Academic concerns part of athletics plan

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With CSUN’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics in the process of identifying both short-term and long-term goals for Matador athletics, longstanding concerns about the lack of dedicated space for a student-athlete resource center have received prominent attention.

The commission’s final report and recommendations are not due to land on President Jolene Koester’s desk until the end of the year, and some members of the commission said providing additional academic resources for student athletes would benefit the university.

Overall, the commission is charged with the task of developing CSUN’s athletics program into a consistently successful NCAA Division I program within the Big West Conference.

With various proposals for facilities and activities under consideration, commission members must find a balance and identify campus priorities.

During the subcommittee’s Oct. 28 open forum, the public was invited to voice their ideas and concerns about athletic facilities, said William Watkins, associate vice president of Student Affairs and chair of the facilities subcommittee for the BRC.

The public’s input will be taken into consideration and possibly integrated into the subcommittee’s recommendations, he said.

“The athletic coaches said quite clearly that when they think of facilities that are important, a student-athlete resource center is paramount,” Watkins said.

Student athletes receive advisement for their majors from their respective colleges. Because of time constraints presented by their training and traveling schedules, student athletes also have access to three counselors from the Academic Services for Student Athletes office for additional tutoring and mentoring, a representative said.

Some coaches and school officials question whether the ASSA has a sufficient amount of counselors to handle the workload that comes from having more than 400 student athletes from the school’s 20 teams seeking academic assistance.

Staci Schulz, head coach of the women’s basketball team, said ASSA has done a good job with above-average and good students, but some students need a little more help.

“We have missed the boat on below-average students,” Schulz said. “It’s not about the tutors not having enough talent or skill, but (rather) not having the needed support.”

Schulz said because the NCAA places limitations on academic involvement of coaches, the task of direct one-on-one tutoring falls outside their scope. A dedicated space with a computer lab and additional personnel could make a difference in the academic performance of struggling student athletes, she said.

“Student athletes need a place to go and be known when they go there,” Schulz said. She said all of the women’s basketball team has met eligibility requirements.

According to NCAA Graduation Rates Report data, student athletes at CSUN have a slightly higher graduation rate than the general population. The report states the 2004-05 graduation rate for student athletes was 62 percent, compared with 60 percent for student athletes in other schools.

With a campus-wide initiative aimed at improving graduation rates, some said a resource center for student athletes would make sense.

Aki Hirota, professor of Modern and Classical Languages and chair of the academic subcommittee for the BRC, said one of the subcommittee’s initial tasks involved surveying coaches, student-athletes and academic advisers to determine what, if any, concerns need to be addressed first.

“Everybody’s major concern is not having a study center where (student athletes) can go anytime of the day or night,” Hirota said. “They’ve been making due with what they have. Sometimes they will use their coach’s lounge.”

Hirota said student athletes who fall behind academically risk losing scholarship money and become ineligible for competition or practice. She said that while ASSA has done a great job providing advisement regarding course loads, tutoring and careers, it could use more personnel and space if student athletes are to consistently meet NCAA eligibility requirements.

“They are understaffed. They don’t have a study center or a computer lab,” Hirota said.

Juan Plascencia, assistant coach for the men’s soccer team, said the mandatory study halls for athletic teams and the ASSA can help a student athlete to a certain extent, but ultimately it is the student’s responsibility to strike a balance between school and athletics.

“It’s all about time management,” he said. “It’s always tough. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.”

Newly instated NCAA rules now track eligibility and retention rates of student athletes, and will start penalizing schools that fail to improve in academics by Fall 2007, said Ashlie Kite, associate athletic director.

In order to meet the minimum requirement of the Academic Progress Rate, or APR, a group of players’ academic eligibility and retention points must indicate a graduation rate above 50 percent, she said.

Kite said that under former NCAA standards, it was possible for a student athlete to be eligible for team play every term and yet never graduate.

The APR was introduced as a method to implement academic reform and ensure that coaches recruit athletes that fit the mission of their athletic programs and remain on track for graduation, she said.

“There are rules that apply to them that don’t apply to the general population,” Kite said. “The more resources we can give students, the better academic progress we can make. It’s one of those areas where there’s always room for improvement.”

Cost-and-benefit models are being used to determine how the commission’s recommended goals will be prioritized and funded, said Michael Neubauer, professor and chair of the finance subcommittee for the BRC.

A resource center would be of limited use to a limited number of people, compared to a multi-purpose arena that could generate revenue as a concert venue and attract a larger part of the student body and outside community, he said.

He said his subcommittee is looking at ways to increase revenues for the Athletics Department, and that the commission was not given any maximum or minimum expense account for new facilities or activities.

“One thing we can say we have identified is the need for student athlete academic support,” Neubauer said. “We are all clear the academic mission is the most important part of the university by far.”

Gary Victor, head coach of women’s tennis and member of the BRC, said evaluating the inner workings of the Athletics Department has proven to be both interesting and complicated, and will result in a defined vision for Matador sports.

“I think the university and the Athletics Department are on the same page in trying to ensure the welfare of all the students and student athletes,” Victor said.

Katie Kruger, office manager of the Center for Student Athlete Services at Long Beach State, said a recent $2.1 million endowment will allow CSAS and its seven employees to move out of the former windowless boiler room that has served as the center’s office since 1995 into a new facility. Scheduled to be completed by February 2006, the new center will be equipped with conference rooms, a computer lab and a bigger office.

“It’s quite possible that without the endowment, the new center would not be getting built,” Kruger said.

Julio Morales can be reached at julio.morales.605@csun.edu.