Lack of talk, rules may have enabled UNC troubles

Academic woes still under study

Staff WritersNovember 14, 2010 

— A high-ranking North Carolina athletics official and the football program's former academic coordinator say the school's academic support staffers are sometimes hesitant to talk to coaches about possible problems. That reluctance to communicate is one of several possible cracks in the support system that may have allowed academic misconduct to go undetected.

Senior associate athletic director John Blanchard, who is in charge of student-athlete services, acknowledged it is "not unusual" for staff members to be worried about bringing issues to coaches - and that people in academic support departments, including at UNC, "sometimes feel as if they can't speak up to a head coach."

The football program's former academic coordinator, Cynthia Reynolds, who worked at UNC for eight years before she was dismissed last summer, fits that description. Contacted by The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer, she said she was concerned about approaching football coach Butch Davis when she heard that undergraduate Jennifer Wiley - who also was mentoring football players for the school - was not only tutoring Davis' son but driving him around town as well.

Reynolds was worried that having a tutor transport Drew Davis crossed a line of familiarity that is unacceptable. The academic support program has rules prohibiting tutors from socializing with athletes because it wants that relationship to be kept professional. Reynolds - who was reassigned away from football after seven years in the job in 2009 and was released in August, then filed an age discrimination complaint against the school with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last month - feared those same rules weren't being applied in the Davis household.

However, "in my opinion, if I had gone to Coach Davis, my job would have been on the line," Reynolds said.

UNC has indicated that the ongoing investigation into possible academic misconduct - part of a double-barreled NCAA probe that began with a look at improper agent benefits and has resulted in 14 football players missing at least one game - has so far led only to one tutor, Wiley, who now is an elementary school teacher in Durham. According to a "disassociation letter" sent to her by the school on Nov. 5, she provided impermissible academic assistance to players in 2009 and 2010, and impermissible financial assistance of more than $2,000 in connection with travel and transportation issues.

Wiley has not cooperated with the investigation and has declined interview requests. Her attorney, Joseph B. Cheshire V, said in a prepared statement Thursday that she allowed one individual to use her credit card and was repaid. In addition, "she did not intend her work to 'provide impermissible academic assistance' and to the extent it did, she is deeply saddened, particularly as it has affected the young men she cared so much about," the statement said.

It's impossible to know if more dialogue or investigation would have prevented academic misconduct from occurring. What is clear is that at some point, Wiley became too close to the UNC players, according to school officials, just as Reynolds says she feared Wiley had become too close to the coach's family.

Other potential problems: the lack of clear guidelines about how to monitor a former tutor's connection to athletes and the lack of a policy to address whether an academic support staff member can also freelance for coaches.

In an e-mail, Davis said last week that he would hope staffers aren't afraid to bring concerns to him.

"People come to me every day with issues they want to discuss. I want them to feel comfortable coming to me with issues," he said.

Athletic director Dick Baddour defended Davis and said the coach is willing to listen to anyone on staff.

Recommendation

Citing student privacy laws and promises that information regarding the NCAA investigation remain confidential, the school has released limited details about the academic investigation.

In July 2009, a member of UNC's academic support program noticed that Wiley - an undergraduate mentor so respected that she had received a tutoring award two months before - had grown too close to the football players she was mentoring. The program chose "not to renew" her contract and mailed her a document reminding her that, under NCAA rules, continuing to tutor Tar Heels athletes outside of the program could jeopardize their eligibility.

But there were no policies for following up with Wiley or the players to make sure the tutoring didn't continue. Just as there were no mandates, beforehand, barring her from also working as a tutor to Davis' son - a relationship that continued for a year after she stopped receiving a part-time paycheck from the school.

Davis has said that after he replaced John Bunting as coach in 2006, he asked academic support for suggestions of tutors he could hire for his son, who is now a junior in high school. Davis said he was given four or five names and hired more than one of those as "academic coaches." One was Wiley, who worked for the Davis family from December 2008 to May 2010.

An e-mail provided to The N&O by Davis' wife, Tammy, shows that associate academic support director Beth Bridger - a learning specialist who also was in charge of the tutoring/mentoring program at the time - strongly recommended the tutor now at the center of the investigation on March 26, 2008. Wiley's name is redacted, but the e-mail from Bridger to Butch Davis recommends her and says, in part:

"She is one of our best mentors. She has a great, upbeat, and caring personality, with a strong knowledge of how to teach an array of academic strategies. ... I know you don't want her work with Drew to take away from the guys, but I know we could work out a schedule that will accommodate both."

