Binghamton’s Downfall Came Quickly
Oh, how easy it is to corrupt an elite academic institution in order to gain quick fame through intercollegiate athletics. Time and time again, we see coaches and educators willing to compromise high scholastic standards for victories on field and court.
After a few dismissals and possibly an NCAA penalty or slap on the wrist, all is quickly forgiven and forgotten in most such cases.
But when a novice at the rough and tumble of major football or basketball tries for a quick fix to reach the heights with the big boys, all hell can break loose, just as it has in recent months at one of our nation’s premier institutions of higher learning.
Triple Cities College, a branch of the private Syracuse University, opened in the fall of 1946 in Endicott, a community adjacent to Binghamton and Johnson City in upstate New York. Like many other new colleges that suddenly emerged after World War II, Triple Cities was intended to serve its area’s returning veterans who sought a college education under the GI Bill of Rights.
Four years later, Triple Cities became a public institution and was renamed Harpur College in honor of Robert Harpur, a colonial patriot and teacher in that region. Harpur College was also assimilated into the growing and prestigious State University of New York system in 1950.
In 1961, the campus was moved a couple of miles southeast and across the Susquehanna River into Vestal, N.Y. By 1965, the once small liberal arts college had become one of the four doctorate-granting institutions within the SUNY system. It was established as a university and its name was changed to The State University of New York at Binghamton, or Binghamton University for short.
Binghamton’s prestige spread quickly. Its faculty became world famous. Its courses of study covered the spectrum of arts and sciences. BU attracted the best students from outside New York state as well as from New York itself. Every year, the little Triple Cities College that grew is ranked among the very best institutions of higher learning in the United States.
BU currently has 11,500 undergraduates and 2,900 graduate students from all 50 states and over 100 countries.
Then along came the disaster created by plunging into Division I basketball. Within the span of less than a decade, this magnificent university with a worldwide reputation for academic excellence was dishonored by the misguided intentions of some administrators, including the university president, plus a handful of faculty members and coaches who catered to athletes not qualified to be students in this superior academic environment.
Binghamton University made the move to upgrade its varsity basketball program from NCAA Division III to Division I in 2001. The Bearcats went big-time at the insistence of Lois B. DeFleur, Binghamton University’s president since 1990, and Joel Thirer, the athletic director. They did so against the advice and wishes of numerous senior faculty members.
Binghamton reached the heights in basketball rather quickly when it won the America East Conference title a year ago and thus gained a berth in the 2009 NCAA Tournament. BU lost to Duke, 86-62, in the first round. But the Bearcats had made the big-time and in very short order.
Kevin Broadus, who was hired as head basketball coach in 2007, had turned a miracle in only two seasons. The former Georgetown assistant coach was “big man on campus” for a while.
Then last September, this house of cards that was BU basketball came tumbling down. The university was about to pay a dear price for such questionable success.
The team’s outstanding guard, Emanuel Mayben, was arrested and charged with possession with intent to sell crack cocaine. Within days, Mayben and five other players were dismissed for a number of reasons, including drug possession and using a stolen debit card to make purchases.
President DeFleur announced in January that she will be stepping down at the end of this spring’s semester. Joel Thirer resigned as athletic director and Kevin Broadus, the coach, was placed on administrative paid leave.
The 16-member Board of Trustees of SUNY directed a full inquiry.
That investigation, which was conducted by the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, LLP, took four months and costed around $1 million. It culminated in a scathing report that criticized Binghamton University’s president, athletic director and various faculty members and coaches for allowing the institution’s Division I basketball program to run amok.
The report noted how a player received course credits for Bowling I and Theories of Softball and how another player had an assistant coach write a paper for him.
This report stated that at a meeting with admissions officials, a member of the athletic department said, “Why do you care if we take six players who don’t attend classes?”
Nancy L. Zimpher, the SUNY chancellor, said, “I am disappointed that a great institution like Binghamton University would, in any way, because of its athletic program, compromise its terrific academic reputation.”
Zimpher is scheduled to make recommendations for further action in this Binghamton matter to the SUNY Board of Trustees Tuesday. Some Binghamton faculty jobs may be on the line. The report clearly spells out failures on the part of staff members who were in collusion with athletic department officials to see that basketball players got passing grades they did not deserve.
The SUNY investigation report strongly condemns President DeFleur, pointing out that none of this could have happened without her implicit acceptance of the academic misdeeds.
Some of the basketball players, who were transfer students from other institutions, were given credit for “patsy” courses upon entering Binghamton. This was against the wishes of Binghamton admissions officers.
To many fans, all of this may not be a big deal. After all, look at the University of Tennessee or the University of Oregon, where athletes wearing orange uniforms one day might be wearing orange jump suits the next. Then there is Baylor, where one basketball player murdered a teammate a few years ago. Baylor and Tennessee were among the 65 teams entered in the NCAA basketball tournament that started this week.
The report ordered by SUNY’s trustees said, “Difficulties such as BU experienced are not uncommon in intercollegiate athletic programs, particularly in Division I men’s basketball.”
Binghamton University was not up to being one of those major athletic institutions and simply did not know how to handle the “big time.” BU is an academic institution of the highest order that did not need notoriety for sports accomplishments, and many of its students and faculty members are rightfully up in arms over the disgrace visited upon this campus. Some of them want BU to leave Division I of the NCAA.
BU is paying a heavy price for the mistakes of the few who only achieved a fleeting moment in the spotlight.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is email@example.com
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