From the Editor

Drescher: The who, what and why on our UNC football reporting

jdrescher@newsobserver.comOctober 19, 2012 

Some UNC-Chapel Hill supporters have questioned our coverage of off-the-field issues involving football players. Here are some of their questions and my answers.

Q: Why are you writing about problems related to athletics at UNC but not other colleges?

We go where the story is. After a UNC football player tweeted about his great nightlife in Miami Beach (“I live in club LIV so I get the tenant rate”), the NCAA investigated and eventually punished UNC for several violations. The NCAA found improper benefits given to players; an assistant coach taking money from an agent; and players receiving inappropriate assistance from a tutor.

We pursue specific tips. We are not government auditors who can demand compliance. We don’t have subpoena power. Getting information from universities – even public universities – often is a struggle and can involve expensive legal action. The state universities don’t mind spending your tax dollars to keep information from being revealed. We have to use staff time and money effectively. If we get a specific tip about serious wrongdoing at an area university, we pursue it.

When Carolina fans raised questions about orientation classes for athletes at N.C. State, reporter Dan Kane checked it out. In an Aug. 28 article, he found grades for the one-credit-hour classes were comparable for athletes and non-athletes.

We’ve asked UNC and NCSU to provide us with information about the classes taken by athletes; the grades they received; and the grades received by non-athletes. No names would be attached to this information. We first made these requests more than a year ago. The universities can program their data to provide this information and preserve students’ privacy. We’ve recently restated our request for this information.

Q: All major universities have some easy classes. Why are you picking on UNC?

It’s probably true that all major universities have some classes that are much easier than others. What appears to be unusual about UNC is the role some faculty members played in creating less-demanding classes taken mostly by athletes. UNC found 54 classes over a four-year period in one department in which there was little or no evidence of instruction. Of the students in these classes, nearly two-thirds were athletes. One faculty member was supposed to be teaching most of these classes.

Also, a Naval Science instructor at UNC recruited athletes to his class; 30 of the 38 students were athletes. The course required no exams or major research paper.

Q: Do Dan Kane and J. Andrew Curliss have a vendetta against UNC? Where did they go to college?

Kane has been the lead reporter during the last year but Curliss also has contributed. Neither of them, nor anyone else in The N&O newsroom, has a vendetta against UNC. Kane graduated from St. John Fisher College in New York and Curliss from the University of Toledo in Ohio. They’ve been edited by Steve Riley, a graduate of the University of Mississippi. I am a graduate of UNC. But college affiliations are irrelevant to our work. Our reporters and editors set aside their personal histories and work without fear or favor.

Kane and Curliss each have reported prominent stories about N.C. State. Kane revealed in 2000 that N.C. State’s public safety director had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on electronic equipment, vehicles, clothing and other unneeded goods and services. The director was forced out. The state auditor later said it was one of the worst examples of misspending he had seen.

Curliss reported in 2009 that Chancellor Jim Oblinger had been involved in creating a job at N.C. State in 2005 for then-first lady Mary Easley. Oblinger had said he could not remember if he was involved. Curliss revealed that Oblinger gave a sweetheart severance to the provost, who had stepped down amid questioning about Easley’s job. Then, emails showed Oblinger was involved in the Easley hiring. Oblinger was forced to resign.

Q: Why don’t you report about the good things going on at UNC?

We for decades have reported on achievements by UNC students, faculty and alums, and we still do. We’ve published stories this year about UNC researchers finding the genetic causes of some of the most common types of breast cancer; the launching of an initiative for students and faculty to explore issues surrounding the world’s water supply; the results of a UNC study showing that poor children who get high-quality day care reap long-lasting benefits; and the naming of Joe DeSimone, a star chemistry professor (and our 2008 Tar Heel of the Year), to a new role at UNC to drive innovation and entrepreneurship.

Those types of stories tend to be forgotten quickly by readers unhappy with our recent coverage of academic irregularities. We also report almost daily on the accomplishments of UNC athletes.

Q: I am canceling my subscription, and many other UNC loyalists are too. Doesn’t that show you that you should stop this negative reporting on UNC?

I am always disappointed to lose a subscriber. Several times a year, segments of our readers are unhappy with us. But we think most of our readers want us to shine a light on problems of public interest in North Carolina. That’s an important part of our role. UNC is a great university and ultimately will emerge stronger if it addresses the problems that have been raised.

Q: Why is The N&O beating a dead horse?

We’re not. The issue of academic irregularities is very much alive at UNC. Chancellor Holden Thorp appointed former Gov. Jim Martin, a former chemistry professor at Davidson College, to work with the auditing firm Baker Tilly to investigate academic fraud at UNC. Martin’s report is not yet complete. Thorp also has asked Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, to lead a discussion about the appropriate role of sports at UNC.

In addition, a judge has ordered UNC to turn over documents related to the NCAA investigation; a media coalition, including The N&O, sued for the documents, saying they are public record. When these documents are released, new information will emerge.

We will keep reporting.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com. On Twitter @john_drescher

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