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After scandal, FSU bolsters academic aid for student-athletes

TALLAHASSEE

When Bill Shults took over as Florida State's new director of Athletics Academic Support Services in January, he quickly recognized the areas of need.

He would have to find more staff and more space in this, an era of unprecedented pressure to help student-athletes perform. And he would have to try to do that in an era of intensified scrutiny.

The office he inherited was ground zero for an academic misconduct scandal that involved 61 student-athletes in 10 sports and three former employees. FSU self-reported major rules violations to the NCAA and is set to appear before the Division I Committee on Infractions Saturday in Indianapolis.

"Most of our staff were not here during that time," said Shults, pointing out that for various reasons, there are just three holdovers in the office from the time the scandal broke in the spring of 2007. "My focus has been, 'Let's learn from what went on, but let's not dwell on it. Let's move forward and try to provide the best assistance we can to our student-athletes.' "

He, athletic director Randy Spetman and school president T.K. Wetherell have worked to make that possible. Money earmarked for academic support is up almost $360,000 from last year to nearly $1.5-million, according to the university's 2008-09 athletic department budget.

"It is a lot of money, especially in the state of Florida right now when universities have had to cut dollars," Spetman said.

But FSU is hardly alone in pouring money — a lot of money — into academic support for its student-athletes, according to data collected by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Rather, it has been the response of schools to the NCAA relaxing admission standards while at the same time toughening the measurements of academic progress and implementing penalties for the programs that don't make the grade.

Many athletic departments have more than doubled the budgeted dollars for academic support — most surpassing $1-million — from 1997-2007, the Chronicle recently reported.

Spetman said FSU's scandal helped draw attention to the needs of academic support and made it a little easier to win over donors and increase its financial commitment; the school said it would do that as part of self-imposed penalties. The bottom line:

• There are now two full-time learning specialists. Brenda Monk, one of the central figures in the scandal who has denied wrongdoing, was the sole learning specialist when she resigned in July 2007.

Monk's attorney wrote in a document obtained by the St. Petersburg Times that she worked with as many as 60 learning-disabled students and told her bosses that it was an "impossible task to provide a hands-on individualized program" as "more and more recruits who had severe, rather than mild to moderate learning disabilities, were being admitted into an academic setting for which they were ill-suited."

• There are about 10 more graduate assistants than a year ago and nearly a dozen "academic coaches" or "mentors'' to help student-athletes learn how to transition from high school to college and how to improve study habits and their time management skills. Former All-America track and field star Garrett Johnson, a Rhodes Scholar, is one.

"I'm happy to help out where I can,'' said Johnson, a Tampa Baptist Academy product.

• There are almost 70 tutors, up from about 50-55 that was the norm. That has meant even more training and monitoring, including surprise inspections. FSU reported to the NCAA that a tutor provided answers to tests for an online music course to dozens of student-athletes. FSU faces an allegation of failure to monitor.

FSU has about 1,300 tutoring sessions each week, but the facility at the Moore Athletic Center has only 10 rooms. That math doesn't work, so department officials got creative and have turned the Doak Campbell Stadium press box into a study lab. FSU then spent more than $10,000 on computers and furniture.

"When I got here, we were understaffed and underspaced, and we've tried to address some of those issues," Shults said. "T.K. and Randy have been outstanding in their support in what we're trying to do. And what we need to do."

Brian Landman can be reached at landman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3347.

After scandal, FSU bolsters academic aid for student-athletes 10/13/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 14, 2008 7:03pm]
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