Thorp: UNC's standards for athletes will rise

Chancellor previews higher standards

acurliss@newsobserver.comSeptember 26, 2012 

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp said Wednesday the university is planning to strike a new – and possibly ground-breaking – balance between athletics and academics at one of the nation’s leading public universities.

Among the coming changes: tougher admissions requirements for athletes. Thorp also said in an interview with News & Observer reporters and editors that faculty members will have more oversight of classes that athletes take once they are on campus.

The chancellor said the changes coming to Chapel Hill will be “national news” when they are captured in a report expected to be released in the spring.

“Academics are going to have to come first,” Thorp said. “And it’s clear that they haven’t to the extent that they should.”

Thorp said bringing about change that ensures “academics first” will be so difficult that it was a factor in his decision, announced last week, to resign as chancellor in June and return to the faculty.

A major auditing firm is conducting a review of possible academic problems involving athletes following revelations of no-show classes in the African and Afro-American Studies Department. The audit is designed to determine whether there are problems deeper than a previous university probe revealed.

Beyond that, the football team is under NCAA sanctions, and Thorp last year fired football coach Butch Davis to try to help the university move forward.

Thorp said the auditing work involves an analysis of transcripts for all athletes. He said a separate effort in the spring will produce solutions.

Ahead of the NCAA?

Among the biggest changes would be tougher admission standards, including limits on instances where athletes are granted exceptions to normal UNC-Chapel Hill standards in order to be admitted.

In the past five years, 53 football players have been admitted to UNC-Chapel Hill under that process, according to university records.

The university could not immediately say Wednesday how many basketball players were also admissions exceptions, citing rules that prevent revealing a player’s identity. Admissions officials said providing the number of basketball exceptions could reveal player identities because each year’s class size of basketball recruits is relatively small.

Thorp said exceptions will go down as a result of the reform efforts.

“I do expect that to evolve and obviously evolve in a way that allows us to recruit people who can succeed in the classroom and on the field as well,” Thorp said. “We will be enrolling a greater percentage of students that are above whatever lines we’ve had in the past.”

In 2016, NCAA rules will toughen the acceptable high school grade-point average for incoming athletes from the current 2.0 to a minimum of 2.3 for those to be eligible to play in their first year of college. Thorp said UNC may accelerate that requirement.

“I suspect that we’ll end up raising our standards ahead of that time,” Thorp said. “We’ll be ahead of the curve.”

Thorp said great universities should try to change the way athletics fit into other parts of campus life.

“We’re saying we’re going to,” he said.

Trusting too much

Thorp also acknowledged that he had not been diligent on athletics issues as chancellor, describing a culture of “trust” in others who had betrayed him.

“I’ve made my share of mistakes as chancellor,” he said. “Looking back, I can say there are things I wish I had done differently. I felt at the time, and I feel now, that the big decisions I made were the right decisions. But I wish I had been more questioning. I wish I’d asked for information sooner, and that I’d looked at things more deeply and critically. The next nine months, I will do these things.”

On other subjects, Thorp said:

• He had no idea why former UNC star Julius Peppers’ academic transcript was left on a university server for the public to access. The N&O had provided a version of the transcript without Peppers’ name on it to university officials well in advance of reporting on it in August, and sought to confirm whether it was the transcript of an actual student or a mock version. A version of the transcript with Peppers’ name on it was later spotted in an online portal by N.C. State fans.

Before then, the university would not confirm that it was a real student transcript, saying it was a test used as part of a system for students and advisers to know what courses a student needed to graduate. A spokeswoman, Nancy Davis, said at the time in an email, “That is an eleven-year-old test file.” She also said “test students were created” to evaluate the system.

Thorp said Wednesday he was involved in that message, but could not recall or explain why the transcript was characterized as something other than a real student’s.

“We should have done a better job with that whole thing,” Thorp said.

• He started to seriously consider resigning in the past few weeks, and the decision crystallized after a meeting with Board of Governors members on Sept. 14. He was questioned behind closed doors following disclosures of what Thorp has called “personally driven” travel by chief fundraiser Matt Kupec and disclosures that Kupec had helped create and fund a job for his girlfriend, Tami Hansbrough, who is the mother of former basketball star Tyler Hansbrough.

Thorp said he talked over the resignation with his wife that weekend and made the decision. Thorp said he has not wavered despite several rallies on campus asking him to reconsider.

• He looks forward to being part of the faculty again. But he would not specifically rule out returning to an administrative post.

Curliss: 919-829-4840

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