Bridger, in a prepared statement, said that after Davis asked for a recommendation for a tutor for his son, "I consulted with my supervisor at the time, Cynthia Reynolds, and then I recommended a tutor for him." Reynolds acknowledged that Bridger ran Wiley's name past her but said it was up to her bosses, academic support director Robert Mercer and Blanchard, to intervene if they didn't want tutors working for coaches.

Current members of the academic support staff - including Mercer and Bridger - declined, through a school spokesman, to be interviewed or answer questions via e-mail.

An academic coach

Davis said last month that the tutor in question tried to teach his son "how to organize his notebooks, how to separate one subject from the other, how to do research, how to do papers - she just helped him in a variety of different [ways]."

He also acknowledged via e-mail last week that "after we hired her as a tutor and developed trust in her, there were occasions before he had his driver's license when she would drive him when we needed help."

Reynolds, who previously worked in similar roles at Michigan, Cornell and SUNY-Buffalo, said that when she was told by other members of academic support that Wiley was transporting Drew Davis, "I thought, 'Hmm.' There's a familiarity that you want to keep separate in athletics when it comes to hiring."

Rules in place

At UNC, tutors and mentors (who work with small groups of athletes) have rigid rules. 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, and they receive four hours of training before they are hired - including instruction on NCAA compliance

Although the handbooks don't expressly forbid tutors or mentors from friending athletes on Facebook or other social media sites, "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."

When relationships grow personal, Reynolds said - whether it's tutoring athletes, or a member of a coach's family - it adds to the possibility that lines could be crossed or rules broken.

But she hesitated to approach Davis, who she says ran a tight ship as far as access, especially compared to Bunting, who she says ran a more "inclusive" program compared to Davis' "exclusive" one.

And her bosses, including Blanchard, didn't share Reynolds' worry about Wiley's extra duties.

"I did hear that she was doing other things [for the Davis family]," said Blanchard, who acknowledged that he has hired a UNC tutor to work with one of his children in the past. "I don't know if it's true or not, or to what extent, and it did not concern me."

'No cause for concern'

Davis has said he had no idea that Wiley may have been giving his players too much help. When she wasn't renewed by the school, he said last week, Bridger told him it was because she had grown too close to the players. But Davis chose to keep her on his payroll because he didn't see any potential problems.

(According to the dates in the disassociation letter, Wiley may still have been on Davis' payroll when the improper benefits happened this year; and the impermissible academic help may have occurred while she was working for the school and for Davis, and while she was working for Davis but not the school.)

"There was no cause for concern for our family because she had done a good job as our son's academic coach," Davis said through a team spokesman when asked why he kept Wiley on his payroll after her contract wasn't renewed by the school.

Team spokesman Kevin Best said Davis has shared with UNC officials the amount of money he paid the tutor. Through Best, Davis declined to disclose the amount to The N&O and The Charlotte Observer, but Best said the tutor was paid at a rate that's in line with what other tutors in the community earn.

UNC, as a result of the continuing NCAA investigation, has put together a committee to review the academic support program - including whether undergraduates should be used as tutors, whether the staff should be expanded, the relationship between The College of Arts & Sciences (which runs the academic support program) and athletics, and whether new rules should be put into place.

Since the investigation began, UNC officials have acknowledged it was not a good idea for a tutor/mentor to be working for both the school and a coach. Asked in October if it was appropriate for Davis to use a tutor who also worked with his players, Chancellor Holden Thorp said, "No."

Other schools act

Neither East Carolina nor Clemson has a policy banning tutors from working for coaches, but both schools are now considering implementing one, according to spokesmen from both schools.

N.C. State, however, does have those mandates in place. According to Carrie Leger, director of the Wolfpack's Academic Support Program for Student Athletes, tutors must sign a contract stating that they understand that they can't be hired, or volunteer for, coaches or team support staff - including outside tutoring, child care or other personal services.

"Working for NCSU coaches or other team support staff personnel while employed by ASPSA represents a potential conflict of interest and can be grounds for immediate termination," the contract reads.

At least one other school agrees. Oklahoma has instituted a new rule that states its academic support personnel cannot work or volunteer for any coach, or anyone involved with the team, either.

"We added it because of what happened at UNC," said Gerald Gurney, a senior associate athletic director at Oklahoma who also is the president of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletes.

Staff writer Anne Blythe contributed to this story.

robbi.pickeral@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8944

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