Exposes Grading Scandal at Auburn University Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A sociology professor at Auburn University contacted The New York Times to report that his colleague was granting directed-study classes to athletes so that they could raise their grade point averages and remain eligible to play. The student athletes were given inflated grades in courses with virtually no academic work—a practice that also led to a misleading academic ranking of the university by the NCAA.

Summary of Event

On July 14, 2006, New York Times reporter Pete Thamel broke the story of a possible grading scandal involving athletes at Auburn University in Alabama. The scandal was brought to Thamel’s attention by Professor James Gundlach, chairman of the Sociology Department at the university. Gundlach was reportedly watching a televised football game and heard that one of the players was a scholar-athlete with a sociology major. Because neither he nor two other full-time professors in the department had ever had the player in their respective classes, Gundlach began researching the department’s academic records. He discovered that another professor, Thomas A. Petee, was offering an exorbitant number of directed-study classes that required very little course work and no class time. Though Gundlach had attempted to deal with the problem through appropriate institutional channels, reporting the issue to the provost’s office months earlier, lack of attention to the problem led him to bring the issue to the media. [kw]New York Times Exposes Grading Scandal at Auburn University (July 14, 2006) [kw]Grading Scandal at Auburn University, New York Times Exposes (July 14, 2006) Football;college Coaches;football New York Times;and Auburn University[Auburn University] Gundlach, James Petee, Thomas A. Tuberville, Tommy Football;college Coaches;football New York Times;and Auburn University[Auburn University] Gundlach, James Petee, Thomas A. Tuberville, Tommy [g]United States;July 14, 2006: New York Times Exposes Grading Scandal at Auburn University[03620] [c]Publishing and journalism;July 14, 2006: New York Times Exposes Grading Scandal at Auburn University[03620] [c]Education;July 14, 2006: New York Times Exposes Grading Scandal at Auburn University[03620] [c]Corruption;July 14, 2006: New York Times Exposes Grading Scandal at Auburn University[03620] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;July 14, 2006: New York Times Exposes Grading Scandal at Auburn University[03620] [c]Sports;July 14, 2006: New York Times Exposes Grading Scandal at Auburn University[03620] Thamel, Pete

Concerns regarding the Auburn athletic department involved primarily the football team, which had eighteen players taking almost one hundred credit hours of Petee’s directed-study courses. Though both athletes and nonathletes were enrolled in the courses, approximately 25 percent of Petee’s students were athletes. One player even took as many as seven directed-study courses from Petee. Another problem for the athletic department that resulted from the study of these courses was the discovery that these eighteen players were receiving higher grades in Petee’s directed-study courses, grades that raised the players’ overall grade point averages to acceptable academic standards set by the National Collegiate National Collegiate Athletic Association;academic standards Athletic Association (NCAA). Another issue that came to the university’s attention was Petee allowing one athlete to join a course two-thirds of the way through the semester and rewarding a high grade to that student for little effort.

Whether the courses were linked specifically to the athletic department was questionable. Despite one athlete’s report that the director of Auburn’s Student Athlete Support Services had arranged the courses, this was not confirmed. Regardless of the large number of football players who were advanced because of these courses, Coach Tommy Tuberville repeatedly stressed his confidence that the issue was academic rather than one of athletics. He denied the involvement of the athletic department in manufacturing the courses, in advising students to take the courses, or in pressuring professors to inflate the grades of student athletes.

Auburn’s academic standing in the NCAA was top for its division for public universities, and it ranked behind only Stanford University Stanford University, the Naval Academy, U.S. U.S. Naval Academy, and Boston College Boston College in the entire division. The academic standing of Auburn athletes prompted other institutions to question how the NCAA evaluated academic standards and ranked colleges and universities based on those evaluations.

The Auburn directed-study courses were investigated by university officials after the story broke in The New York Times. Despite challenging areas such as statistics and theory that would better be taught in a classroom because of required intensive content, the university discovered that Petee was offering a wide variety of courses in this format. Gundlach reported that Petee had offered directed-reading courses to over 250 students the previous year (2004-2005). This load included fifteen different directed-reading courses, which put Petee’s teaching load at three times the normal full-time load. Other professors and department chairs at the university confirmed that the workload Petee carried was ridiculously high, even impossible.

