A recent scandal at the University of North Carolina — where investigators found that athletes were steered to lax and even phony classes in a certain major — is unlikely to happen at the University of Kentucky, athletics officials assured the UK Board of Trustees on Tuesday.
Sandy Bell, the executive associate athletics director for student services at UK, told the board that about 500 UK athletes have 69 majors. All student athletes, coaches and other athletics staff have lengthy training on academic eligibility issues as defined by the NCAA, and UK's Academic Integrity Group has been in existence since the late 1980s, Bell said.
"We want to educate everyone involved," Bell said. "It takes a lot of people looking at these kids on a regular basis."
The UNC scandal, described as one of the worst in recent years, involved more than 1,500 student athletes over 18 years who were steered to the Department of Afro-American Studies. Investigators found that UNC officials set up "no-show" classes and gave out inflated grades to athletes.
Although UK's athletes are scattered in a variety of study areas, they often gravitate toward a group of favorite majors. Bell said the top 10 majors for student athletes are led by the 110 athletes in undergraduate studies, which many freshman and sophomores declare while they complete the common-core requirements before choosing a specific major.
Second is kinesiology, or the science of exercise, with 57 athletes, and third is the College of Agriculture's Community and Leadership Development, with 32 athletes. Those are followed by biology, pre-communication, pre-management, communication, marketing, pre-finance and psychology.
Football, one of the biggest sports at UK, follows those trends. A Herald-Leader analysis of UK's annual football media guides since 2012 found that about 20 percent of players picked undergraduate studies, 18 percent picked community leadership and development and 16 percent chose kinesiology.
Kris Ricketts, a professor in the College of Agriculture's community leadership and development, said she thinks the major is popular with athletes because it aligns with a lot of athletes' interest in community education.
"We have people who really want to educate different groups" within the context of agriculture or youth education, Ricketts said.
Students take classes such as "Intrapersonal Leadership" and "Community Interaction," and every senior must complete a practicum of 150 hours. One athlete, she said, is working on a project to help the homeless population.
"Ten years ago, we were known as an easy major, and we've worked really hard to correct that," Ricketts said. "We're not biochemistry, but we do try to make things rigorous and encourage critical thinking. If anybody thinks we're the easy major, come over and see what the program is."
Bell said students are required to get tutoring at UK Athletics' CATS (Center for Academic and Tutoring Services) center, which provides about 1,000 hours of service a week to its clients.
"Our student athletes are under the direction of an academic counselor, and each of them is keeping a semester-by-semester watch (on student athletes)," Bell said.
In addition, Joe Fink, UK's faculty athletics representative to the Southeastern Conference, said he meets three times a year with his SEC counterparts.
"What we're doing here meets or exceeds everything they're doing at their institutions," Fink said.
Faculty trustee Robert Grossman said all academic programs are reviewed every six years.
"We may need to ask the review committee to make sure everything is going correctly," Grossman said.
Bell also discussed athletic graduation rates. Under what's known as the graduation success rate, UK is not penalized when students transfer or when they leave to go to professional sports teams, provided they were considered to be in good academic standing at the time.
The six-year graduation rate for student athletes who started in 2007-2008 is 81 percent across the program.
In addition, UK will pay tuition and fees for its former athletes to return to school and finish their degrees. At least three basketball players — Wayne Turner, Jodie Meeks and Marquis Estill — have received diplomas using the program. Football players Andre Woodson, Braxton Kelly, Glenn Holt and Artose Pinner also completed their UK degrees in the past few years.