Being a whistle-blower at a top football university is tough. Fans don't want to hear about academic problems that could hurt the team or lead to NCAA sanctions. But professor James Gundlach, who teaches in the sociology department, decided to speak up after he noticed that several football players who were taking his major had never been to a class.
"I discovered that Dr. Petee was essentially offering the entire sociology major in a directed-readings format to a variety of well over a hundred students," Gundlach says.
Thomas Petee was the head of the sociology department, and Gundlach's boss. Gundlach says it was clear that the directed-readings format -- also known as independent study -- was a way for students to get around going to classes and doing the work.
"It [was] just a mechanism by which people were getting very good grades for doing, in some cases, no discernable work," Gundlach says.
He discovered that, starting in the fall of 2004, Petee was teaching 152 students -- both athletes and non-athletes -- in directed studies. And Petee was teaching 120 students the next semester, doing the work of more than three full-time professors. On top of that, Petee was handing out high grades. One student explained Petee's grading system to Gundlach.
"He said the rule was if you turned in something, you got an A. If you turned in nothing, you got a B," Gundlach says. "[The student] was complaining about him having to work so hard in regular classes to get grades, when other people he knew, his friends, were able to get credit for the same class for essentially doing nothing."
A New York Times story broke in July, and Auburn University responded with an internal investigation. Although it’s still ongoing, interim president Ed Richardson cleared the athletic department of all wrongdoing at a news conference earlier this month.
"This is clearly an academic problem for Auburn University," Richardson says. "I believe that athletics was infused into this discussion to provide a sufficient traction to make it newsworthy."
The problems were reported in the sociology and adult education departments.
But Richardson emphasized that it's an academic problem because only 18 percent of the students enrolled in these courses were athletes, and only 7 1/2 percent of those were football players.
On the field at an Auburn Tigers practice, defensive coach Don Dunn tries to persuade linemen to hit their target a little harder. The team is ranked number four in this year's AP college football poll. Many have high hopes for an SEC championship, perhaps even a national championship.
Neither Coach Tommy Tuberville nor the team’s spokesman would comment on the investigation. Current football players have been shielded from reporter’s questions as well. Former Auburn running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, who now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFL, appeared on ESPN saying he did nothing wrong.
On campus outside the Haley Center, in the shadow of the football stadium, some students say it's important that the football program be cleared.
"Football is the one sport that generates pretty much all the pride for the university," says Joseph Simpson, a junior at Auburn University. "When you come and this is your school, it's God around here.... So it’s definitely something we hope doesn’t become a serious issue."
Most of the students said they don't worry too much about athletes getting preferential treatment. After all, they say, football players do a lot for the school and bring in most of the money.
"I don't think it's a good thing that it happened," says Mary Beth Allison, a junior from Montgomery. "...But I think it would be sad if people looked at Auburn worse that other schools because of it, because I’m sure that it happens at a lot of schools."
Auburn was already on probation in 2003 for inappropriate management of its board. But because both athletes and non-athletes got the benefit of the directed reading courses, it's difficult to tell whether there was any violation.
Thirty miles south of Auburn, whistle-blower James Gundlach sits in his ten–acre back yard and talks about the more than 100 hate e-mails he has received.
"What they’re saying is, 'We know we're cheating. Anybody who points out that we’re cheating deserves to be trompled down, punished, hurt, die,'" Gundlach says. "Nobody has threatened to kill me, but people have said they wished I would die. There are people out there who will violently defend their team's right to cheat, and that's a very sad commentary."
Auburn already announced changes to the directed-readings program in both the sociology and adult education departments, and both department heads have resigned. The school's internal investigation is expected to be finished by the end of the month, just in time for the Auburn Tigers to kick off their football season against Washington State on the first Saturday in September.