CHAPEL HILL — It is not easy to become a tutor or a mentor for athletes at North Carolina's Academic Support Program.
They receive four hours of training before they are hired, including instruction on NCAA compliance. At the beginning of each semester, they sign a form agreeing to follow academic honesty policies. At the end of each semester, they sign another form stating they have neither witnessed, nor committed, any academic fraud or violations.
They can't type athletes' papers.
They are not allowed to communicate with athletes over e-mail or work with them anywhere outside the Academic Support Center.
They are given handbooks to remind them of the procedures.
But despite the checks and balances, UNC finds itself investigating whether a former tutor who was employed by both the school and Tar Heels football coach Butch Davis committed academic misconduct while working with football players.
Arising from the ongoing NCAA investigation into possible improper contacts between football players and sports agents, the new probe, announced Thursday at a joint news conference by athletic director Dick Baddour, university chancellor Holden Thorp and Davis, could take weeks to complete. The investigative team appointed by Baddour will try to figure out whether the Academic Support Program failed, and if so, how it could happen.
"If you looked at all of this two months ago - there's not a lot of margin of error for what's appropriate," said Baddour, who continues to express confidence in the program. "This is gut-wrenching for us. But I want us to get better. I want to find ways for us to get better."
Tutors and mentors
The Academic Support Program - temporarily located in Kenan Stadium's Pope Box while the new five-story Carolina Student-Athlete Center for Excellence is being constructed as part of the $70 million east end zone project - opened its doors in 1985. Its director reports to the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences but also coordinates with John Blanchard, the senior associate athletic director for student-athlete services, who reports to Baddour.
Each semester, the program employs 25 tutors and 25 to 30 academic mentors at roughly $10 to $12 an hour. About a fourth of the tutors, who work individually and in groups on specific subjects such as history, math or writing, come from the community and include retirees and former teachers, Blanchard said. The other three-fourths are UNC graduates and undergrads and are usually recommended by individual academic departments.
A mentor, Blanchard said, is more like an academic coach who helps students navigate through a semester or a school year.
"They're able to give feedback right away. If you have a paper due with two weeks left in a semester, you're not going to start that a week before it's due - we're going to plot that out together. So it teaches kids strategies to navigate the semester, especially with time management."
About half of the mentors come from UNC's Teaching Fellows Program; the other half are graduate and undergraduate students. While the majority of UNC's approximately 800 student-athletes use the tutoring services at least once during their career - "sometimes, to try to bring a B to an A," Blanchard said - only about 70 athletes per semester are assigned mentors, based on their academic history.
Mentors are assigned one to four athletes apiece and sometimes coach the same athletes for up to three years.
Tutoring and mentoring duties are not mutually exclusive, however. "We will have some academic mentors who may pick up some tutoring assignments," Blanchard said.
That was the case regarding the tutor who is being investigated; she no longer works for the school.
Learning the rules
Whether hired as a tutor or as a mentor at UNC, both become indefinitely regarded as "institutional staff members" as per NCAA rules, meaning they are subject to the NCAA' bylaws on extra benefits and academic fraud.
As part of their four-hour introductory training, Blanchard said, tutors and mentors are instructed by the compliance office on NCAA rules, and they leave with a copy of a handbook that spells out the rules in detail.
According to those handbooks, an institution must report unethical academic conduct to the NCAA if a professor, student or coach is knowingly involved in arranging fraudulent academic credit for a prospect or enrolled student-athlete. Some examples that might lead to a ruling of academic fraud:
Preparing and typing papers for a student-athlete.
Signing a student-athlete's name on an attendance sheet when participation/attendance is part of the final grade.
Improper academic assistance from an institutional staff member, regardless of credit obtained.
What is improper?
According to Blanchard, who took a similar position at Minnesota after the Golden Gophers committed one of the most notorious cases of academic fraud in the 1990s, "most cases of academic fraud have to do with writing assignments." So during training, the school's writing center teaches tutors and mentors the do's and don'ts. The rule of thumb: Editing becomes a violation when the thoughts on a paper are no longer those of the student-athlete.
Tutors and mentors are told never to type on a student's computer and to read papers on printouts; never to accept papers via e-mail; and if it is necessary to write on a paper, to direct comments only toward grammar, citing and questions on factual content.
A source familiar with the investigation has told The News & Observer that the current issue involves an unnamed tutor's inappropriate help on papers the football players were required to write for class. Baddour said Friday it's too early to tell whether the academic misconduct extends beyond the football team.
'Checks and balances'
Although the NCAA defines academic fraud, it's up to individual institutions to come up with the specific rules at their schools to make sure it doesn't happen. And the policies vary.
At N.C. State, for instance, would-be tutors are given a test after their four hours of rules instruction, and they must earn an 80 percent to become a tutor, said Carrie Leger, the Wolfpack's director of academic support. Then they are retested on the rules four weeks later and must earn an 80 percent again. In addition, State's tutors must be juniors with an overall GPA of 3.0 or higher and are expressly forbidden from being Facebook friends, exchanging e-mail addresses or phone numbers with the athletes they tutor, or socializing with them.
"You do your best to build in checks and balances, training, expectations in every part of what you're doing," Leger said. "And if something doesn't feel right, it's not right. We're constantly talking about that, we constantly communicate with our tutors, and with each other."
UNC's handbooks don't expressly forbid tutors or mentors from friending athletes on social media sites, but "our training spells out that you're not to be personal friends," Blanchard said. "You're not to hang out. It's a professional relationship, and we want to keep it professional."
In addition, all work must be done in the Academic Support Center, and tutors and mentors submit a daily report after meeting with athletes.
Blanchard, who is part of the team investigating the possible academic misconduct, said he remains proud of what the people in the Academic Support Program have done in the past, and the work they are doing now.
"We are paying close attention to the investigation," he said. "It's just begun, and as that goes, if we learn things where we're maybe falling short, we'll make the necessary adjustments. I just know we have high standards."
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