UI chancellor says he's satisfied with results of Underwood investigation

UI chancellor says he's satisfied with results of Underwood investigation

URBANA — Chancellor Robert Jones is expressing public confidence in the investigation that cleared Illini basketball Coach Brad Underwood of allegations involving abusive treatment of players and says he saw no need for any outside review.

In his first comments about the investigation since it became public earlier this month, Jones told members of the Academic Senate that the monthlong investigation in September 2018 was thorough, and he was satisfied with the conclusion.

"Not every situation rises to the level where you have to go outside for that kind of evaluation," Jones said after the meeting. "We do it routinely; it's done extremely well."

The allegations against Underwood arose after the 2017-18 basketball season, accusing the coach of "verbal abuse, racial harassment and punitive use of physical activity," according to a summary released by the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics on April 12.

The investigation found that while Underwood's coaching style was "intensive and challenging, it was not abusive, nor did it violate any applicable university or DIA policies," Jones told senators, echoing earlier comments from athletic director Josh Whitman.

"I want to note that claims related to racial harassment and punitive use of physical activity were specifically discredited. This was the piece, when I heard about this, that I had great concern about," Jones said.

The chancellor said the investigation was initiated by Whitman, who sought advice from him and the campus legal counsel "about the best way to proceed. I concurred that we needed to do a thorough internal investigation," Jones said.

It was led by the UI's two faculty athletic representatives to the Big Ten, Professors Tiffany White and Chris Span, and the DIA's chief integrity officer, Ryan Squire, who worked with the chancellor's office and campus legal counsel.

'Professional opinion'

Jones said that after the investigation concluded, he met independently with Span and White, outside of the DIA, "to get their candid perspective on the findings, to ensure we were on the same page."

"They were very confident in the work that they have done and that there was no real violation of any of our policies, or really the expectations that we have, other than we really do have to think about and acknowledge that the coaching style is a bit different from what folks are accustomed to here," Jones said.

After the meeting, Jones told News-Gazette Media that an issue involving medical treatment of players was "just a matter of professional opinion," declining to go into further detail.

Two other faculty members on the UI's athletic advisory board, Mike Raycraft and board Chairman Michael LeRoy, received a similar complaint in December 2018, after the investigation concluded, about verbal abuse and racial harassment by Underwood, according to documents released by the university. The two professors, who met with the unnamed source, were told that Underwood repeatedly taunted a player with profanities and "for not playing with pain," according to their Jan. 10 memo to Whitman.

LeRoy and Raycraft argued that the original investigation was flawed, in part because it did not include interviews with six former players who left after the 2017-18 season. They were also disappointed that they hadn't been told about the inquiry and felt the concerns raised in December weren't taken seriously when they referred them to athletics.

They also recommended that certain kinds of complaints — including allegations of medical maltreatment or racial harassment — should be automatically referred to an independent investigator outside of the DIA.

'Strong faculty voice'

In a reply, Whitman said that investigations never involve the entire athletic board, and they are only referred to external investigators after an internal inquiry finds that is warranted.

"Our first and foremost concern is protecting the safety of our students and protecting confidentiality, when that's applicable. And so that's what we did," Jones said this week. "It did not necessitate, from my perspective, no more than I would do with any other kind of investigation, trying to put 25 to 30 people around a critically important, sensitive issue and expect to have a good outcome."

He said Span and White are professionals who provided a "strong faculty voice."

Jones also said it was difficult to pursue the December complaint because that party wanted to remain anonymous.

"Since it was in many ways a reflection of the original complaint that was raised, we feel very confident and we stand by the original analysis," Jones told News-Gazette Media.

LeRoy submitted an annual report from the athletic board to the senate on Monday but did not attend the meeting.

The report did not mention the Underwood investigation but did recommend some changes in the athletic board, including enforcing the bylaws calling for the chancellor to consult with the board annually; possibly shortening the 10-year terms for the two Big Ten athletic representatives; involving more athletic board members beyond those two in oversight of the UI's 19 athletic teams; and moving toward a diversity and student-welfare committee for athletics, a model used by the University of Wisconsin.

Overall, Jones said he was gratified that Whitman investigated the allegations and had already identified issues with Underwood's behavior and was working with the coach to address them before the initial complaints surfaced last summer.

"We take the safety of every member of this community, particularly our students and members of our staff and faculty, very, very seriously," Jones said.