics of prospective student-athletes that you’ve identified that indicate he/she will actually perform at a higher academic level than what they have in high school?


Miller (Temple): Athletic talent is a tremendous thing; it can lead to success on the field/court and bring championships, winning seasons, etc. Unfortunately, that same athletic talent can also blind coaches into thinking certain students are capable of academic success at your institution. Subsequently, it is imperative that coaches have a true and honest evaluation of their institution and serve as good stewards of the mission by recruiting students able to meet the expectations of faculty. Strategy in working with coaches in these situations tends to rely on data to help in assisting coaches understand the impact a student may have on our department and services, as well as their program. Analyzing performance patterns of individual student-athletes with similar academic profiles and providing data to coaches can, at the very least, set the expectations of the needed support and collaboration needed for the student in question.


I find that student-athletes with more dynamic personalities, active listening skills and positive affect, can effectively establish relationships with their faculty and academic support staff at the college level. These connections can serve as the foundation for students to potentially overachieve against their high school profile.


Cowherd (Ole Miss): I think anyone who has worked in this profession for more than a couple of years knows that when we meet recruits, we always hear that these are all “good kids…” And, in most cases they are. But it is our job to meet the students where they are, know their shortcomings, but not convict them of their past. Once they arrive, they are one of us, so we must regard them as such and assist them in being a successful student at UM. We make it a point to not let the student regress back into any bad habits or behaviors as they start a new chapter in their lives. Extensive summer bridge programming, leadership opportunities, community service opportunities, and life skills programming is very important to set early expectations.


Our Compliance team and coaches work well together with our FedEx academic staff. It took a little while, but we have built the relationships with the coaches to the point where we know each student’s struggles before they arrive on campus. We are given the students’ contacts at schools such as: Guidance Counselors, teachers, HS coaches, parents, etc. once they’ve signed their NLI. In essence we already know our at-risk students prior to their arrival and have a plan for them before they take their initial battery of tests or academic assessments. We also have a 9A committee who is comprised of the Admissions Office, Registrar’s Office, Student Affairs, Dean of Students, FAR, Financial Aid, and many others who meet to decide whether a prospective student is admissible and/or a good fit for our institution. All SEC members are required to evaluate on whether a student can be successful or not at their institutions. In almost all accounts this committee has been very accurate.


Crosbie (Weber State): A possible student-athlete “academic mismatch” with your institution can be framed to a coach in the context of the potential effect it can have on a team’s APR and GSR. The goal is to graduate student-athletes, not to merely help them survive the progress-towards-degree benchmarks that keep them eligible to compete. To accomplish this goal, you want to identify student-athletes who can thrive and grow in the environment your institution offers. A full academic evaluation is done prior to the sign off of a potential student-athlete coming on an official visit. If concerns are identified the athletic director is involved in the decision of whether to continue the recruitment of that student-athlete whose academic profile falls below the standard target measures. If approved, the athletic director, head coach, and the academic and compliance staffs are involved in identifying the campus and department resources that a student-athlete will need to thrive academically and ultimately graduate.


The high school core GPA continues to be the strongest indicator of potential success for a prospective student-athlete. We also evaluate the ACT and SAT score in concert with the core GPA for those who are on the bubble of the department standard for admittance. The team APR score is how we identify if a program has the latitude to sign a student-athlete who falls below the set standard. We apply a higher standard on some sports by requiring their prospective student-athletes to have a minimum of a 2.75 core GPA out of high school. Ultimately, coaches need to measure a PSA’s desire to succeed academically just as much as they evaluate their desire to succeed athletically.


Linders (Grand Canyon): Those are always tough conversations and when a head coach really wants a prospective student-athlete, there is seldom anything you can say to change their mind on recruiting them. However, if you have a good relationship with your head coach and can have those candid conversations, I think it’s always effective to compare the prospective student-athlete to a current student-athlete on the team who has struggled throughout their time at your institution, so the coach can understand how many resources we’ve had to dedicate to supporting an academically “at-risk” or under-skilled/under-prepared student-athlete, as well as the time spent in weekly staff meetings on those individuals. Most head coaches will counter by emphasizing the amount of academic support services (depending on the institution) that are available to student-athletes, so they can be successful and will promise their and/or the position coach’s support!


Characteristics of prospective student-athletes that I look for to indicate performing at a higher level start with the fundamentals because similar to sports, the better you are at fundamentals, the better you will play in the game. Obviously, research demonstrates that a higher cumulative GPA is a better indicator for future academic success than standardized test scores, but how did they arrive at their cumulative GPA? Without a solid foundation, student-athletes will encounter academic troubles as the subjects they study become more diverse and complex. Hopefully, I’m able to spend some time with each recruit during their unofficial or official visit where I’m gauging their attitude towards school. Do they ask questions and have problem-solving skills? Can they accurately and effectively communicate? Are they competitive in the classroom as much as they are on the field or in the arena? If a student-athlete can think critically, communicate and compete in everything they do, they have the characteristics I look for to perform at a higher academic level than what they did in high school.


