UNC task force ponders tutors

Their goal is to see where oversight and academic support for college athletes may be improved.

Staff WriterMarch 22, 2011 

  • Late last summer, the NCAA and UNC-Chapel Hill began looking into allegations that some Tar Heel football players had received improper benefits from agents.

    Subsequently, UNC-CH determined that some players had also gotten improper academic help from a tutor within the university's academic support program.

    The agent issue forced the departure of then-assistant coach John Blake. Fourteen players sat out at least one game, while seven missed the entire season.

    Now, a UNC system task force is examining the relationship between academics and athletics at UNC-CH and all its campuses.

— N.C. State's Carrie Leger is comfortable with the ways her university regulates the relationship between athletes and their tutors.

And yet, the fear of the unknown always lurks, Leger told a roomful of other college academics and athletics staffers Monday.

"I think we feel as good as we can in terms of tutoring," said Leger, an associate athletic director, "but also recognize a determined individual can do a bad thing."

Her words elicited some knowing head nods Monday from others familiar with the challenges that campuses face in providing academic support services to athletes.

Tutors are vetted, trained and given strict guidelines to adhere to, all to make clear that ethical lines cannot be crossed.

And yet, that line does get breached. At UNC-Chapel Hill, a tutor's misdeeds led to football player suspensions last fall. As a result, a task force was created to examine the intersection of academics and athletics on the state's public campuses.

The group spent two hours Monday kicking around ideas to improve tutoring and academic support oversight, admissions and other issues related to college athletes.

Among the emerging themes: the level of responsibility a university bears for helping student athletes who are underprepared for college. Several task force members said institutions can't let athletes flounder, that resources must be put in place to help them along.

But that can be tricky, others acknowledged. There's a fine line between help and cheating.

"We bring some kids who aren't ready, so we have to provide some support," said East Carolina Chancellor Steve Ballard, chairman of the task force. "But how much help is too much? You can cross that line in a hurry, so you have to be very clear."

The task force will meet at least a couple of times more. Later this year, it will issue a formal report to UNC system President Tom Ross.

Fears of fraud

Much of the discussion Monday centered on academic fraud, a concept task force members struggled to define in clear terms.

Jack Evans, the UNC-CH business professor who until recently served as UNC-CH's faculty athletics representative, said students can be confused at times because professors don't all define cheating the same way. Some will encourage students to share drafts of a paper, seek advice from others or even share work, while others consider all those things forms of cheating.

"One faculty member will encourage practices of sharing that another faculty member will not accept," Evans said. "It creates a challenge if one is going to define what academic fraud is and what it isn't. It gets very hard to get beyond a basic principle."

The relationship between tutors and college athletes was illuminated late last year when UNC-CH acknowledged that some of its football players had received improper academic help from a tutor within the athletic support program.

"It was probably a wakeup call for the UNC system," Ballard said Monday. "If it could happen at Chapel Hill - and I think they probably had the best tutoring mentoring system - it could happen anywhere."

Enforcing standards

It isn't unusual for universities to admit a student who doesn't meet academic standards if he or she offers an unusual skill - often the ability to shoot a basketball or run fast with a football.

But the process by which campuses make those decisions varies greatly. UNC Charlotte's six-step approach is particularly rigorous. Some or all of it may be trumpeted by the task force as a way to vet these prospective students.

At UNCC, faculty members have a say early in the process. The coach and athlete must submit a written plea, after which the campus faculty athletics representative interviews the applicant. Eventually, the campus chancellor must sign off before the student is admitted.

"It is pretty intense," said Lisa Hibbs, who directs UNCC's athletic academic center. "Most coaches have to make a choice. Is this student worth it or not? It has to be a very, very important recruit."

At UNCC, just a handful of athletes go through this process each year. At NCSU, 15 to 25 receive this special consideration, Leger said. At UNC-CH, about 20 do, Evans said.

The athletic support function can be costly. It's on the rise at UNCC because that campus will add about 100 athletes soon when it debuts a football program.

Brian Battle, UNC Greensboro's senior associate athletic director, was blunt in describing how best to make improvements.

"Improve academic oversight?" he said. "More people. More money."

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4563

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