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THE Passing Game
L. Jon Wertheim
June 14, 1999
"Friendly faculty" looked the other way while Minnesota basketball players turned in 400 papers allegedly written for them by a university staffer
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June 14, 1999

The Passing Game

"Friendly faculty" looked the other way while Minnesota basketball players turned in 400 papers allegedly written for them by a university staffer

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As good-natured Minnesotan might put it, the fit hit the shan on March 10. In that day's St. Paul Pioneer Press, Jan Gangelhoff, a former office manager in the Minnesota athletic department's academic counseling unit who also tutored basketball players, was quoted as saying that with the knowledge and support of men's coach Clem Haskins she had written some 400 papers, take-home tests and other assignments for 20 Gophers players from 1993 to '98. The papers, on topics ranging from premenstrual syndrome to acid rain, had earned grades as high as A+ and were still stored on the hard drive of Gangelhoff's computer.

The story broke the day before Minnesota's first-round NCAA tournament game against Gonzaga. University president Mark Yudof vowed to investigate the matter fully, and school officials declared four players implicated by the Pioneer Press story ineligible for the game. Hours later the Gophers lost 75-63.

In the three months since then, Minnesota and the NCAA have been looking into Gangelhoff's allegations. But amid the growing rumors that Haskins will be fired when the university and NCAA probes conclude this summer and a freshet of new allegations of academic improprieties involving Gophers players, one issue has gone largely unexamined: the role that the school's faculty played in the alleged fraud. "Jan Gangelhoff may have written 400 papers, but she couldn't have done all this by herself," Elayne Donahue, director of Minnesota's academic counseling unit for athletics from 1983 to '98, told SI. "There had to be faculty willing to accept those papers and not question how a poor student had suddenly mastered the art of writing. Without them, this situation would never have gotten so out of hand."

Indeed, the scandal at Minnesota—and others like it in the last two decades that have struck schools from UNLV to Georgia—could not have happened if every professor and instructor were vigilant in challenging suspicious classwork and resistant to the blandishments of coaches. By Gangelhoff's estimate at least 65 Minnesota professors should have recognized that academic fraud was being perpetrated by the players she aided. "What Jan did was wrong," says Donahue. "It cheated the athletes. But accepting [fraudulent] papers and not questioning them is just as wrong." (It should be noted that some professors who received papers that Gangelhoff claims to have written may have used blind grading or had teaching assistants evaluate the papers.)

Many academic counselors who work with athletes are all too familiar with professors who help out athletic departments. "I call them 'friendly faculty,' and in my opinion, 75 percent of student-athletes at big-time schools are nurtured by them," says Lynn Lashbrook, former president of the National Association of Academic Advisors of Athletics and onetime head of academic counseling for athletes at Missouri. "Every school has them, and every athletic department knows who they are."

Friendly faculty sometime receive free game tickets or the chance to fly to a game or tournament at a team's expense. "No one can say that giving tickets or trips to faculty is a good thing," says Bill Flanigan, a Minnesota political science professor and the former chairman of the school's committee on athletics, "but if there are faculty who are willing to do things for athletes, you don't have to corrupt them, you just have to find them."

Minnesota hasn't been eager to see its professors drawn into the scandal. Many faculty members contacted by SI said they could not comment on Gangelhoff's allegations because of a university-imposed gag order. (A school spokesman told SI there was no gag order but acknowledged that the university had E-mailed professors telling them to refer all interview requests to the school's p.r. office.) Athletic director Mark Dienhart has explained away the alleged cheating with what he calls a single-assassin theory—that Gangelhoff was a rogue tutor who worked in concert with no one. Haskins, having disavowed knowledge of Gangelhoff's ghostwriting and denied all allegations involving him, including Gangelhoff's claim that he approved a $3,000 payment to her for her efforts, has refused to comment further.

But the scandal won't go away. Four players admitted that Gangelhoff did schoolwork for them (one later recanted); one of the four, former Gophers guard Russ Archambault, told the Pioneer Press, "The coaches knew. Everybody knew.... I would go over [to Gangelhoff's house] some nights and get four papers done. The coaches would be laughing about it." A former academic counselor, Rick Marsden, as well as Gangelhoff and her sister Jeanne Payer now say that Haskins and his staff asked them to write papers, and former tutor Alexandra Goulding says that at the request of a member of the basketball staff (not Haskins) she wrote one paper for a player. Former academic counselor Melissa Burns says the reason she resigned in 1989—three years into Haskins's tenure at Minnesota—was her suspicion that basketball players were being given improper academic help. Several faculty members and former academic counselors told SI that Haskins has a reputation for trying to persuade professors to give favorable grades to his players.

Establishing what a professor did—or did not do—to help a player isn't easy. Consider the case of John Taborn, an African-American studies professor at Minnesota for some 25 years. He has had a number of basketball players in his courses, and he accepted without question some of the papers Gangelhoff says she ghostwrote. In the summer of 1996, according to the Pioneer Press, Taborn designed a four-credit independent-study course for star guard Bobby Jackson in which the only assignment was to type the word basketball into a database and list the articles that appeared. Gangelhoff told the newspaper (and SI) that Jackson didn't even do this less-than-taxing exercise—she did—yet he received an A. (Jackson, now with the Minnesota Timberwolves, denies having received improper help in the course.)

Taborn told SI that while he had indeed overseen an independent study course taken by Jackson, he couldn't remember exactly what the assignment was. "He would have had to turn in a lengthy paper at the minimum," said Taborn, who added that the Pioneer Press's description of the independent study was "completely absurd. I would never do something like that." Taborn also told SI he saw nothing improper in his having accepted free game tickets from the men's basketball office on a couple of occasions. "I was just there [at games] supporting my students," he said. "It was no big deal where the tickets came from."

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