|Sunday, September 26
Alleged academic fraud spurs Tennessee investigation
By Tom Farrey
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- In the anxious weeks before undefeated Tennessee played for the national football championship in the Fiesta Bowl, at 10:19 on a Friday morning last December, Robin Wright was in little mood to cheer. Bothered by what she considered to be an obvious case of plagiarism involving a football player, the coordinator for academic programs in the UT athletics department sat down at her computer and fired off a message to her boss, Gerry Dickey, about a study hall aide.
The electronic note was carbon-copied to his boss, Carmen Tegano.
"As I mentioned to you earlier this semester, Jenai admitted to me that she had been 'helping the guys with their papers' because the guys claimed that the writing center tutors weren't helpful (meaning, I think, they wouldn't do the work for them). I gave her very firm instructions at that time. I have suspected, however that the trend is continuing. Wednesday night I went to supper with a friend and came back to work at 8:00 to find Jenai with the keyboard in her lap, typing on (a player's) paper & (The player's) instructor just called to say the paper is copied from something."
That alleged case of academic fraud was not isolated. ESPN.com has obtained internal documents showing that while the Volunteers were en route to winning the national championship last season, high-level administrators in the athletics department were alerted to situations in which four tutors may have written papers and done school work for at least five football players, in possible violation of the University of Tennessee honor code and NCAA rules.
However, none of that information was passed on to the proper campus authorities charged with investigating possible rules infractions, said Malcolm McInnis, NCAA compliance officer for Tennessee, and Carl Asp, NCAA faculty athletic representative. Asp and McInnis, who are the lead rules compliance officials at Tennessee, say they only learned of the documents from ESPN.com, which acquired them independently during a six-week investigation into the academics of Tennessee's athletics program.
The possible cover-up could present problems for Tennessee, even if none of the allegations are proven. NCAA rules require member schools to follow school procedures in investigating and report any rules violations.
"All of those incidents should have been investigated and resolved," McInnis said.
After hearing of ESPN.com's findings, Tennessee officials on Saturday suspended redshirt freshmen Leonard Scott, Reggie Ridley, Keyon Whiteside and Ryan Rowe before the Volunteers' game against Memphis. Athletics director Doug Dickey said in a news release the school would hold the players out of competition until officials complete their own investigation.
Asp did confirm Tennessee's internal investigation is focusing on Ron Payne, a longtime tutor who has worked with hundreds of football players for more than a decade. ESPN.com was unable to reach Payne for comment.
Tegano, who as associate athletics director for student life runs all academic programs for men's athletics at Tennessee, declined comment for this report. Gerry Dickey, who oversaw the tutor program a year ago and has since moved to the University of Mississippi, did not return phone calls. All of the incriminating memos were either sent or copied to Tegano or Gerry Dickey, who reported to Tegano.
Doug Dickey, who is unrelated to Gerry Dickey, also did not return calls for comment.
Documents show allegations of academic fraud go back to 1995, when professors in the English and Religious Studies departments separately discovered papers turned in by players who did not do the work. The most serious concerns were raised by Linda Bensel-Meyers, director for composition in the English department, who said that she threatened at the time to bring up charges of "institutional plagiarism" against the athletics department unless the English department was given greater oversight of tutors.
One of the changes was made by placing Wright, an English teacher, in the athletics department. But Bensel-Meyers pursued the issue again in February after learning from Wright of the latest pattern of alleged abuse. In a memo to Tegano, she cited her concern "about assistance given to students in the preparation of their written work for any course at UT, particularly because assistance by untrained tutors can so easily transgress into the realm of 'excessive collaboration' " -- meaning plagiarism, she wrote.
The players Wright cited as benefiting from cheating last year, according to memos:
Besides the football players, Wright said she also saw a baseball player and an unnamed female athlete getting improper help from Gray in the athletics department tutoring area. In a note to Prislovsky, Wright says of Gray, "She's out there now doing (the baseball players') paper while he sits near and looks around and visits & (the player) keeps looking at me like I'm catching him in something and I am."
The players - three of whom have since transferred from Tennessee to other schools -- could not be reached for comment. ESPN.com requested interviews with the current players through the school's sports information department, which normally handles media inquiries. Those players were not made available during the weekend.
Jenai Brown denied ever doing work for players. "That's a lie, I can tell you that," she said.
Gray also denied to ESPN.com that she did any improper work for any player. A former English teacher, she said she only typed a player's paper because his hands were injured.
"I've done nothing wrong, nothing illegal," Gray said.