At the orders of university president Edward R. Richardson, Auburn conducted an internal audit. The audit discovered a number of additional problems in the Sociology Department, including alleged grade changes that brought several students’ grade point averages to an acceptable level for graduation. In one instance, Professor Paul Starr was contacted about a change of grade he allegedly gave to a scholarship athlete (not a football player) never enrolled in any of his classes. The student’s grade was changed from an incomplete to an A, one of four A’s given to the student (the other A’s were awarded by Petee, Starr’s department chairman). The A grades raised this student athlete’s grade point average to the university’s standard for graduation. The internal audit confirmed that Petee changed approximately thirty-three grades above the average departmental grade changes in a particular semester. He was reprimanded for lack of appropriate record keeping. Auburn did share some findings with the NCAA, but the university did not expect to share the complete results of the audit. The NCAA agreed that the problems were academic and not with the athletic program.

The internal audit and press coverage of the bogus classes and the grade inflations led to the implementation of several new requirements at Auburn. First, the directed-readings program was overhauled. The curriculum was made more challenging, and fewer courses were allowed in this format. The maximum number of courses and students per professor was limited, with a student requiring multiple signatures before he or she could sign up for more than nine hours of directed-readings and before an individual professor could supervise more than three students per semester in such courses.

Second, Petee and James Witte, the director of adult education who also awarded athletes higher-than-normal grades, lost their departmental leadership positions but not their status as classroom teachers. Petee, however, was later suspended with pay, and he refused to discuss the matter with the media. His only defense for directing so many of the reading courses was that they were necessary because the university lacked departmental resources—teachers—to cover the heavy load of courses that needed to be taught.

Auburn tried to dismiss Petee, who then countersued. He settled with the university, retained his salary, and retained his position as interim chairman of the sociology department. Gundlach had retired shortly after he brought the corruption to the media’s attention, citing departmental division as his reason for leaving the university.


The bogus-course and grade-inflation scandal at Auburn, deemed more of an issue of academics rather than of athletics, reinforced concerns over the NCAA’s ranking of academics at a given institution. Even with the scandal in the news, the NCAA ranked Auburn fifth in the United States among Division I-A public universities, leading to questions about how the NCAA ranking system worked. After the Auburn affair, the NCAA was encouraged to change its ranking system to account for academic differences among schools, that is, among those that are academically challenging and those that only pretend to be or those whose ranking was based on inflated grades and nonexistent classes. Football;college Coaches;football New York Times;and Auburn University[Auburn University] Gundlach, James Petee, Thomas A. Tuberville, Tommy

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lipka, Sara. “Auburn Alters Policy on Independent Study.” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 1, 2006. Simple overview of Auburn University’s revised policies regarding directed-study classes. Especially relevant because the scandal led to academic reform at the university.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mandel, Stewart. Bowls, Polls, and Tattered Souls: Tackling the Chaos and Controversy That Reign over College Football. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2007. This book provides a detailed, behind-the-scenes look at notorious university scandals involving student athletes and college athletics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Staurowsky, Ellen J. “Piercing the Veil of Amateurism: Commercialization, Corruption, and U.S. College Sports.” In The Commercialization of Sport, edited by Trevor Slack. New York: Routledge, 2004. Staurowsky discusses how amateur athletics in the United States has become a commercialized and corrupt spectacle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thamel, Pete. “Top Grades and No Class Time for Auburn Players.” The New York Times, July 14, 2006. Original article that broke the story. Reports on James Gundlach’s concerns over Thomas Petee’s directed-study courses offered to athletes at Auburn. Highlights the number of courses offered and specific students involved, and discusses Petee’s response to the accusations against him.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wasley, Paula. “Auburn U. Settles with Professor Who Handed Out Easy Grades to Athletes.” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 10, 2007. Brief article detailing the results of Petee’s lawsuit against Auburn University and the university’s dismissal proceedings against him. Good for studies of the impact of the scandal on student athletics and student-athlete scholarship.

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Categories: History