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Cast in the Spotlight

Professor adds athletic investigation to his balancing act
Friday, October 17, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:07 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Susan Devaney has made a practice of erasing messages on the family answering machine before her husband, Michael Devaney, can listen to them. Some of the messages are malicious, she said, and criticize her husband for his role in MU’s investigation of the men’s basketball program.

“One man was very verbal, obviously with a lot of hostility about the athletic department,” Susan Devaney said. “I listen to them and just delete them from the answering machine. There’s some that I haven’t even shared with Mike because I know it would make him really upset.”

Michael Devaney tries not to take it personally, though.

“By and large, I think people were trying to be helpful,” he said. “I just think some people misinterpret what we are trying to do; I think that is the basis for their concern.”

In August, UM System President Elson Floyd named Devaney, an MU electrical and computer engineering professor and former chairman of the university’s Faculty Council, to lead the investigation of the men’s basketball program.

The aim of the investigation is to clarify reports that illicit academic help was given to at least one MU basketball player. Former MU student Jessica Bunge, an ex-girlfriend of former point guard Ricky Clemons, made the allegations that tutors wrote a paper for Clemons and gave him a completed homework assignment. Devaney will also look into Bunge’s allegation that Clemons received inappropriate gifts from members of the MU athletic department, including basketball coach Quin Snyder. Snyder has stated that he gave Clemons shoes and a pair of sweatpants.

The NCAA, which oversees collegiate athletics, announced last month that it will conduct an investigation of the men’s

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basketball team as well as the athletic department as a whole and the recruitment of Clemons.

“Our effort is tightly coupled with the NCAA’s own investigation,” Devaney said. “We are in close cooperation with the NCAA.”

He added that as the NCAA will conclude its investigation in December, his team will aim to complete its work in the same time frame.

These investigations have sparked considerable media attention that has disrupted the way this modest professor leads his life.

The Associated Press came calling. Sports Illustrated quoted him. ESPN The Magazine mentioned him.

Russ Zguta, former MU Faculty Council chairman, said he thinks that Devaney’s experience with the Faculty Council has helped him face the sudden spotlight. The council is a group of faculty that advises campus leadership on academic issues.

“It’s nowhere near the kind of attention the task that Elson Floyd has given him will bring, but he’s better prepared than someone coming straight out of the faculty,” Zguta, a history professor, said.

Susan Devaney points to her husband’s experiences with academic dishonesty on campus as crucial preparation for this assignment.

“He’s had students steal exams,” she said. “He’s got engineering students who can send each other test answers infrared from one machine to another during exams. It’s high-tech.”

But she said that no matter how prepared he was to lead an investigation, he does not relish the limelight.

“He’s not going to stand on a mountaintop and say, ‘I’m wonderful because I did this great investigation,’” she said.

The Devaneys’ oldest son, James, who works for a law firm in Kansas City, said his father is humble almost to a fault. As a member of MU’s Intercollegiate Athletic Committee, which serves as a link between the athletic department and the university, Michael Devaney was given season tickets to all MU athletic events. However, for the duration of the investigation, he chose not to participate in the committee itself.

What Devaney did not share with reporters, his son did: Devaney donated the season tickets to the university’s Children’s Hospital.

“He felt that it was unethical to use them during the investigation,” James Devaney said. “I fully support what he did with the tickets, but man, they would have been nice to have for the Nebraska game.”

Michael Devaney is quick to credit members of his investigation team as well as others who have aided him in the work.

“There are a number of people who are contributing substantially to the effort,” he said. “The majority of them are on the team, but there are some people who aren’t who have been very helpful.”

Devaney said his goal is simple: to improve the university he said he loves second only to family.

“We (the university) need to be concerned about how we’re perceived,” Devaney said. “We need to be credible — and that’s my motivation.”

Missouri roots

Devaney’s dedication springs from a long history with the UM System. Born in St. Louis and raised in Kansas City, Devaney earned his bachelor’s degree in 1964 in electrical engineering from the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy, now known as the University of Missouri-Rolla.

He worked as an engineer in Kansas City for the Bendix Corp. in the late 1960s before earning both his master’s degree and doctorate in electrical engineering from MU. There, through friends, Devaney met his future wife. He has worked for MU in research, teaching and administrative positions since 1969.

“He has spent more of his life with the university than without,” said Patrick Devaney, an engineer for Coil Construction Co. in Columbia.

Michael Devaney’s youngest son, Timothy, a biology major at Southwest Missouri State University, said his father is “the whole system.”

“He truly wears the black and gold,” he said.

Although Devaney’s family worries about backlash that could follow conclusion of the investigation, Devaney’s main concern is time taken away from his students.

“I didn’t anticipate this level of involvement,” he said. “We’ve had to work my classes around this activity.”

Devaney, who is teaching three undergraduate classes (two of them with a colleague), is also in charge of developing computer engineering curriculum and accreditation in the electrical engineering department. Chairman Lex Akers said he is trying to scale back some of Devaney’s administrative responsibilities until the investigation is complete.

“We’re going to reduce pressure deadlines and allow things to go a bit longer and have other people help him,” Akers said.

Committee work also consumes Devaney’s time. He continues to participate in the Faculty Council and has missed only one meeting since the investigation began. In addition, Devaney is involved with the Campus Space Planning Committee, the Conflict of Interest Committee and both the campus and College of Engineering Promotion and Tenure committees.

“I would like to have more time to devote to them (the committees) and my graduate students and their research,” Devaney said.

Multi-tasking

Though Devaney’s attention is divided and may seem like a valuable commodity lately, Caroline Pinkston, a senior taking her second engineering class with Devaney, said his students have not suffered.

“I don’t ever see him sit still,” Pinkston said. “The way he operates is doing 50 million things at once. He’s never in his office, but he’s always willing to give you a couple of minutes of time if you run into him.”

Pinkston said that students appreciate Devaney’s “open-mindedness” and his ability to see all sides of an issue. She said Devaney surprised her once in class when he discussed international political issues with a student who was a member of Students for a Free Tibet.

“He’s good at focusing on other issues besides engineering issues,” Pinkston said. “I have nothing but good things to say about him.”

Akers, who has sought Devaney’s advice on both engineering and administrative matters, calls Devaney an “engineer’s engineer.”

“I don’t think you could find a better person,” Akers said.

Patrick Devaney called his father his “absolute greatest role model,” and Timothy Devaney, who said his father cannot be skewed morally, said, “I hope to one day be 50 percent as respected as him.”

Nearly two months into the investigation, life remains hectic at the Devaney household. Construction for a utility building on the family farm in Hallsville moves slowly, and family members are often left wondering where Devaney is as he spends an additional 20 unpaid hours a week working on the investigation.

“He stays up late at night and spends the whole weekend reading,” James Devaney said. “He’s come home several times even in the middle of the morning. And last week we didn’t know where he was one night — an interview must have gone long.”

Michael Devaney said, however, that things have been more productive recently and he has “a better grasp for the overall situation.” Devaney declines to talk in more detail about the basketball investigation, though he admits he’s under no orders to remain discreet.

“I’m not as apprehensive about the outcome as when I started out in the process,” he said, “because I have a better idea of where we’re going.”

— Missourian staff reporter Holly Wray contributed to this story.


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