Universities offer lavish academic centers for student athletes

Spinnaker

The Irwin Academic Services Center at the University of Illinois is outfitted with computer labs and classrooms; staffed with tutors, counselors and learning specialists; furnished with oversized leather chairs and Oriental rugs – and off-limits to 99 percent of the student body.

To get help with course work in this Tudor-style former fraternity house, which cost $6 million to adapt as a tutoring facility, a student must run track, shoot basketballs, battle the Fighting Illini’s gridiron opponents or participate in another sport.

Universities across the nation are offering even more spectacular tutoring centers for student athletes, which have become a recruiting device for coaches. Louisiana State’s facility cost $15 million; at Texas A&M University, $27 million.

As the price tags rise, critics ask: Is spending this kind of money on a few athletically gifted students appropriate?

At the University of Michigan, the student newspaper has pressed the administration to open its $12 million athletic tutoring facility to students of all types – with no success thus far.

“These athletic tutoring palaces perpetuate resentment and stereotyping on campus,” said Allen Sack, a University of New Haven professor who played football for Notre Dame and has become a critic of what he sees as the corrosive effect of sports on university life.

“A student who is not an athlete will say: ‘I’m working nights to get through school, why don’t I get free tutoring?’ That the athletes do perpetuates the image of a dumb jock who couldn’t get through school without special help.”

The academic centers, usually funded and run by the athletic department, also have been tainted by scandal as one school and then another steps over the line between helping athletes with their homework and doing it for them.

The University of Minnesota lost its basketball team and coach to that temptation in 2000, after an academic counselor revealed having written 400 papers for the players.

Last year, Florida State suspended a group of football players after it was revealed a tutor gave athletes answers while they were taking tests.

Some critics also note the facilities’ directors often report not to an academic official but to the school’s athletic director, creating the potential for a conflict of interest.

Defenders of the centers argue they prepare student athletes for life after the football field and basketball court, as only a fraction can move on to professional sports. Debby Roberts, a learning specialist at the Irwin Center, said she counsels Illini athletes to use their college years to develop their non-athletic potential.

“It’s a daily battle,” Roberts said. “They all want to think they’re going to turn pro.”

Supporters also argue the price tag is relatively small in comparison to the money reaped by successful sports programs. In its budget estimate for 2008, the University of Michigan anticipated athletic events would produce $87 million in revenues. Operating its athletic-tutoring center costs $1 million.

Universities used to usher athletes through school with the “rocks for jocks” approach – a quip derived from the not-too-rigorous geology courses that would keep quarterbacks and power forwards academically eligible.

The new approach includes services such as one-on-one tutoring from other undergraduates, career counseling, therapy for learning disabilities and monitors to see that athletes get to class. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, sports powerhouses more than doubled their spending on tutoring.

On a recent afternoon at the Irwin Center, a freshman soccer player used a computer to scan course offerings for next semester. A hurdles runner reported a high-school teammate was foundering at a university that lacks a tutoring option.

Nationally, some faculty members ask if such tutoring facilities are a bricks-and-mortar way of hiding a perennial problem: that many high-school all-stars might not be intellectually equipped to do niversity-level work.

(c) 2008, Chicago Tribune.
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