With academic probe complete, Notre Dame releases statement, but not fate of players

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With Notre Dame’s academic investigation closed and the Honor Code committee meetings completed as of Friday, the fate of football players DaVaris Daniels, Eilar Hardy, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams will be determined sometime next week.

But for those expecting some gigantic statement out of the university, it’s not happening.

On Sunday afternoon, Paul J. Browne,  the university’s vice president for public affairs and communications, released a carefully parsed statement that will likely serve as the last official word from the university about the academic investigation and Honor Code process that’s had more attention on it in the past two months than ever before.

The statement is packed full, and has largely been misinterpreted this Sunday morning. So let’s go through a few key points before laying out the statement in full.

 

The players are being withheld from competition because of the investigation of NCAA violations, with the threat of vacating wins the major remaining issue. 

Notre Dame’s 5-0 start wouldn’t be worth much if Brian Kelly and the university found out players that took the field were ineligible to compete. That’s ultimately why the five student-athletes have been withheld from football activities, and why Notre Dame continues to acknowledge that NCAA sanctions, if necessary, will be voluntarily imposed and reported to the NCAA.

That the university will vacate wins isn’t an assumption that’s fair to make. Looking back at two recent, high profile academic investigations that involved the NCAA, North Carolina and Florida State are the best guide. The Tar Heels vacating all 16 wins from the 2008 and 2009 football seasons after improper benefits and academic misconduct was discovered. The academic misconduct involved a now fired department chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, and his department manager, who presided over independent study classes in the AFAM Department.

At Florida State, Bobby Bowden was forced to vacate 12 victories from 2006 and 2007, part of the penalty after academic fraud was discovered to have involved 61 student-athletes. The scandal also forced the men’s basketball team, the baseball team, the women’s basketball team and a national championship in men’s track and field to be vacated. Scholarships were stripped from 10 Seminoles teams. According to the New York Times, that fraud included not just students and student-athletes, but a learning specialist, an academic advisor and a tutor who took tests and wrote papers.

 

From what’s already been publicly stated, Notre Dame’s situation doesn’t include misconduct from any employees involved in academic support. 

This should be a very important part of any NCAA ruling and could be what keeps this from being an issue that demands vacating victories. While the North Carolina and Florida State situations involved members of the faculty or academic support systems at the university, Notre Dame’s does not.

From what we’ve heard from university president Rev. John Jenkins and Jack Swarbrick, the investigation’s findings don’t implicate anybody in that realm, but rather focus on the behavior of one paid student employee of the athletic department. Multiple sources have told me that this person served as a student athletic trainer for the football team.

Here’s what Jenkins told faculty in mid-September, according to an Observer Report:

[Jenkins] said the athletic department’s compliance office became aware of “a potentially problematic situation involving a current student athlete as well as a student who served for a brief time as a paid student employee of the athletic department, although that position had no role in academic tutoring or advising of student athletes.”

“I want to underscore that the current investigation has not revealed any misconduct or knowledge of impropriety by regular, full-time staff,” he said. “However, given the student’s brief status as a paid employee, there was the possibility of what the NCAA considers an ‘excess benefit’ given to the student athlete by a representative of the institution.”

Again, nothing has been decided yet, nor announced. But there’s quite a difference between what is alleged to have happened at Notre Dame and what happened at Florida State and North Carolina.

 

Because of some complexities this case wasn’t treated like a standard Honor Code violation. 

Browne’s statement spoke repeatedly about the complexities of this case. Those complexities involved a full investigation from the Office of the General Counsel, as well as the NCAA involvement already discussed.

But Browne mentions the added complexity of “multiple disciplines,” potentially meaning that the suspected Honor Code violations took place in a variety of schools, for instance the business college as well as the college of Arts and Letters.

That crossover — as well as the review of extensive exhibits compiled during the legal dig — forced a more comprehensive process. According to Browne’s statement, that included witness interviews, a faculty reporter to review voluminous materials and comprehensive honesty committees.

 

In the closest thing we’ll see to an acknowledgement, the university statement acknowledges their timeline and the five football players stuck in limbo. 

Late last week, the Observer, Notre Dame’s student newspaper, released an Op-Ed that called for clear Honor Code, taking to task the university’s administration for their handling of the current investigation.

These well-written paragraphs strike to the heart of the issue for students and members of the Notre Dame community.

The one constant since the investigation was announced has been that no one really knows much about the proceedings. Sure, head football coach Brian Kelly addresses it every week in his press conferences, and Jenkins made reference to it in his address to the University’s faculty last month.

But we have about as much insight into the Honor Code process as we did before the players were withheld, and our efforts to learn more about it have proved largely fruitless.

