Report: UNC-Chapel Hill athletic advisers steered players to dubious classes

Support program’s staff steered athletes to African studies classes, authors say

dkane@newsobserver.comJuly 27, 2012 

  • Findings at UNC A UNC faculty report released late Thursday recommends that: •  All students, including athletes, have their class schedules reviewed by main campus academic advisers, not just support counselors for athletes. •  Academic advisers and athletics support employees need to communicate better. •  Criteria for appointments and re-appointments of departmental chairmen should be established. •  The university should study others to find “best practices” for ensuring students and athletes are “fully integrated” into the life of the university. •  Chancellor Holden Thorp should appoint an entity of “distinguished individuals” from outside the university to provide an independent review of the athletics and academics relationship and propose recommendations for its management.

— For eight years, Bobbi Owen has been the highest-ranking official in charge of a program at UNC-Chapel Hill that keeps up with the studies of roughly 800 athletes so they can graduate while juggling the heavy demands of their sports.

The staff of more than 115 full and part-time employees in the academic support program for athletes includes counselors who track academic progress, tutors and specialists in learning disabilities and time management. Nearly all of them work in the plush confines of the new $70 million Loudermilk Center, a 150,000-square-foot building for athletics at Kenan Stadium.

Yet a faculty report released Thursday suggests the support program strayed from its original mission. The report spoke of “potential confusion” in the role of academic counselors at Loudermilk, with the authors saying that they had been told that support program staff steered athletes to classes in the African and Afro-American Studies Department. There, the report said, an unnamed staff member helped the players enroll in no-show classes.

The report also said that athletes complained they were receiving conflicting instructions from counselors at Loudermilk and academic advisers in the university’s main advising center, which serves all students. An adviser’s job is to help students select appropriate classes. The report, however, said that athletes could get counselors in the athletics support center to register them.

At the end of the 13-page report, the authors asked: “Why is there a separate center for support of athletes?”

Owen, who is a senior associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, was one of 31 faculty and officials who met with the report’s authors in May and June. Thursday, just hours before the report was released, she said in an interview that she had known nothing of any steering to African studies classes before revelations of academic fraud in the department began surfacing a year ago.

Her counseling staff didn’t tell her about the no-show classes before they became public, she said, and they haven’t talked to her about it since.

“I haven’t had that conversation with any of those individuals,” Owen said. She has since instructed them to report anything unusual.

But Owen isn’t the only overseer of the support program. It has another boss – in the Athletics Department. The support program’s director, Robert Mercer, also reports to a senior athletics official, John Blanchard. The supervision of the support center is “ambiguous,” the faculty report says.

Hiring in the support program over the years has reflected an athletic influence, including former athletes and an administrator who UNC basketball coach Roy Williams brought with him from his previous job at the University of Kansas.

A wide gulf

Top university officials, and UNC system President Tom Ross, have repeatedly said the academic scandal that has now engulfed one of the nation’s top public universities isn’t about athletics.

Non-athletes, they say, were also in the no-show classes in the African and Afro-American Studies Department. They say the wrongdoing there rests squarely with two people: Julius Nyang’oro, the former chairman of the African studies department, who was forced into retirement, and former department manager Deborah Crowder, who retired in 2009.

But the three professors who wrote the faculty report said they found a wide gulf between academics and athletics at the university that is fostering an environment where academic misconduct could flourish, while simultaneously discouraging faculty and staff from helping athletes who truly want an education. They called UNC-CH “a campus with two cultures,” particularly with regard to the two money-making sports, football and men’s basketball, that underwrite the Athletic Department’s roughly $75 million annual budget.

“We were struck in general by the lack of sharing of information about athletics, athletic advising, and the relationship between athletics and academics, to various constituencies across the campus, including the faculty,” the report said.

Football and men’s basketball players have factored prominently in the scandal. UNC records show football players made up more than a third of the enrollments in 54 no-show classes, all within the African studies department. Men’s basketball players only made up three percent of the enrollments, but they are a much smaller team in number, and in at least two classes the sole enrollee was a basketball player. UNC records also show that African studies was in the past decade the second most popular major for basketball players, behind communications.

One of those players, Sean May, told the Indianapolis Star two years ago that he chose African studies over communications because it involved less class time.

African studies, May said, offered “more independent electives, independent study. I could take a lot of classes during the season. Communications, I had to be there in the actual classroom.”’

Athletic Department officials could not be reached Friday, but in interviews from last year, two former counseling leaders, Wayne Walden and Cynthia Reynolds – who worked with football and basketball players – denied steering athletes to bogus classes. But they did say they helped athletes pick classes. They said they were unaware of the problems in the African studies department.

They both said it is difficult to help athletes keep up with the demands of a college education at a school known as a “public Ivy” with an average SAT score for incoming freshmen at the 1300 range.

Walden, the former counselor who Williams brought with him, said UNC-Chapel Hill was a greater challenge than Kansas because that university had a policy of admitting any in-state high school graduate. That meant Kansas’ academic standards were lower and easier for athletes to meet.

“At UNC, I mean the typical student is very, very high-achieving,” Walden said. “I think that was such a big difference.”

He said athletes, like many students, searched out easy classes by talking to other students or using websites such as MyEdu.com that provide professors’ grading information. But he also acknowledged that support program counselors might pass that same information on to other athletes, so long as the classes met academic progress goals.

“Well, I mean we’re constantly gathering information and, yeah, utilizing that in our conversations with students,” Walden said.

Walden served as a basketball counselor from 2003 to 2009 before leaving the university for what he described as family reasons. He now works in Texas for a health care company.

Reynolds oversaw counseling for football players from 2002 until 2009. She was let go the following year for reasons unrelated to the African studies scandal. She said it was a struggle finding classes that fit with athletes’ heavy practice schedules, academic abilities and interests. She said counselors would guide athletes toward degree programs that were a good fit for their interests, such as communications or exercise and sports sciences.

She saw Nyang’oro as a principled professor willing to work with athletes.

“He is very passionate about these students learning something in his class, learning the things they need to do, learning how to do research, learning how to do papers, albeit probably not like the normal student that comes into Carolina,” Reynolds said. “And that’s where he’s willing to be a little more flexible.”

Walden and Reynolds have not returned recent messages seeking further comment.

The latest controversy isn’t the only one involving the athletic support program. One its employees, an undergradute tutor who later worked for former head coach Butch Davis, wrote parts of papers and committed other acts of “academic fraud” over a three-year period, according to the university and the NCAA. Her actions, uncovered only after the NCAA began probing benefits provided to players by agents, caused multiple players to be declared ineligible, led to sanctions against UNC and has caused the university to stop using undergrads as tutors in the athletic support program.

The university has made numerous other changes to try to prevent another scandal from happening. On the academic side, there are much tighter controls over course offerings and limits on independent studies. Owen has stressed that support program counselors should not be steering athletes to classes.

On the athletic side, the department has added two new officials from other universities to address academic support and compliance issues.

But some on UNC’s faculty doubt much can be done to remedy the situation. Football and basketball at the major athletic conferences bring in tens of millions of dollars in revenue, making the temptation to compromise on academics in order to win championships hard to resist.

“The athletic enterprise has grown so large and so remunerative that it may not be appropriate at universities anymore,” said Lew Margolis, a public health professor.

Staff writer Andrew Carter contributed to this report.

Kane: 919-829-4861

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