UNC AD Bubba Cunningham working to restore faith in Tar Heels' athletic department

Cunningham addresses academic scandals

acarter@newsobserver.comJuly 11, 2012 

— Before North Carolina Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham appeared Wednesday at the Durham Sports Club’s meeting at Croasdaile Country Club, two men stood outside the banquet hall, talking about how much they had been looking forward to hearing Cunningham speak.

One turned to the other and said he wanted to hear how Cunningham would fix the Tar Heels’ athletic department, which has spent the past few years mired in scandal. Cunningham, now in his ninth month on the job, said later that he hears those kinds of things often. He knows UNC alumni and fans are concerned.

“You want to reassure them that the integrity of the institution is the most important thing,” Cunningham said. “But we do make mistakes. So now, collectively, how do we minimize our risk going forward? But people do passionately care about the integrity, whether it’s the academic integrity (or) personal integrity.”

Cunningham spoke about a variety of topics during his 30-minute talk, none more important than academic problems that have continued to plague the athletic department. NCAA sanctions in March brought an end to the case surrounding impermissible benefits and academic fraud that came to light in 2010.

In early May, the university released an internal investigation into the Department of African and Afro-American Studies and that investigation has raised new concerns. North Carolina’s probe discovered 54 courses with little or no instruction in the AFAM department, and university records show that 215 athletes were enrolled in those suspect classes.

“Obviously, we’ve got a lot of issues going on at Carolina right now off the field,” Cunningham said during his talk. “… We’re working as hard as we can internally to change our policies and procedures to make sure that we have checks and balances in place to minimize the mistakes that we had.”

According to records released to The News & Observer, one of those troubled 54 classes – AFAM 280: Blacks in North Carolina – appeared on the course schedule just days before the start of classes in the summer of 2011. The class quickly filled with 19 students: 18 football players and one former player.

Cunningham and UNC officials have maintained that the problems in the AFAM department are not reflective of a scheme to pass athletes through the system while helping them remain academically eligible. The university’s investigation also concluded the same.

“Students, and student-athletes, they were assigned work and they did their work,” Cunningham said of the suspect AFAM classes. “So that’s what I think people need to remember … the plus side is they did the work assigned.”

Cunningham said he has been focused on academic reform within the athletic department by evaluating how athletes wind up in certain courses, and what role the athletic department plays in course selection.

Though Cunningham referenced a system of “checks and balances” during his talk, he said afterward that the athletic department was still defining that system.

“We’re actually going back and looking at what happened in the past,” he said. “But what we’re starting to say is every minute that we spend doing that, we’re not trying to solve (problems) going forward. So I think we’re really starting to put our effort into what we can do to have an early warning if we see something that’s inappropriate.”

Cunningham said he was sensitive toward alumni who may be anxious over concerns about the university’s integrity.

“We have to really pay attention to it,” he said.

Carter: 919-829-8944

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