We’ve been directed to a webpage listing the members of the University Code of Honor Committee, which has not been updated for this academic year. We’ve looked at a Code of Honor Handbook that dates back to 2011 and may no longer be in use. Requests to learn more about the Honor Code process have been denied, despite a clause in Handbook that states, “Each member of the committee may be approached for consultation or advice about the Code of Honor by any member of the Notre Dame community.” Hugh Page, associate provost, dean of the First Year of Studies and Honor Code Committee co-chair, declined to comment on requests for an updated committee roster or for clarification of the text of the Code.

The Honor Code itself is one way in which the University upholds its values. The University could use this opportunity to show how the Honor Code does its job, but it instead seems intent on keeping everything except the players’ identities under close wraps.

And that, to us, raises another academic issue — a lack of transparency on a campus that should be open to creating dialogue. The players themselves seem to not know how the hearings process works. And we, their peers, have no way to know if the process is operating along the parameters the Honor Code outlines. We understand why certain specific details on the case should be kept confidential to protect those involved – but we also think that total opacity on any question involving the Honor Code creates an unhealthy, unproductive climate for students.

For the past two months, the university has repeatedly turned down requests for comments and directed people to the school’s website (they do in today’s statement as well), a document that the Observer rightly points out hasn’t been updated since 2011 (though on Sunday afternoon, the Observer’s editor-in-chief Ann Marie Jakubowski notes that the document was updated this weekend).

But after a relatively tone-deaf approach to this situation for the past two months, Browne’s statement includes the following olive branch.

“The process is time-consuming because it is thorough, as it must be to ensure integrity and fairness. Having said that, we recognize it can be difficult for students, regardless of culpability, who are subject to such reviews, especially when public scrutiny becomes so magnified for those who are student-athletes. We are working to resolve these situations as quickly as possible.”

That the apology comes after such a thorough takedown by the voice of the student body is no surprise. Also, as the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Hine notes, a Board of Trustees meeting took place this weekend. Hine tweeted that multiple sources told him that “trustees were not thrilled with timeline of investigation.”

 

What happens now? 

As the statement reads, unless Notre Dame reports something to the NCAA, life will go forward without any official statement from the school. That’s largely because of FERPA privacy laws, making it next to impossible to discuss the private disciplinary matters of the school.

So that once again leaves Notre Dame’s football coach to be the unofficial spokesman for the administration. In all likelihood, we’ll find out who gets to play and who doesn’t during Brian Kelly’s Tuesday press conference, when the media will ask him, or when one of the five football players takes to Twitter or other social media microphones to announce their collective fate.

When asked Sunday during his weekly teleconference what he plans to do as he now considers how to reintegrate as many as five players back onto the football team, Kelly hasn’t had the luxury of giving it much thought.

“I’m probably going to have to spend some time today thinking about it because I really have not given it much thought,” Kelly acknowledged on Sunday. “I do have to begin to think about reintegrating, and obviously I’m sure a decision is going to be made. I probably won’t reintegrate until I get a decision on each guy, and hopefully that will come soon. Once that decision’s made on each one of them, we’re going to have to have a plan on reintegrating all of the players or those players that I can.”

Thankfully, we’re almost done with this process.

 

***

Statement from Paul J. Browne, vice president for public affairs and communications at the University of Notre Dame:

On August 15 the Office of General Counsel of the University of Notre Dame notified the NCAA that because of potential ineligibility issues, the University was withholding from football participation certain student-athletes as part of an inquiry into possible academic dishonesty involving several other students as well. The NCAA was also informed that upon the start of the academic year later in the month, appropriate University committees would meet to develop review processes consistent with the Undergraduate Academic Code of Honor.

Often, an academic honesty review involves one student and one academic department. Due to the complexity of cases involving multiple disciplines, Comprehensive Honesty Committees were impaneled to review memoranda and extensive exhibits compiled in connection with the General Counsel’s initial inquiry, interview witnesses and the subjects of the hearings, and potentially impose sanctions subject to appeal. A faculty reporter was also appointed to review voluminous material collected during the General Counsel’s investigation to identify cases for the Comprehensive Committees’ review.

Hearings for those withheld from football were completed on Friday.  Decisions will be communicated individually to affected student-athletes and other students alike, as deliberations on each case conclude. As with other student academic records, the results of the review are confidential, and the University will not disclose them, although affected students may if they so choose. If it is determined that student-athletes would have been ineligible during past competition, Notre Dame will voluntarily impose appropriate sanctions, report our findings to the NCAA, and await its independent review.

The principal purpose of the Honor Code process (see http://honorcode.nd.edu/) is to educate our students as to the importance of academic integrity.  The process is time-consuming because it is thorough, as it must be to ensure integrity and fairness.  Having said that, we recognize it can be difficult for students, regardless of culpability, who are subject to such reviews, especially when public scrutiny becomes so magnified for those who are student-athletes. We are working to resolve these situations as quickly as possible.