Complaints and Compromises Lead to an Abrupt Departure

Courtesy of Maureen Keyes

Confusion over her role led Maureen W. Keyes to persuade two professors to change the grades of failing athletes, she says.
October 31, 2010

Maureen W. Keyes, a tenured associate professor of education at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, was nearly three years into her time as the university's faculty athletics representative when she requested a meeting with the chancellor.

She was worried about how the athletic department treated athletes who were on the brink of losing their academic eligibility, and she thought he should know about it.

Instead, shortly after arriving for the meeting, she learned that her appointment as faculty athletics rep, which she had expected to extend another two years, would not be renewed.

The chancellor, Carlos E. Santiago, gave Ms. Keyes three reasons, she recalled in a recent interview. She had offended the acting athletic director by voicing some of her concerns, had strayed from the agenda in athletics board meetings, and had been disrespectful to athletic administrators in airing her complaints, the professor says she was told. (Mr. Santiago recently left the university to lead the Hispanic College Fund. Thomas Luljak, a university spokesman, said the former chancellor decided not to renew Ms. Keyes's appointment because he wanted to bring a "fresh perspective" to the role.)

Unmentioned in that meeting, Ms. Keyes told The Chronicle, was that she had persuaded two professors to change the grades of failing athletes—an overture she says she made at the behest of two assistant coaches.

Senior athletic officials were unaware of the reported exchange between Ms. Keyes and the coaches and "shocked" to learn of the allegation when contacted by a reporter, says Kathy Litzau, associate athletic director.

The abrupt end to Ms. Keyes's tenure as a faculty athletics representative, and the complaints and compromises that marked it, illustrates the lack of clarity that has come to characterize the role on many campuses. She says she had no job description, received no training—she was told to go to the annual meeting of faculty representatives to learn the basics—and readily admits that she had no idea what she was doing during the first two years of her service.

Now, more than four months after the meeting with the chancellor, Ms. Keyes says she is most troubled by the ineffectiveness of the position. When faculty representatives see things they think are amiss, they need to feel that they can speak up without losing the post, she says.

"What protection is provided to the faculty reps if they end up on the wrong side of the fence?" she asks.

She recently saw how serious an impediment this lack of authority was, she says. She began to suspect that a standout basketball player who had become academically ineligible had a learning disability but had received no assistance for it. She also grew concerned about other athletes who were barely squeaking by academically but were rarely disciplined for blowing off their tutoring sessions.

"I thought, 'Somebody who knows this stuff really needs to advocate for these students,'" says Ms. Keyes, a former public-school special-education teacher. "They come in and really don't know what they're getting into."

Ms. Litzau disagrees. "We do everything we can—within, of course, the boundaries of academic integrity—to make sure they're given every resource to succeed academically," including offering tutoring and study sessions and other forms of academic support. When the program went through its NCAA recertification process more than two years ago, for instance, "we had a lot of outside eyes looking in on our program, and certainly academic integrity was an important component," she says. The NCAA found no flaws in that area, she says.

'I Rationalized It'

When Ms. Keyes tried to draw attention to concerns she saw with academic support, she says, she got nowhere. In conversations she initiated with some coaches about their responsibility to emphasize academics, for instance, she says they told her not to get involved.

Frustrated, she says, she asked a senior athletic official to explain to coaches the role of the faculty representative. "I shouldn't have to be going around telling people academic integrity is my thing," she recalls saying.

On one occasion, however, her defense of that integrity weakened. Last winter, Ms. Keyes says, shortly after grades for the fall semester were made final, two assistant basketball coaches apparently sought her help. They asked her to speak with three professors about changing the grades of three athletes who were struggling to stay academically eligible.

Uncomfortable with the request, Ms. Keyes says she hesitated at first but felt intense pressure from the assistant coaches. "It was almost like, 'Come on, aren't you on our team?'" she says, recalling the exchange. "I said that I would do all I could."

Ms. Litzau says coaches at the university are given clear instructions on what they can and cannot do when it comes to academic affairs.

"The coaches are not to step in and talk to professors" about changing grades, she says, nor are they to ask the faculty representative to do so. "We make it clear to them that that is crossing the line and we don't allow it."

"The faculty athletic representative is the liaison to the university to ensure that that doesn't occur," Ms. Litzau adds.

Nonetheless, after the encounter with the coaches, Ms. Keyes says she contacted the professors. One declined to meet with her, but two agreed to retroactively alter each player's fall-semester grade if the players met certain conditions for the spring-semester courses. They did, and ultimately the grades were changed, she says.

Ms. Keyes says her empathy for the athletes, whom she felt were not receiving appropriate support, clouded her judgment.

"In the back of my mind, I felt that we hadn't done what we should have done" for the students who were struggling, she says. "I still believe that to this day."

Still, even as she was about to make the requests, she had doubts. "I thought, 'Maybe it's a little gray.' I guess I rationalized it."

Ms. Keyes now acknowledges that seeking the grade changes was wrong. But she says the lack of definition of the faculty representative position was partly to blame.

"There's so many flaws in the whole design," she says. "Now I think, 'Yeah, I shouldn't have done that. I shouldn't have gotten involved.'"