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Auburn clears athletic officials of grade wrongdoing

AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn athletics officials were cleared of
wrongdoing by a university probe of claims that athletes improperly
boosted their grades with easy independent study courses.

Interim university president Ed Richardson said at a news
conference Thursday that an internal investigation determined
athletes were not steered to the courses of sociology professor
Thomas Petee, who was accused by a colleague of helping football
players stay eligible by offering classes that required little work
or no work.

"In addition, the investigation has not produced any evidence
that the athletic program, coaches, counselors, or athletic staff
... had improper communication with or pressured faculty in any
way," Richardson said.

Petee and another professor, who also gave "directed-reading"
courses, have resigned their administrative posts. Both professors have tenure at Auburn and will continue to be members of
the faculty, Richardson said.

Richardson said the probe, launched after sociology professor
James Gundlach made the allegations reported in The New York Times
last month about Petee's courses, found it was purely an academic
matter. He said 82 percent taking the courses were non-athletes, 18
percent played a sport of some kind and 7.5 percent were football
players.

The Times reported 18 members of the undefeated 2004 Auburn
football team, including star running back Cadillac Williams, took
a combined 97 hours of Petee's courses during their careers.

He said the school is now limiting the number of such
"directed-reading," or independent study courses a professor can
offer. In the 2004-2005 academic year, Petee had allowed some 250
students to take the courses, which don't require classroom
attendance but one-on-one work with the professor.

Richardson said the investigation centered on the sociology
department initially but also found problems in the adult education
department.

He said Petee was resigning as interim director of the sociology
department and James Witte was stepping down as program chair of
adult education. Witte also had been allowing students to take
independent study courses, but the numbers involved weren't
immediately available.

Gundlach alleged that athletes who were at risk of losing
eligibility were steered by university athletic officials to easy
courses taught by Petee and others.

Richardson said 63 people were interviewed in the investigation
and the panel handling the probe had access to more information
than Gundlach. He said he is confident athletes were not being
steered toward the courses as alleged, but those findings did not
make the matter any less serious.

"Our academic reputation is far more important than all the
athletic programs put together," he said.

Petee said Thursday he had no problems with the new policies and
had anticipated having to give up his administrative duties.

Richardson said the investigation is expected to last about two
more weeks. Some students who have graduated still need to be
contacted.

He said he has been in contact with the Southern Association of
Colleges and Schools, which is Auburn's accrediting agency, and the
NCAA, which governs college athletics. He said the completed report
will be made public after it is reviewed by SACS.