Moore said he helped two players on papers, but didn't break any rules. "She's trying to magnify the situation," he said of Wright.
Bumpus could not be reached for comment.
Wright confirmed she wrote the memos obtained by ESPN.com, and insists she wasn't exaggerating in them. After four years in the Tennessee athletics department, she left in January for a better-paying position at Stephen F. Austin University in Texas, where she now runs the tutoring program for all campus students.
"One reason I'm in Texas is because of that kind of thing," Wright said of overzealous tutoring in the Tennessee athletics department. "I worried that if I stayed there my reputation would be hurt."
Tory Edge, a former Tennessee receiver who played sparingly but graduated after four years in 1997, was aware of players who had papers written for them by tutors. "Not with every tutor," he said. "But you get some guys who come up there just bleeding orange. They don't care - they just want to be around the football team. You got some young ladies who come up there who just think these guys are the greatest. And you got hormones flying and you got everything else going on except for academics."
In a document sent in 1997 to the Tennessee faculty senate, Bensel-Meyers pointed to problems in 1995 involving freshman athletes. She wrote that "several of these athletes submitted papers that were either co-written or entirely written by tutors" hired by the athletics department. These athletes, she wrote, "claimed they had been told by their tutors that this sort of intervention was acceptable," and added that "the acts of plagiarism appeared to be institutionally mandated by the athletic department."
In 1995, plagiarism was also found in Religious Studies classes. Dan Deffenbaugh, a former instructor at Tennessee whose classes were popular with athletes, said he suspected that about one-third of papers turned in by football players were plagiarized in some form because the gap between their oral and written language was so wide. He said he finally caught one of them when they turned in the same paper as tight end John Sartelle had earlier.
Deffenbaugh, now an instructor at Lyon College, brought the issue to the attention of Tegano, who attributed the problem to athletes' old papers living on the hard drives of the computers in the academic services area for up to a semester at a time. In a memo to Deffenbaugh, Tegano wrote that, "Apparently, these papers were copied from files on our computers' directories." He promised those files would be cleaned out once a week in the future.
"Other papers (by football players) seemed to have similar themes," Deffenbaugh said. "They weren't exact but they had the same kind of flow of ideas. The turns of phrases and transitions of paragraphs were the same. I figured maybe there was a tutor who was suggesting changes."
Deffenbaugh's class was never the same again, despite Tegano's promise to fix the problem. To prevent further abuse by football players, Deffenbaugh no longer allowed take-home writing assignments, instead forcing all students to do their writing in class where he could watch the athletes.
Wright tried to add measures to protect tutors from doing too much work in 1996, when she amended the athletics department's tutor handbook to allow only those tutors in the athletic Writing Center -- trained by the English department -- to assist athletes on grammar, transitions, proofreading and editing. She also prohibited the typing of papers by tutors because of the potential for excessive collaboration.
With Wright gone now, so are her rules. As before she arrived, any tutor now can work on any aspect of a paper with an athlete, according to the handbook. Only essays from an English class must be referred to the Writing Center, which primarily exists to help students in freshman English. Typing is again allowed, as long as the athlete pays the tutor for the service.
Bensel-Meyers said she is pushing for the English department to regain control of all writing assistance.
After Wright complained about two tutors -- Gray and Jason Trahan -- the athletics department says it let them go, although for reasons other than academic dishonesty. In a February memo to Bensel-Meyers from Prislovsky and Georgia Caver, interim director of the Writing Center, Gray was not re-hired because of "personality conflicts and an ineffective use of time" -- reasons that puzzle Gray, who said she stopped tutoring last November because she was diagnosed with cancer. Trahan, who could not be reached for comment, was dismissed for "administrative issues, such as fraudulent billing."
Wright said she is pleased those tutors are no longer with the program. But she questioned whether the memo, which Tegano asked Prislovsky and Caver to write, is designed to deceive. Unlike academic fraud, billing fraud by a tutor would not constitute a NCAA violation.
"They will never admit that anyone was cheating," said Wright, who said she was told by Tegano not to put any incidents of academic abuse in writing.
Indeed, Tennessee has not reported any violations of academic honesty to the NCAA in many years, Asp said. However, he expressed concern that Tegano and other athletics department officials have never given him anything to investigate, considering ESPN.com's information about possible wrongdoing.
"That's sad," Asp said. "I should have been a part of that loop. If the (memos) are in writing, I should have been copied and the notes passed on to me. I should be informed of anything, even if nothing's wrong."