Auburn’s top-ranked football team, which is preparing to play Oregon in Glendale, Ariz., for the national title on Monday, has tumbled in the N.C.A.A.’s most important academic measurement to No. 85 from No. 4 among the 120 major college football programs.
The decline came after the university closed several academic loopholes following a New York Times article in 2006 that showed numerous football players padded their grade-point averages and remained eligible through independent-study-style courses that required little or no work. Auburn has earned a certain sort of praise from those who were its toughest critics in 2006.
“Auburn was in a rogue position and they corrected it,” said Gordon Gee, who in 2006, when he was Vanderbilt’s chancellor, was stunned that Auburn was ranked higher than his university. Gee is now president of Ohio State. “When those loopholes are closed and the issue is dramatically different, it shows that the loophole was being used. I applaud Auburn. They really did make a concerted effort to curb those abuses. We should applaud them even if they dropped 80 points.”
Auburn’s drop in the Academic Progress Rate, a four-year assessment of the movement toward graduation for a team’s players, is the third largest in college football since 2006, behind Mississippi’s (to 113 from 18) and Florida State’s (to 105 from 17). Since 2006, both Florida State and Michigan have endured academic scandals, with Michigan’s ranking falling to 84 from 27.
Among all the bowl teams this season, Auburn has the highest disparity in the graduation rates between white players (100 percent) and black players (49 percent), according to a study at the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.
Jim Gundlach, the Auburn sociology professor who uncovered the academic abuse, saw the decline in the team’s ranking as progress. “A genuine consequence to this has been that the people who want to do things right have gotten a bit more grasp over what the university is trying to do,” he said.
Auburn’s athletic director, Jay Jacobs, declined to comment. The Tigers’ second-year football coach, Gene Chizik, said of his team’s academic performance and support, “We do a great job, so we’re not concerned with that.” When pressed on the issue of graduating black players, Chizik said, “Those are circumstances; there’s all kinds of different things.”
In 2006, Auburn football was No. 1 among public universities in the academic ranking, alongside private institutions like Duke and Boston College. But some irregularities had caught Gundlach’s attention two years earlier.
He saw on television that an academic football player of the week was an Auburn sociology major, yet Gundlach was surprised that he had never had him in class. He asked two other sociology professors, who also did not recall having him as their student. Gundlach dug through records and soon found that Auburn football players were graduating as sociology majors without taking sociology courses in the classroom.
He found that 18 players on Auburn’s undefeated 2004 team had taken 97 directed-reading course hours — independent study-style classes — from Thomas Petee, the sociology department’s highest-ranking member. Petee taught 252 independent studies in one academic year, 2004-5, astounding Auburn faculty members, who said that overseeing 10 independent studies would be considered ambitious.
In investigating the situation, the university found that another professor, James Witte, had taught an inordinate number of directed-reading classes. The investigation did not find fault in the athletic department because the courses were available to and taken by all students. The N.C.A.A. investigation yielded secondary violations. Witte, the program coordinator for adult education, and Petee stepped down as department chairmen, and Petee was later forced to stop teaching after an audit revealed that he had changed grades without the approval of professors.
Petee did not respond to a request seeking comment, and a woman who answered the telephone at his house said that he was not available. Petee’s lawyer also declined to comment. Witte did not return a call or respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
Another factor in Auburn’s precipitous drop was the university’s decision to hire Chizik to replace Tommy Tuberville as the football coach two years ago. Kevin Lennon, the N.C.A.A. vice president for membership services, said that rankings can dip after coaching changes because of the number of players who transfer.
But Thomas S. Paskus, the N.C.A.A.’s principal research scientist, said that a drop as large as Auburn’s was irregular.