By Blair Kerkhoff
Henry Lyons loves University of Missouri-Kansas City. He wants that established from the start.
He graduated from the university, has donated to UMKC and the school is listed as a beneficiary in his will.
“But I feel I have to do this,” Lyons said.
“This” is blowing the whistle on what Lyons believes is questionable academic practice involving a student-athlete at UMKC. (Watch a video of Lyons speaking about the alleged grade change scheme, below.)
Lyons was serving as an adjunct professor when he alleged a failing grade was changed to a passing grade by the university to benefit an athlete.
Lyons wouldn’t identify the student-athlete, nor would the school, citing privacy laws. But Lyons said the person was a member of a “major sports team” at UMKC.
The class, Career and Life Development, was part of the curriculum in the fall semester, 2010. Lyons said the student-athlete failed the course, and that touched off a series of conversations between Lyons and school officials that resulted in an “F” being changed to a passing grade against Lyons’ protest.
“It’s the arrogance of the system,” Lyons said. “This is not a personal agenda. It’s about what’s right.”
Lyons said he has sent a letter to the NCAA detailing his version of the events and asking for an investigation.
UMKC says it welcomes the NCAA scrutiny but that Lyons is off base.
“Mr. Lyons’ charges are completely baseless and absolutely false,” said UMKC chancellor Leo E. Morton in a statement through the university. “We are delighted by the prospect of a thorough investigation of these charges by the NCAA. We hope they will decide to investigate. If they do, we will cooperate to the maximum extent possible, and we will look forward to the public release of their findings.”
NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn couldn’t confirm whether the NCAA has received information from UMKC.
“But if we receive information about any potential rules violation, the enforcement staff will look at it, assess its credibility and look into it further to determine if it’s a violation,” Osburn said.
The NCAA attempts to work with the school in these matters.
“Depending on the specific situation, if at all possible, we would work in coordination with the school to get to the bottom,” Osburn said. “There are times that for a variety of reasons that there was a misunderstanding of what is and what isn’t allowed under NCAA rules.”
Academic integrity must be the mindset of college sports, said NCAA president Mark Emmert, speaking at the Final Four last month. The NCAA is about to toughen its academic initial eligibility requirements.
“I think the best way to think of our academic reforms is to recognize that this is really an issue that’s at the core of the collegiate model of our whole enterprise,” Emmert said. “The notion that our student-athletes are just that, students who happen to be athletes, and that we’re very serious about that student component.”
In this instance, the student-athlete’s eligibility was not at stake, according to a source familiar with the situation but not authorized to comment publicly.
Under NCAA eligibility rules, student-athletes must pass a minimum of six hours to be eligible for the following semester. Student-athletes must complete 40 percent of their coursework toward a degree by the end of their second year, 60 percent by the end of their third year and 80 percent by the end of their fourth. They have a total of five years to graduate while on an athletic scholarship.
This student-athlete was meeting those criteria, according to the source. But Lyons is skeptical.
“Then why did they fight this so much?” Lyons said.
Three others in the class, which had 22 students, received failing grades, according to Lyons, but he said the university didn’t challenge him on those marks.
Lyons contends that the student-athlete failed the course based on a semester-ending paper combined with a D-minus on the final exam. A few weeks later, Lyons said, he received a telephone call from Reggie Bassa, director of the school’s Program for Adult Continuing Education, which oversaw the course.
“He said there seems to be problem with the student’s grade,” Lyons said. “I told him there was no problem. The student got what he or she deserved and earned.”
There would be an appeal of the grade, Bassa told Lyons.
At UMKC, a grade can be challenged through an appeals process. The final appeal is to the Academic Standards Committee, which is composed of faculty members.
Lyons said he was asked by Bassa to present papers from other students to compare to the student-athlete’s failed work.
“No problem,” Lyons said. “The work speaks for itself.”
Lyons said he soon after received an email from Bassa saying Lyons was to allow the student to write another paper, re-grade it, and give the student points for class participation, which Lyons has offered to all of his students.
“How would they know this person participated?” Lyons said. “I told him that’s not how it works in my class.”
Another paper was written, and Lyons was asked to grade it. Lyons told the university he wanted to make his own appeal but said he was told that couldn’t happen until he graded the re-written paper.
“I can’t appeal a decision until I grade a paper that I don’t think should have been written in the first place?” Lyons said. “It just didn’t sound right to me.”
Lyons started to hear that his grading of the initial paper didn’t contain enough instructional feedback, and he said his syllabus was questioned — the same syllabus that he said he’d been using since he started teaching in 2008 and that had been approved by the department.
When Lyons went to check on his course schedule for this semester, he saw that it was no longer being offered. UMKC director of media relations John Martellaro said the school would not comment on the status of Lyons’ class.
Melvin C. Tyler, UMKC’s vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment management said the school is not aware of any misuse of the appeals process.
“Our academic procedures allow any student to challenge a course grade through a series of appeals,” Tyler said. “The final appeal is to an Academic Standards Committee composed of faculty members elected by their peers. We are not aware of any case in the past two years in which any grade appeal by any student bypassed this process. We are confident that all recommendations made by the committee are academically justified.”