A drama class in “Beginning Improvising” and another in “Social Dances of North America III” were among dozens of classes on a closely guarded quarterly list distributed only to Stanford athletes to help them choose courses.
Stanford officials said the list was designed to accommodate athletes' demanding schedules and disputed that the list was made up of easy classes. Officials discontinued the list last week after student reporters working for California Watch began asking about it.
The list, which has existed at least since 2001, was widely regarded by athletes as an easy class list. More than a quarter of the courses on the list did not fulfill university general education requirements.
“It’s definitely not going to be a hard class if it’s coming off that list,” said Karissa Cook, a sophomore women’s volleyball player who consulted the list to pick classes in her first quarter at Stanford.
The classes on the list were “always chock-full of athletes and very easy A's,” added Kira Maker, a women’s soccer player who used the list her freshman year.
Titled “courses of interest,” the list was distributed by the Athletic Academic Resource Center. Advisers in other departments at the university said they were unaware such a list existed.
Stanford has long mandated equal scholastic footing among all undergraduates, including athletes. Many of its student athletes, in fact, have distinguished themselves in the classroom, notably football stars Andrew Luck, who has a 3.5 GPA, and Owen Marecic, who plans to graduate this year with a degree in human biology. The university’s hard-line approach has rankled some coaches over the years who have watched talented recruits go elsewhere because they didn’t measure up to Stanford’s academic standards.
But some faculty and students say the list may have offered an academic advantage for the athletes who requested it – especially since the general population was unaware it was even available. The Athletic Academic Resource Center didn’t advertise the list or post it on its website. But athletes have been known to ask for it.
Athletes said they heard about the list by word of mouth or simply picked up the document at the resource center.
“There’s a perception that the classes are easier,” said Carly Villareal, captain of the Stanford women’s crew team. “Some of the classes are substantially easier.”
Austin Lee, director of academic services at the Athletic Academic Resource Center, disagreed.
“An objective evaluation of the courses included on the list reveals several courses that most students would consider to be academically rigorous,” Lee said. He did not identify specific classes.
Lee said the center’s four advisers compiled the list to help student athletes find introductory classes that fit into constrained time schedules and fulfill general education requirements. Afternoon team practices mean that athletes have to choose classes that start in the morning and early afternoon – typically classes that begin from 9 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. The list mostly contained classes during those hours.
Before officials discontinued the list, Julie Lythcott-Haims, dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising, said with other scheduling resources available to all students, perhaps the list was “unnecessary.”
Gerald Gurney, president of the National Association of Academic Advisers for Athletics, was unaware of the situation at Stanford, and was unwilling to speculate on the matter. His association, a collection of college academic advisers throughout the nation, focuses on promoting the integrity of athlete advising.
"The ethical duty of academic advisers working with student athletes is to assist them in achieving their personal academic goals and to help them not take the path of easiest resistance for the purpose of maintaining eligibility,” he said.
"The course list in itself isn’t a violation, but promoting courses because they’re easy isn’t, ethically, something that academic advisers should do,” he said.
The office of Stanford President John Hennessy declined to comment for this story. But in a column he wrote for the March/April edition of Stanford magazine, which went online yesterday, he praised the academic success of student-athletes at the university.
“Despite training schedules that require many hours a week, these students take on demanding academic coursework and excel, graduating at similar rates as other students,” Hennessy wrote.
The 40 classes on the winter quarter list included “Intro to Statistics” and “Elementary Economics.” The list also included 14 classes that didn’t meet general education requirements, including the “Beginning Improvising,” and “Social Dances” courses in addition to “Public Speaking,” one of the only evening classes on the list.
Nearly 200 courses in 16 academic departments and programs offered during the 9 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. time slots were left off the list, a review of online course catalogs showed.
Sociology professor Cecilia Ridgeway was surprised to learn that her class titled “Interpersonal Relations” was included on the winter quarter list. Ridgeway said she had heard about the document in years past and talked to the athletics department about removing her class from the list. She said department staff told her at the time that the list did not exist.
Like many professors whose courses are on the list, Ridgeway said her class is academically challenging, noting that she had given failing grades to student athletes – to the displeasure of the athletics department.
Other professors were unconcerned that a class they taught made it onto the list. Some, in fact, said they believed student athletes should be treated differently than the typical student.
Stanford “accommodates athletes in the manner that they accommodate students with disabilities,” said Donald Barr, who teaches a course titled “Social Class, Race, Ethnicity, Health,” which was highlighted by resource center advisers.
Some faculty members said they didn’t believe the list harmed anyone – and may have helped fill their classrooms.
Art history lecturer Thomas Beischer, a former Stanford rower, said he welcomed the boost in enrollment brought by the inclusion of his class on the list.
While the list has an intended audience of student athletes, Lythcott-Haims said any Stanford student could have obtained a copy of the document, which was available only in hard copy from the offices of the Athletic Academic Resource Center – in the basement of the Arrillaga Center for Sports and Recreation.
But Miriam Marks, a Stanford senior who was told about the list, said the list is essentially only for the athlete community.
“The biggest drawback is that it is specifically made available to athletes,” Marks said. “If it was published to the entire student body, that’s a different thing. If I were to walk in and ask for the list, they would ask me why I needed it, since I’m not an athlete.”
Some academic advisers outside the resource center found out about the list when they were shown a copy of it by student reporters. Advisers such as Melissa Stevenson, one of the school's eight academic directors at student residences, said there was no comparable list for students who are not athletes.
“As far as I know, there’s no decided answer to which classes are easier and how to take an easier quarter,” Stevenson said.*
Lythcott-Haims said the school has made accommodations for student athletes because they “have the most constrained schedules of any Stanford students.”
“The list originated before the university’s transition to an (sic) searchable on-line bulletin when students had no practical, efficient means to navigate the printed bulletin,” Lee wrote in an e-mail response to student reporters.
But for at least the last seven years, the university has provided other ways for students to find classes, including Axess – an online interface that enables students to sort and choose classes by time.
Until spring 2009, Stanford also printed and widely distributed the “time schedule,” which listed all the quarter’s offerings by time.
Stanford students now also can use the online options of CourseRank and Explore Courses to help sort classes based on time offered and general education requirements.
Lee and Lythcott-Haims said the list was meant to serve as the beginning of an advising conversation.
“We’re not handing it out and distributing it all around,” said Lythcott-Haims.
But student athletes said they typically just picked up a copy of the list and left. In some cases, no advising conversation ever took place.
“Literally, when you walk into the (resource center), right next to the door, it’s right there,” said Ryan Sudeck, a junior on the men’s crew team.
“I never used it before this year,” he continued. “I was trying to get my requirements done. But this quarter it was like, ‘Oh, I need an easy class to boost my GPA.’ ”
Susan Simoni Burk, the former assistant athletic director for student services who oversaw the Athletic Academic Resource Center’s advising efforts from 1995 to 2009, said any student, athlete or not, could pick up the list. But she also noted that students who were not athletes rarely had reason to visit the offices.
“They were put on a table, and usually they were gone within the first day,” she said.
California Watch is a project of the independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. This story was reported by Stanford University investigative reporting students Ryan Mac, Amy Julia Harris, Elizabeth Titus, Devin Banerjee, Ellen Huet, Joshua Hicks, Cassandra Feliciano, Daniel Bohm, Jamie Hansen, Julia James, Paul Jones, Valentina Nesci, Dean Schaffer, Kareem Yasin, Kathleen Chaykowski, and Thomas Corrigan. The class is under the direction of California Watch Editorial Director Mark Katches. This story was edited by Katches and Denise Zapata. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick.