System failure at UNC

A UNC-Chapel Hill athlete’s transcript expands the scope of academic scandal.

August 15, 2012 

Julius Peppers has had a terrific career as a professional athlete (now with the Chicago Bears), and his turn as a football and basketball player while at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 1998 until 2001 represents a relatively brief stopover in his life. It was an opportunity that helped the Tar Heels win some games and helped Peppers gain attention within the professional ranks.

But as a student ... Peppers was a great athlete. And that was just fine with the university, or at least one could conclude that after looking at what appears to be a transcript of Peppers’ academic record. It seems Peppers, majoring in African and Afro-American Studies, was staying barely eligible for football with little apparent intent of graduating. The transcript shows no grades at all for his last semester, in the fall of 2001.

What kept Peppers eligible were his good grades in courses related to the African and Afro-American Studies department, headed then and until recently by Julius Nyang’oro, whose accommodating nature toward athletes is under scrutiny as part of an academic fraud investigation at the university.

Nyang’oro resigned as department chair and retired after The News & Observer reported on 54 courses, most with him listed as the instructor, that basically included no instruction and often featured heavy enrollments of athletes. Some of those athletes were football players under Butch Davis, who presided over a program that resulted in sanctions for the university from the NCAA, college athletics’ governing body. Davis resigned with a multimillion-dollar settlement.

Still probing

The university’s investigation of the academic scandal, which has gone back no further than 2007, is ongoing and so is one by the State Bureau of Investigation, covering fraud issues.

But the Peppers transcript, which ordinarily would be no one’s business but which turned up on a university web portal, now appears to show that these connections to the African and Afro-American Studies department, and the department’s helpfulness to athletes, go back well prior to 2007.

That Peppers, or anyone with his academic record, could have stayed eligible for sports is an embarrassment to the university, which was clearly tolerating a system putting athletes under the special care of advisers who were charged with keeping them eligible to put UNC-CH on the big sports marquees.

What’s needed

If UNC-Chapel Hill is ever going to come out of the shadows of this scandal, the beleaguered Chancellor Holden Thorp has little choice about his next steps.

First, the university’s investigation must expand and go back in scope to the years before 2007. Let’s have the whole story.

Second, Thorp and other officials need to quit focusing on “damage control.” Get everything out there, in the public eye, admit mistakes and shortcomings, apologize for the embarrassment to alumni and the university’s loyal supporters and institute reforms.

Third, change the university’s “culture” so far as athletics go. That means keeping track of athletes’ academic progress beyond ensuring their eligibility, instead making certain they are progressing in a degree program. That means no more special advising system, which seems to have evolved into an eligibility system.

Finally, administrators must take charge, not shrug their shoulders and reckon that the athletics department, and specifically the football and basketball programs, are simply too big to pull under rein. Admissions officers must not be so quick to make exceptions to normal standards just to accommodate blue-chip players.

The university now knows what happens when the athletics enterprise is left to its own devices.

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