Experts say NCAA should return to UNC

Hints seen of ‘a major academic violation’

acurliss@newsobserver.comOctober 5, 2012 

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NCAA President Mark Emmert speaks at an NCAA Final Four news conference Thursday, March 29, 2012, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)


  • When to act? When Auburn University and the University of Michigan both had questions pop up in recent years about independent study courses that benefited athletes, the NCAA did not act. They were seen as internal concerns over how universities conduct their own classes. Mark Jones, a former director of the NCAA’s infractions arm who now works at a law firm in Indianapolis that assists schools in possible trouble, said in an interview that academic concerns cover a wide spectrum, but definitions of what might trigger sanctions are not always clear-cut. “One of the things the NCAA wants to make absolutely clear is that whenever you have a staff member at a school who is doing anything to substitute their work for a student athlete’s work, or is doing something improper to change a grade or arrange a fraudulent credit, then that’s a violation,” he said. Beyond that, he said, the NCAA takes things case by case.
  • More information New course rules The UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Council passed two resolutions Friday to set guidelines for syllabus requirements and rules about independent study courses. The action came in the aftermath of the discovery of no-show classes and abuses of independent study courses in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. The courses were heavily populated by athletes. One resolution sets guidelines for how a syllabus, the “roadmap” for a course, should be given to students on the first day of class. A syllabus should be used for each course, the guidelines say, including details about the course goals, prerequisites, requirements, policies, resources and grades. The document should include information about dates of assignments and exams, the place and time of class, contact information for the professor, and the honor code rules. The resolution originally called for syllabus requirements, but in the end the faculty passed guidelines only. Under the guidelines, syllabi are kept by academic departments for four years after a class is taught. Another resolution sets out rules for independent study courses, which also include directed readings, internships and research courses for students. The new rule says that 12 hours of such academic credit can count toward graduation, and no more than 12 hours may be taken in one semester. Staff writer Jane Stancill

Several reform-minded experts say the NCAA cannot ignore the latest revelations about athletics and academics at UNC-Chapel Hill even as university-led reviews are already under way.

The trigger, they said, is evidence of unacceptable involvement in classes by staffers in the university’s academic support program for athletes.

What has happened at UNC with African studies and other courses is “a classic pattern of an endemic problem in academic support,” said Gerald Gurney, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, who was 2010-11 president of the National Association of Academic Advisers for Athletics. “This has all of the ingredients of a major academic violation because it is so systematic over a long period of time. I feel certain that the NCAA is planning on inviting themselves back. They simply can’t let this go.”

NCAA President Mark Emmert told in a radio interview this week that the athletics governing body is closely monitoring the unfolding situation.

A UNC spokesman repeated on Friday that the university has been in contact with the NCAA and there is “ongoing communication.” That’s a shift from late August, when the university said the African studies problems were not subject to NCAA sanction. The announcement drew national criticism of the NCAA.

Gurney and others said in interviews that new documents, revealed in The News & Observer over the past week, have shed new light on the problems with UNC’s academic support area, in particular as it relates to the no-show classes in the African studies department and classes where athletes clustered in unusually high percentages.

Portions of roughly 100 pages of documents from the academic support program show the athlete support program’s administrators were aware of efforts in the African studies department to help athletes and other students.

One staffer wrote about the department chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, allowing students to write independent study papers: “Since we have worked with him in the past in this same manner, I wanted to let you know that his expectations are very reasonable and very achievable for our students,” wrote Amy Kleissler, a learning specialist with the athlete support program. “(H)e is very laid back.”

A subsequent N&O report showed that 30 out of 38 students in one naval weapons systems class were athletes, including six from the basketball team. Records and interviews showed the course was structured differently than others like it in that it required a two- to three-page paper and for each student to give about a four-minute presentation at the end of the class. The Naval Science department has since changed the structure to include exams and quizzes.

Athletes learned about the class not from academic advisers, who are supposed to help them pick classes, but from the athlete support program, which includes tutors and counselors. That program had learned of the class from the instructor.

Too much help?

There have always been “easy” classes at universities, said Allen Sack, professor of sports management at the University of New Haven who heads the Drake Group, which says its mission is to help faculty and staff defend academic integrity in the face of the burgeoning college sports industry. He played football at Notre Dame.

But he said the documents show something different that fans might not fully understand: Athletes are not supposed to get the kind of extra help from the athletics support program that is shown in the documents.

“This is a major scandal because it raises serious questions about athletic counseling as a cottage industry,” said Sack. “I certainly suspected this stuff was going on (around the country), but the documents you are disclosing are convincing me that the NCAA should come into UNC and that the time for a congressional hearing of the NCAA itself has arrived.”

UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp says it is all under review already, and he acknowledged that the latest disclosures are a “concern” for the university.

One document shows that, as a 20-page paper came due, one player apparently gave up with more than 18 pages done, and what was completed needed work. A tutor, Whitney Read, expressed frustration that the player “wanted to write no more and do no more corrections.” The next day, in an email message to a staff counselor, the tutor wrote that another staff counselor was going to “surprise” the player with “an extra session to fix the mistakes.” Read has declined to comment.

One paper, Read wrote, had been “worked on” by her and another staffer, then given to the player.

Reviewing a paper

Another player resisted the tutor’s efforts to help him change the wording on two sentences of a 19-page draft paper days before it was due. Previously, the tutor had “thought up titles/topics for him to do to take up space” when the paper was at 13 pages. With the paper due, the player got mad, she wrote on an official “feedback form,” and wanted to know why the tutor was erasing sentences to paraphrase. That ended the tutoring session.

An N&O analysis of that draft shows that much of it matches word-for-word with magazine and news articles, encyclopedia entries and other such sources. It is not clear what form the paper took when it was handed in. The athlete, a current member of the football team, would not agree to an interview, and the university says it does not have the final paper.

David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University who worked in athletics compliance at Marshall University when it faced NCAA sanctions, reviewed the paper, the source material and other documents. He said the player’s paper was “about 90 percent plagiarized” and that he was getting improper help.

He said what’s happened at UNC certainly “meets the NCAA’s academic fraud bylaws.”

Other records show the athlete support program kept dossiers on the players, with background information on their classes.

In describing one African studies class, for example, the background notes for one player tell tutors he has difficulty reading and writing, and to “seek out other resources” for him, such as videos.

The support program is not supposed to do research for athletes, according to the NCAA.

When the NCAA issued sanctions against UNC in March, including a loss of scholarships for the football team, among the findings were that the university had committed academic violations when a tutor wrote paragraphs for papers, revised draft papers, and researched and edited papers.

Curliss: 919-829-4840

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