Home Campus The Sook Center is more than a year old, but the controversy persists

The Sook Center is more than a year old, but the controversy persists

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For the past year and a half, the Perry and Sandy Sook Academic Center — popularly known on campus as the Sook Center — stood outside Peden Stadium, offering study space and academic support to more than 400 student-athletes, as well as hospitality space for donors and fans on game days.

The Sook Center did not open without controversy. When the center was still being constructed, the Ohio University chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) denounced the project, stating the center was potentially harmful to student-athletes because it was controlled by the athletic department rather than an academic office. 

Yet after the initial concern died down, there has rarely been any coverage of the center, its impact on campus and what happened following the initial protests. 

The Sook Center follows the example of dedicated student-athlete academic spaces at other Mid-American Conference schools. Before the Sook Center opened in fall 2018, a small space on the fourth floor of Peden Stadium served as the study space for hundreds of student-athletes. This space consisted of one large study room and several administrative offices. It was roughly half the size of the space provided inside Sook.

Melissa Koziol, the president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, noted that the small space kept many of Ohio U’s athletes from seeking academic help.

“I knew people who wouldn’t even go up to Peden because it was such a small, contained space, and it was always filled,” Koziol said. “I think the Sook Center does a really good job with opening that space up for student-athletes that really want and need that resource to actually use them and not question if there’s going to be a nuisance.”  

The Sook Center includes an in-house classroom, computer lab, tutor rooms, offices for academic staff members and restrooms compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). All freshmen and transfer student-athletes are required to complete eight hours of study hall hours a week, and they can utilize weekly meetings with Sook staff and tutors that are hired and trained by Ohio U’s Academic Achievement Center.

Koziol described the Sook Center as a hub for student-athletes and a place where they can go for academic resources, support and resources like printing services and quiet study spaces. Athletic advisers for each varsity sport are also based in the center; they help students with their coursework and ensure they’re on track to graduate. It’s one-on-one interactions like these that Koziol finds most valuable — both for herself and for other student-athletes.

“I know there are some advisers who have very close-knit relationships with student-athletes, especially students who only went to college so they could be a student-athlete,” Koziol said. “I know relationships that have been built because of the Sook Center. There is a positive relationship between having guidance and increased performance in academics and athletics.” 

But in the last year and a half, the AAUP’s concern for the center has not faded. Specifically, Dave Ridpath, associate professor of sports administration at Ohio U and a member of the AAUP, sees a major issue with how the Sook Center is run. He said this primarily stems from the fact that the center is run through the athletic department and not an academic department — the same concern members of the organization had before its construction. 

Ridpath’s concern is that an academic center being controlled by another athletic department means potentially putting eligibility to participate in sports over an athlete’s education or well being, and that coaches can potentially have too much control over an athlete’s education if academic assistants and tutors are reporting directly to the athletic department. 

“When you have an industry that’s so inherently based on eligibility, keeping them eligible is not education,” Ridpath said. “It’s really something very simple. It’s a reporting line structure so an academic adviser doesn’t feel intimidated by a coach or athletic director. It’s one of the better things you can do.”

Ridpath pointed out that the NCAA has stated that athletic-specific academic resources should not be housed under athletic departments, and that other schools — such as Ohio State University — house academic resources for athletes under an academic department. 

Ridpath and several other authors published a paper in 2017 that further addressed concerns for the center and suggested that its leadership be moved to an academic department. But Ridpath noted that many faculty dismissed the paper or did not read it at all. 

Another concern surrounding the center was its cost, and the possibility that it took funding away from other university programs. The facility cost $6.49 million to build and was mainly funded by private donations. Private donors gave a total of $5.7 million to fund the facility, with $2.25 million coming from Ohio alumni Perry and Sandy Sook. The Ohio U Athletic Department reserve fund provided $300,000 and another $100,000 was provided directly by the university. 

When the center first opened, Jim Schaus, Ohio U’s athletic director, stated that $65,000 would annually be taken out of the athletic department budget for the upkeep of the center. In late 2017, Ohio U President Duane Nellis responded to concerns about the Sook Center in an interview with The New Political. Nellis added that the majority of the center was funded by donors who also contribute to other academic programs at the university. 

A January 2020 Board of Trustees meeting agenda contained an Intercollegiate Athletes Update section which stated that the Ohio U Athletic Department spends an average of $60,000 per year on tutoring. These services are provided for free to all student-athletes.

But the university has stood by these costs because many officials believe in the center’s importance to not only the academic success of Ohio U athletes but also to their personal success as well.

“We want to be supportive of them because we want them to be academically successful,” Nellis said in his 2017 interview with TNP. “There are very few student-athletes who end up with the opportunity to go on and have a professional career in athletics. So, the degree program is a crucial part, and we want to make sure they have the resources and support to be successful.”

Koziol, who is no stranger to the demands of both being a regular student and an athlete, has seen the personal benefits of the Sook Center first hand. Her schedule is filled with classes, work, travel and practice, and she has grown to love something the Sook Center offers beyond academic help: a community with other athletes who know exactly what she’s going through. 

“We always talk about this Bobcat family, but there’s 450 student-athletes who are creating their own type of family,” Koziol said. “You see the softball player that just got athlete of the week or the wrestler who just qualified for regionals, and you know we’re all in this together.” 

However, Ridpath sees this dynamic less as a community and more of a separation from other students. Ridpath and others in the AAUP have previously asked if the Sook Center could be opened to non-athletes as well, particularly because the Ohio U Athletic Department is largely funded by student tuition. He said that while the university has focused on creating designated spaces for student-athletes, it has not focused on bringing these students into the larger university space. 

“We do a really poor job of integrating athletes with the student body,” Ridpath said. “We have these separate facilities where they’re eating together, studying together, and they’re not getting that full college experience. Siloing the athletes away is not what we want to do.”

Currently, there is not much discussion on how to address the AAUP’s specific concerns with the Sook Center. But Koziol said there are already discussions in the athletics department to focus on student-athletes as a whole and to not completely separate the approach to athletics and academics. The goal is to help students more holistically and to prepare them for life after graduation — whether they remain athletes or not. 

“Being a student-athlete in this type of school, we’re not turning over these crazy, world-class athletes who are getting drafted into leagues all over,” Koziol said. “It’s very cool that Ohio University is giving us this atmosphere to be the best athlete we can be, but also focusing on being a productive and influential human post-graduation.” 

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