Strong relationships with key faculty members on campus are an essential piece of a strong student-athlete academic success program. What is an effective example of how you & your team build strong bonds with campus-based leaders?


Miller (Temple): Faculty relations are essential for our department and the student-athlete experience at Temple. The story of the academic success of Temple’s student-athletes is remarkable and is due in large part to our efforts to establish meaningful and impactful relationships with faculty across campus. Our staff view every interaction with a professor – whether a travel letter, email or grade check – as an opportunity to engage and connect with a professor. I personally work to get on every agenda of faculty senate, collegial assembly and departmental meetings as I possibly can. This type of outreach helps provide context on the work being done in our department and allows me to hear first hand the perceptions of faculty at our institution. The resounding feedback I hear is that faculty appreciate that it is our student-athletes who initiate much, if not all, of the communication. Very little can be more effective in positive faculty relations than student-athletes attending office hours and actively participating in class, so our staff – with the help of the appropriate coaching staff – focus on facilitating this type engagement.


Cowherd (Ole Miss): That is a great question and from my experience, it is different on each campus. For UM, it was campus communication. There is this myth (sometimes) on campuses that athletic departments operate in their own silos. In some cases this is right, just because no one can know all of the inner workings of an academic unit, let alone an entire athletic department. But, what we set out to do almost five years ago was to open up communications. While we have an excellent, very fair, objective and very active Faculty Athletics Representative, he is but one person. So, we have to do our part as academicians. I think our most effective example is our Faculty Guest Coach Program. In this program, we spend time with the faculty or staff member and tour them around our facilities and share our philosophy, program attributes and some of our student successes. In most instances, we learn just as much from the faculty and staff as to what pressures and stresses they go through to deliver a great curriculum to their students. Once we all meet and tour our facilities, view a practice and a competition, new faculty members come away with a new appreciation of the daily walk of our students who happen to be athletes.


Another asset has been to become fully immersed in campus happenings, reading the daily bulletins, knowing the major concerns of the campus by regularly attending Academic Administrator meetings, all dean meetings, faculty senate, undergraduate council and staff council meetings. But, the most effective approach that has provided dividends is just sharing your core values, living by them and never straying. While we are strong advocates for our student-athletes, we are always going to stand for what is right and what is fair for all parties involved.


Crosbie (Weber State): We work hard to build relationships of trust with faculty at Weber State. It is important that staff members are engaged in campus issues and participate on campus boards and committees that allow us to demonstrate and fulfill our commitment to the university. You develop strong bonds when you actively integrate staff into the campus community and become part of important discussions and decisions. The Director of Compliance regularly attends faculty senate meetings; we engage faculty by involving them with the Athletic Board and Compliance Committee; the SWA speaks at the university’s new faculty orientation program; staff interfaces with admissions, financial aid, the registrar’s office, and the Dean of Students regularly, and not only in times of need. When you focus on building relationships with campus based leaders and identify ways to serve them and their initiatives a strong working group dedicated to the success of student-athletes is established. We do not want to be seen as existing on an island, independent from campus. We need the support of faculty to continue to grow and improve the way we service student-athletes.


We encourage appropriate relationships between faculty and coaches. The women’s basketball program recognizes the work of faculty members by making them an honorary coach and allows them to experience a game day with the team. However, we do not allow coaches to speak directly with a faculty member about the academic progress of a student-athlete. Those conversations are reserved for the student-athlete or academic advisor to initiate.


Lastly, our FAR is a key part of maintaining a strong relationship with campus faculty. We’re fortunate enough to have a FAR who has worked on campus for over 30 years and who has served as chair of his department and the faculty senate during that time. As such, he is well respected by his faculty peers and his perspective carries weight with them.


Linders (Grand Canyon): It definitely takes a village to support our student-athletes, so you need strong relationships with the Provost, the deans of each college, your FAR, faculty, and other campus constituents. We have been able to be successful building strong bonds at GCU and our previous institutions by being transparent with our vision, values & mission on how we will support and develop our young people. At most institutions, including GCU, we have an Athletics Advisory Board comprised of different campus constituents, including deans, the FAR, etc., where we are able to meet and educate, update, have discussion, and ask for feedback. It is critical that they understand what your vision, values & mission are and that you build relationships with them and earn their support!


In addition, we try to include faculty and staff members in our Honorary Coaches Program, where they are able to spend time with one of their student-athletes (from their class) and their respective team, as well as attend team meetings, maybe a team meal, practice, and their competition, in order to understand the demands and rigor of being a student-athlete. At previous institutions, we have also established Faculty Appreciation Events at different athletic venues, invited faculty to a variety of athletic events and been intentional about serving on campus committees that include faculty/staff members.