Report Faults Binghamton’s Leaders in Scandal
February 12, 2010
Report Faults Binghamton’s Leaders in Scandal
By PETE THAMEL
What began at Binghamton University as a dream of basketball success and culminated in its first trip to the N.C.A.A. men’s tournament last March came crashing down on Thursday. A four-month investigation detailed just how far administrators were willing to go in pursuit of athletic glory.
The investigation’s 99-page report showed how a lack of oversight from the university’s president and athletic director allowed the basketball program to spin out of control.
One player who transferred to Binghamton received credit for courses like Bowling I and Theories of Softball, according to the report. An assistant coach and a player discussed cash payments and having the assistant write part of a paper for him.
And at a meeting with admissions officials, the report said, an athletic official asked, “Why do you care if we take six players who don’t attend classes?”
It was a drastic change for a university that over the years has built an academic reputation as the crown jewel of the State University of New York system.
“I am disappointed that a great institution like Binghamton University would, in any way, because of its athletic program, compromise its terrific academic reputation,” Nancy L. Zimpher, who is the SUNY chancellor and ordered the investigation four months ago, said in a conference call with reporters Thursday.
Nobody pushed the vision of athletic success more than Lois B. DeFleur, the university’s president since 1990, and Joel Thirer, the athletic director. They shepherded a move to Division I, college basketball’s highest level, over the concerns of many faculty members in 2001 and spearheaded the construction of a $33 million arena. They dismissed the team’s longtime coach, Al Walker, in 2007 in favor of Kevin Broadus, an assistant at Georgetown, who brought an aggressive edge to recruiting players.
Since that galvanizing moment in March, when the team clinched its N.C.A.A. tournament bid and students flooded the court, the fall has been swift and steep.
In September, the star guard Emanuel Mayben was arrested on charges of possession and sale of crack cocaine. Mr. Thirer refers to that arrest in the report as “the tipping point.” Soon after, six players were dismissed for a variety of offenses that ranged from drug possession to buying goods with a stolen debit card. Thirer also resigned as athletic director.
Mr. Broadus, whose quick turnaround of the team’s fortunes led to a contract extension in the spring, was placed on paid administrative leave, where he remains as the university figures out what to do next.
Mr. Broadus, the report said, could not have worked without the administration’s blessing. Ms. DeFleur fostered an environment of lax academic and ethical standards, the report said; at one point Ms. DeFleur’s zeal to admit a basketball player with a questionable academic background was so strong that the provost said she had a “blind spot for athletics.”
As problems arose in the program, Ms. DeFleur and Mr. Thirer failed to have “sufficient objectivity” and “self inquiry,” the report said.
“The president took no corrective action in her role as the supervisor of the athletic department and the person charged with ultimate responsibility for B.U.’s intercollegiate athletic program,” the report concluded.
Binghamton admitted one player with an arrest record and others from academically suspect high schools. Some transfer students brought coursework that had “limited, if any, academic content,” the report said.
When objections were raised, Ms. DeFleur reasoned that Binghamton was undergoing an “experiment,” the report said, and she cast the lower admission standards as part of the university’s effort for more diversity.
Investigators questioned that reasoning. “Those opportunities become illusory if the institution does not have a sufficient support network already in place to help these individuals succeed,” the report said.
The report also showed Binghamton to be unprepared for so many high-risk academic athletes. For example, two players’ failing grades were turned into passing grades after late work was handed in, the report said. Another failing grade was turned into an incomplete after Mr. Broadus lobbied the professor.
In addition, the university channeled its academically at-risk students into the Human Development Department, which had lower admissions standards and whose chairman, Leo Wilton, was seen as friendly to the team.
One e-mail message between Mr. Wilton and Mr. Broadus illustrated how the players were steered into courses with sympathetic instructors. “It is not often that I teach this required course,” Mr. Wilton wrote in the spring of 2009. “I would recommend that the athletes take it with me if possible.”
In multiple instances, basketball players dropped other classes for independent study courses to remain eligible, the report said. The independent study grade was usually a B or a B-plus, on a team whose average grade was a C.
In a statement, SUNY’s board said it accepted the audit’s findings and would follow its recommendations to improve oversight and accountability. Binghamton said in a statement that Ms. DeFleur, 73, would work with Ms. Zimpher on any changes until Ms. DeFleur’s retirement in July.
The investigation cost $913,381 and was led by Judith S. Kaye, the former chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, along with other lawyers from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Her team conducted more than 80 interviews and examined thousands of e-mail messages, text messages and documents.
When the SUNY executive committee next meets March 23, Ms. Zimpher plans to make recommendations on what to do with the program. The situation is tenuous, with the president leaving, no athletic director and the likelihood of having to hire a coach.
The audit is also expected to be forwarded to the N.C.A.A., which will determine, among other things, if the university showed a lack of institutional control and if any penalties are warranted.
“I think that’s really up to folks in charge of doing that,” said Patrick Nero, the commissioner of America East, Binghamton’s conference. “That’s for the N.C.A.A. to look at and the chancellor to decide on.”
The most damning information may be a series of text-message exchanges in which the assistant coach Marc Hsu discussed providing Malik Alvin, a star player, with money for gas and later a court fine after his arrest on charges of stealing condoms from a Wal-Mart. N.C.A.A. rules prohibit coaches from providing cash to players.
Mr. Alvin’s exchanges were casual, asking, “Yo, you got money on you?” At a later date, the report said, he asked Mr. Hsu if he was “going to give me the money in the morning so I can pay my fine.”
In a later exchange in which Mr. Alvin complained that he had no gas, Mr. Hsu responded that he had not gone to the bank and wrote, “Ask coach for a couple of dollars.” The report said that Mr. Hsu had denied giving money or other benefits to Mr. Alvin and that the text messages were meant to “silent Mr. Alvin’s requests.”
Mr. Alvin, who had left Texas-El Paso, in part because of academic difficulties, asked Mr. Hsu to reword part of a paper because he “got that from the Internet.” Mr. Alvin then wrote, “Add a conclusion on violence.”
In a later text-message exchange, Mr. Alvin asked Mr. Hsu to manipulate part of an assignment to “change it up” so it would not be “the same exact paper.”
Mr. Hsu denied helping Mr. Alvin in an inappropriate manner.
Mr. Broadus did not return a telephone call seeking comment. He would comment only through his lawyer, Don Jackson, who said Mr. Broadus committed no major N.C.A.A. violations and was prepared to return to his job as head coach.
“He has considered it to be his responsibility to assist them through their misdeeds, discipline them when necessary, nurture them when needed and assist them in their sometimes awkward progression into manhood,” Mr. Jackson said. “He makes no apologies for that. That is his responsibility as a coach and an African-American man.”
While Mr. Broadus awaits his fate, some in the Binghamton community would like to see a balance restored to athletics. “I hope that this university as well as others can use the report to remind us what can happen when a university puts winning athletic events over the well-being of the institution,” said Dennis Lasser, Binghamton’s former faculty athletic representative and an associate professor of finance.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 15, 2010
Because of an editing error, an article on Friday about a critical audit of the men’s basketball program at Binghamton University misstated the year the team moved up to Division I. And the Sports of The Times column on Friday, also about the report, gave another incorrect year for the move. Binghamton became a Division I school in 2001 — not in 1991 or in 2006.