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VOL. 127 | NO. 118 | Monday, June 18, 2012

Chronicle Article Brings to Light Academic Concerns at U of M

Football player’s struggles in classroom prompt school to examine student-athlete standards

By Bill Dries

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Dasmine Cathey is better known now than he ever was as a player on the University of Memphis football team.

A story about the academic struggles of University of Memphis football player Dasmine Cathey in a recent edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education prompted college officials to re-examine educational standards for student-athletes. In this March photo, he gets help from Eileen O’Rourke writing a letter to a professor during a study hall in the U of M’s academic services office.

(Photo by Lance Murphey)

Cathey’s on-again, off-again pursuit of passing grades and academic eligibility at the university is told in “The Education of Dasmine Cathey,” an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by reporter Brad Wolverton.

The piece highlighted not only Cathey’s academic struggles but also the passage of student-athletes in general through a highly regulated pipeline from high school to college.

The story is about Cathey’s inability to manage college coursework, but it also paints a vivid picture of sometimes heroic efforts by members of the school’s athletic academic services office to just get Cathey to show up for exams and classes.

The article shows how Sharyne Connell, the head academic counselor for football and a former student-athlete at Eastern Illinois University, texts, calls and even goes to Cathey’s house to rouse him from his postseason avoidance of academia.

The article includes four academic papers from Cathey’s university work that call into question any permanent and significant academic progress.

For the past week, University of Memphis President Dr. Shirley Raines has been fielding inquiries from reporters, including The New York Times, about Cathey’s saga. She would not comment specifically on Cathey’s performance as a student, but she discussed the impact of that article on the U of M.

We are worried about what the image and reputation of the university is with the story of this one athlete. We have lots of other success stories that aren’t in the same dimensions as this particular one.”

– Dr. Shirley Raines
President, University of Memphis

“We are worried about what the image and reputation of the university is with the story of this one athlete,” she said. “We also know we have lots of other success stories that aren’t in the same dimensions as this particular one.”

Raines, an NCAA committee member, said the story and the attention it has drawn comes as college and university leaders prepare for a raising of student-athlete standards that kicks in fully with those Division 1 student-athletes who enroll in August 2015.

It also comes as the school recently mounted a national search for a new athletic director to replace the retiring R. C. Johnson. The university hired Tom Bowen who starts this month.

“This seems like a good time with a new A.D. coming in and with two years of information from our new implementation of the skills assessment to look at how well we’re doing,” Raines said.

Raines has already reviewed her own record for granting exceptions to the academic standards.

“I granted three presidential exceptions out of 22,875 students,” she said. “It is a very small group. Those exceptions are only after we’ve evaluated to say that in our best estimation with our learning specialists these people can succeed.”

For the last two years, the University of Memphis and other colleges and universities have been preparing for the “much more rigorous look at the abilities of student-athletes as they are coming into the university,” Raines said.

It is the ramp-up to those standards that included the reading test Cathey took that began the arduous task for the U of M’s athletic academic services department of trying to get Cathey eligible to play.

On the Web

For the full story on Dasmine Cathey and the U of M, visit chronicle.com

The test, as well as testing for learning disabilities, represents a shift beyond relying on high school transcripts and grades to assess not only students’ academic eligibility but the level of their academic performance.

It also, according to the Chronicle account, was an eye opener for university officials to the number of entering student-athletes with academic problems.

U of M officials and those at other colleges and universities locally have long talked of the issue of high school students – athletes and non-athletes – not fully prepared for the academic demands of higher education.

“We do have to be sure that students are, first, students and are successful and have the opportunity to succeed as athletes,” Raines said. “But we want them to succeed as students because many of them are not going to go to the pros. Every student should be able to graduate with a legitimate degree with a hopefully wonderful job opportunity.”

Former Tiger basketball star Elliott Perry is among the former student-athletes who have talked about the balance.

Perry at a February education reform forum at Hutchison School told of recently trying to counsel a high school basketball player who was convinced he didn’t need to do well in school because he was going to play professional basketball.

Perry finally set up a one-on-one game with the teenager and beat him handily. He said he still wasn’t sure he reached the teenager.

The new and added requirements include earning at least a 2.3 high school grade point average in core courses – four-year college preparatory classes in English, math, social science, physical science, foreign language, religion or philosophy.

A new sliding scale standard is also to come in 2015 tied to the student’s SAT score. By that standard, some student-athletes could be eligible for practice and financial aid through a sports scholarship but would not be eligible to compete.

The first step toward the heightened standards begins in August 2013 requiring high school students to complete 16 core courses. In 2015, those students must have completed 10 of the 16 before the start of their senior year. And seven of the 10 must be in English, math and science.

The story of Dasmine Cathey is the latest scrutiny of the student-athlete pipeline at a university that was punished by the NCAA in 2009 for the “one-and-done” career of basketball star Derrick Rose. After a year on the Tiger team that went to the NCAA basketball finals in 2008, Rose went pro with the Chicago Bulls of the NBA.

Rose arrived at the University of Memphis the same year as Cathey.

Two weeks before Rose made his Tiger debut, in October 2007, the inspector general of the Chicago Board of Education told university officials in Memphis he was investigating an allegation that a high school teammate of Rose’s took the SAT for him in Detroit. Rose, who went to high school in Chicago, denied the allegation.

A forensic document examiner hired by the NCAA concluded Rose “probably did not write the questioned hand printing or cursive writing.”

The university responded formally by saying there was “not sufficient evidence” to conclude Rose “engaged in fraudulent conduct related to the exam.”

The Chicago Public Schools inspector general, in a 2008 report, also concluded Rose was one of four basketball players at Chicago’s Simeon High School who had letter grades changed to a higher letter grade on their transcripts after high school graduation.

The university argued before the NCAA that it had no “strict liability” for what happened and that Rose was cleared by the NCAA’s eligibility center twice. The NCAA voided the season, which was the closest the Tiger basketball team had come to a national championship since 1973.

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