Bedeviled again. First the Duke University basketball team kept Xavier from reaching the Final Four in last year’s NCAA Tournament, winning 66-63. Then, in November, it kept Xavier from reaching another pinnacle: having the nation’s best student- athlete graduation rate. The NCAA’s report for the Class of 2004 showed that Xavier had a 93-percent graduation rate; Duke had a 94-percent graduation rate. Three points on the court, one point off. Darn them.
Still, the report confirmed to the nation that in the highly competitive, high-pressure world of college athletics, Xavier plays extremely well on both courts. The Musketeers finished ahead of some of the country’s other brainy athletic powers—Notre Dame, Stanford, Georgetown—and were a substantial 31 points ahead of the national average of 62 percent. In a time when stories of abuse and exploitation of student-athletes appear regularly, the NCAA report clearly placed Xavier in the small group of schools where academic integrity and winning aren’t mutually exclusive.
“That’s because the philosophy at Xavier is different,” says director for athletics Dawn Rogers. “When we hire coaches we always talk to them about what’s important at Xavier: We always place academics first; we always operate with integrity—we won’t operate in any gray areas; we expect them to win; and we expect them to recruit the right kind of student-athlete. It doesn’t help a coach if he recruits a young man or woman who isn’t going to be academically successful.”
Twenty years ago, just as the men’s basketball team was rising in stature, the NCAA had very few guidelines regarding the academic performance of student-athletes. If a university wanted to protect the integrity of its academic programs, it had to take its own measures. Xavier did. In 1985, it created the position of an academic advisor who was specifically responsible for the guidance and supervision of student-athletes.
While other universities may have had similar counselors, Xavier went several steps further: It empowered the position by making it report to academic affairs and not the athletic department, thereby giving it the authority to bench an athlete for academic reasons. It also hired coaches and administrators who backed the position and decisions.
“When I came here in 1985, the field was nondescript; there was nothing written on it,” says Sister Rose Ann Fleming, the brains behind the creation of the effort and the force behind its success. “I just assumed this is how we would do it. If all we’re doing is bringing students in to manipulate the system and to stay in their sport, that’s wrong. Ethically, we cannot take advantage of them. I think that’s absolutely wrong.”
The energetic nun has six academic degrees—A.B., M.A., M.B.A., M.Ed., Ph.D., J.D.—and served for eight years as president of Trinity College in Washington, D.C. She is undeniably qualified and presents a commanding case for the power of education. She has a highly pleasant demeanor and a quick smile but an unbending willingness to discipline an athlete who dares defy her rules.
And those rules are these: Don’t miss class; study; do the assignments; take at least 12 credits per semester; maintain a 2.0 grade point average; find a career path and get on it.
Over the last 20 years, the rules and expectations have become ingrained into the University’s system. For her efforts, Fleming’s been named MVP of the men’s basketball program and inducted into the University’s athletic hall of fame.
If the weight of maintaining Xavier’s academic integrity within the sporting world rests upon her shoulders, it doesn’t show. If she comes across as too strict, she’s not apologetic. Her only concern, she says, is making sure those who come to Xavier do what it takes to earn their degree. “She has such a pulse on each player academically,” says Chris Mack, a 1993 graduate and now assistant basketball coach. “And she builds relationships with the players. Guys still call her after they graduate for advice.”
Her efforts are well documented: She’s benched at least one athlete in every sport for academic reasons; she’s shown up at their doors and escorted them to class; she once called an athlete and let the phone ring more than 100 times to get him out of bed. “You’re letting them down by letting them tell you what they’re going to do,” she says. “Every single student can do this. It’s just up to us to make sure it happens.”
Despite the successful results, not everyone sees Fleming’s work as admirable. Critics have accused her of pulling strings or providing student-athletes with advantages over other students. She denies the charges. So do others.
“Our coaches are not allowed to contact any professor,” says Rogers. “Sister Rose Ann is the link between athletics and academics, and there’s a clear line to whom she reports to and works with. It doesn’t matter what I think. She and her staff report to a different department, and that’s very, very important.”
After 20 years, Fleming just knows the ins and outs of the system a lot better than most. Student-athletes also need additional help because of the demands on their time and energy. “The life of a student-athlete is more difficult than the average student,” Fleming says.
If she pleads guilty to anything, it’s to being part of the difficulty in their lives. Most have to be trained in the ways of college life—at least how life is at Xavier. “They come in here as a young person with a very high skill in a particular sport,” she says. “They have lived larger than life because of their athletic achievements, and you have to get them to settle down and know that doing their math and science project is normal, that it’s the way it should be. It scares new athletes to death. You’ve got to watch them closely.”
Each night a large portion of the University’s 250 student-athletes file into the library for a mandatory two-hour study hall. Fleming tells them they must find two more hours on their own as well. They also must take at least 12 credits. “If you take 12 credits per semester plus six in the summer, that’s 30 credits per year. Over four years, that’s 120, which is what you need to graduate.”
Fleming makes it sound so easy. And it really is, she says. It just takes someone to make sure it gets done. The NCAA has stepped up its efforts, but Xavier’s requirements are still stricter, so Fleming’s not going to change. “I’d like to see every school doing what we’re doing,” she says. “It’s a lot of work, but it can be done.” It also builds a momentum that helps breed its own success.
“Look at David West,” says Rogers. “He was aware that if he left early for the N.B.A., he would be the first senior on the men’s basketball team not to graduate since 1985. I’m not suggesting that was the deciding factor, but there was pressure there. He knew. And how many programs is that even a talking point?” Maybe Duke.