UNC-Chapel Hill faculty calls for outside review of athletics and academics

dkane@newsobserver.comJuly 26, 2012 

What started as a case of UNC football players taking perks from agents has now moved into a major case of academic fraud involving the longtime chairman of African and Afro-American studies.

N&O FILE PHOTO

  • The story so far Last August, The News & Observer reported that an academic transcript of a former UNC-CH football player -- kicked off the team for NCAA violations -- showed he had taken an upper level African studies class the summer before he took a full slate of introductory classes, including remedial writing. Professor Julius Nyang'oro taught the class, and gave the player, Marvin Austin, a B-plus. The story and questions from the N&O regarding other classes in the African and Afro-American Studies Department prompted an internal investigation that found 54 classes with little or no instruction over a four-year period, and dozens of independent studies that were poorly monitored and administered. Since then, the SBI has launched a criminal investigation, and the UNC Board of Governors is conducting a review. The university has put forward numerous reforms intended to promote academic integrity after what is acknowledged as the worst academic scandal in recent memory at UNC-CH.

— A report by a special faculty committee looking into the academic fraud scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill found an athletics program divorced from the faculty, academic counselors for athletes improperly helping them enroll in classes and poor oversight of faculty administrators who have wide latitude in running their departments.

The three professors who wrote the report called for an independent commission of outside experts in higher education to review athletics and academics at the university.

“It is our hope that such a panel of distinguished experts will both highlight what we are doing right and identify areas of deficiencies in organization and procedure,” the report said.

The report comes after a university probe found 54 courses within the Department of African and Afro-American Studies that had little or no instruction, and dozens of independent study classes that had little evidence of academic rigor. The classes were largely filled with athletes, and some had nothing but football or basketball players enrolled.

University officials have said the fraud does not merit an NCAA investigation because nonathletes also were enrolled in the no-show classes, though they represent a minority of the students and the class enrollments. But the report is almost entirely focused on what it called an atmosphere of distrust on a “campus with two cultures,” one academic and one athletic.

University officials also say the blame for the scandal falls upon two individuals – Julius Nyang’oro, the longtime chairman of the department now forced into retirement, and Deborah Crowder, the longtime department manager who retired in 2009. But the report suggests that academic counselors who are assigned to help athletes keep up with their classes – and therefore remain eligible to play – share some of the responsibility.

The report said an unidentified “departmental staff manager” within African studies may have directed athletes to enroll in the no-show classes, and that “it seems likely” someone in the department was calling counselors for athletes to tell them “certain courses” were available.

“We were told that athletes claimed they had been sent to Julius Nyang’oro by the (Academic Support Program for Student Athletes)” the report said.

Chancellor Holden Thorp previously confirmed that academic counselors to the athletes had registered football players through the African studies department for a no-show summer class in 2011 that has sparked a criminal investigation. Nyang’oro hatched the class two days before the start of the session, records show, and within a few days it was filled with 18 football players and one former player.

Counselors for the athletes are not supposed to steer them to particular classes. But the report noted that the athletes were likely using those counselors to help them select classes because the university’s academic advising staff-to-student ratio is 500 to one, twice the national average.

Much of the 13-page report describes an athletics program that has too much control over athletes, and not enough effort by the university to make sure athletes are getting a full educational experience. The authors noted that the admissions office under its current director has never rejected a student athlete with a subpar academic record that has received a recommendation from a special advisory committee.

They said the academic support program for athletes is supposed to be run by the College of Arts and Sciences, but its funding comes from the athletics department, and its director, Robert Mercer, also reports to John Blanchard, a senior athletics director.

“This reporting system is ambiguous, lacks clarity, and is likely not to be very productive,” the report said.

The academic fraud case has generated numerous investigations and reports, but the faculty report said the various probes have different missions that may miss the larger issues at stake.

“The piecemeal statements of the university in response to each new report ends up being imperfect, because none deals comprehensively with the larger issues, nor has the time been taken to confront constructively and proactively the systemic issues around athletics and academics,” the report said.

Many faculty members, the report found, felt they have no say in academic decisions, particularly regarding student-athletes. They say the university should examine athletes’ course selection over a period of roughly 10 years to see if they are clustering in certain classes and departments with the intent of protecting their eligibility in sports.

“Generally, (faculty) call for an external review of athletic advising, independent of the Athletic Department, as well as more forthright statements from the administration about the compromises made to host Division I athletics at UNC,” the report said.

The authors are professors Steven Bachenheimer, a professor of microbiology and immunology; Michael Gerhardt, a law professor; and Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, a professor of religious studies.

Chancellor Holden Thorp said in a statement he supports an outside review. “It will complement the other activities and inquiries in progress,” he said.

Jay Smith, a history professor who has been one of the strongest voices for a full investigation into the academic fraud, also praised the authors for an “excellent” report.

“Subtle, measured, carefully worded,” he said, “and bracing to anyone who’s reading closely.”

Kane: 919-829-4861

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