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Rice takes steps to avoid 'phantom class' scandal

By Jieya Wen     12/3/14 7:13am

In response to recent reports from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill of athletes taking classes for eligibility without actually attending them, Rice University is reexamining potential risk factors that could lead to these “phantom classes.”

Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson said these phantom classes, which reportedly sometimes require no class attendance or work, compromise the academic integrity of sports programs, and are opposed to Rice University’s standards.

“[Rice] will never compromise any of our ethical standards on any principle,” Hutchinson said. “We don’t think we have similar issues, but it requires vigilance to make sure that we will not.”

According to Hutchinson, there are four academic advisors for athletes in the Office of Academic Advising. The advising for athletes is under a unified system so that it is analogous to the advising for other students. The only additional factor for the advising of athletes is to make sure the scheduling of classes accommodates the special demands on athletes’ time.

“One of the ways that is significant in Rice is the fact that the academic advising of athletes is not part of the athletic program,” Hutchinson said. “We carefully coordinate between Dr. Karlgaard’s office and mine to make sure that we are doing the best for our students. That significantly reduces the possibility of the conflict of interest that can result and compromise the academic integrity like UNC-Chapel Hill.”

At the Faculty Senate meeting on Nov. 12, Director of Athletics Joe Karlgaard said despite Rice’s high degree of integrity, the university is still susceptible to this type of scandal. 

“I think that institutions that are not proactive at looking into these issues and making sure that they are doing all they can … to guard against academic integrity issues are susceptible to them,” Karlgaard said. “Just because we are Rice, and just because we are an institution with high integrity, doesn’t mean we can’t pay attention to this issue.”

Karlgaard said the UNC-Chapel Hill scandal is a cautionary tale for Rice. The scandal has brought together several different departments, including the Office of Academic Advising, Dean of Undergraduates and the athletic department, to reexamine Rice’s structure for potential risk factors that had not been considered previously. 

“When we first heard about the scope and scale of the issues in North Carolina, it caused us to come together and make sure that all the systems of checks are right,” Karlgaard said. “I don’t know if we are going to make any changes other than potentially subtle ones — maybe how often we get our group together — but I would say that it’s something that we will be willing to evolve over time.”

In response to whether the classes that are known as easy and mostly taken by athletes compromise Rice’s academic standard, Hutchinson said Rice designs classes to ensure students with all academic backgrounds can succeed academically. 

“Academic integrity has to do with making sure that students are receiving appropriate academic instruction, being held accountable for that and being appropriately accessed,” Hutchinson said. “That’s what went wrong with UNC-Chapel Hill. These phantom courses weren’t real courses and there’s no appropriate assessment in those courses.”

One student-athlete said she is not surprised by the UNC-Chapel Hill scandal. She chose to remain anonymous to maintain her reputation. However, she said the problems at UNC-Chapel Hill do not reflect the situation of student athletes at Rice. 

“In the [statistics] class last semester, we had take-home tests and finals and some weekly assignments,” the student said. “I know some athletes just ask their friends for answers, and they basically learn[ed] nothing from the class. [But] most student-athletes here work really hard and actually do their own work. We have really good academic advisors; they help us a lot. For example, they would hire us tutors if we need help.”

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