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Auburn professor denies wrongdoing

Petee talks to weekly, says athletes didn't get special treatment

Friday, July 28, 2006


Times Sports Staff pmarsh9485@msn.com

AUBURN - Tom Petee, interim chair of Auburn's department of sociology, anthropology, social work, criminology and criminal justice, has broken his silence and denied accusations he gave special treatment to athletes in directed-study courses.

Petee was accused by sociology director James Gundlach of academic wrongdoing. Gundlach said Petee taught 152 directed-study courses, courses in which students work independently, in the spring of 2005, far more than is generally considered feasible, and gave special treatment to athletes. A minority of the students taking those courses were athletes.

Gundlach spelled out his complaints to The New York Times. On July 14, Times reporter Pete Thamel's story accused Petee of giving high grades to athletes who did little work. Thamel later said publicly that he believed there was a scheme to keep Auburn football players eligible. A committee appointed by provost John Heilman is investigating the accusations.

Petee, in an interview with The Auburn Villager, a fledgling weekly newspaper, denied giving special treatment to athletes or having any connection with the athletic department. The issue, he said, was about dealing with limited resources, not about athletics.

"This is really a curriculum issue," Petee told The Villager. "How are we going to meet student demand?"

Athletes, Petee said, actually did not fare as well in the courses as non-athletes.

Since the story broke on July 14, Petee had remained silent as Gundlach continued to criticize him. He said he decided it was time to tell his side of the story.

"When I have talked to reporters, my strategy has been to say there's an investigation going on and I don't want to jeopardize that by getting into a shouting match with Gundlach," Petee told The Villager. "... Everybody is still trying to make this about academic fraud, not about resources."

Even as enrollment swelled in Petee's department, the number of faculty members dwindled, Petee said. In the 1990-91 academic year, the department had 208 students and 17 professors. In 2004-2005, the number of sociology majors had grown to 695 and the number of professors had dropped to 15.

Petee, who became interim chair in 2002, said what started as an honest effort to help students trying to finish requirements for graduation got out of control.

"What happened was that, over time, with the influx of students, I went from meeting individually with students to communicating with them by e-mail," Petee told the newspaper. "I had a set reading list with a couple of books. When you go from two or three directed studies students to 20, it becomes unmanageable.

Petee, who taught only one regular class as department chair, said he took it upon himself to deal with student demand when he perceived the administration was not prepared to deal with it.

"There was no mechanism to handle growth," Petee said, "and we got a lot of mixed messages from the university. If I made a mistake, it was that I took it upon myself to deal with the problem because it was not being addressed."

Petee has declined interview requests from The Huntsville Times, saying he didn't want to comment until the school's investigation was complete. He told The Villager that his experience with Thamel made him wary of reporters.

"The New York Times guy ambushed me," Petee said. "He came in under another pretense, talked about that for 10 or 15 minutes, and then brought up the subject. Later, he stalked me outside my house trying to get a photo. The day the story broke he called me and said, 'Hey, the university's about to throw you under the bus. You gonna talk to me now?' "

Thamel said Anna Gramberg, first-year dean of the College of Liberal Arts, has been supportive.

"Upper administrators have been very measured in their response," Petee said. "And they have been very clear that heads will roll if they do find anything."

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