At UNC, a battle over two cultures

Chancellor Thorp: ‘We can’t run away from what we’ve learned’

acurliss@newsobserver.comDecember 22, 2012 

— In the days after he announced he would resign, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp spoke as a reformer. After two years of academic and athletics scandal, he said he would learn from mistakes, ask more questions and take action to recalibrate the role of sports at one of the nation’s oldest and best universities.

He pledged to work every day on it until he steps down in June.

The fundamental question, he acknowledged, is complex and difficult: Can top-flight athletics and top-tier academics “coexist” in Chapel Hill, where academic reputation matters and sports teams strive for national titles?

Thorp says the answer is yes – and that Thursday’s release of a searing report by former Gov. Jim Martin had not changed anything about his belief that academics have not been first at UNC to the extent that they should be.

The release of Martin’s report found 216 irregular courses in the African and Afro-American Studies department, along with hundreds of unauthorized grade changes, in an academic scandal that dates back to 1997. Athletes and non-athletes benefited from the misconduct, according to the report, while data about that will not be released until next month.

Thorp said the report was immediately sent to the NCAA, collegiate sports’ governing body.

“For years we’ve been proud, and you might even say boastful, about always doing things the right way,” Thorp said Thursday. “We took that for granted. Today, we can’t run away from what we’ve learned.”

The Martin report follows a range of disclosures over the past two years that have stained UNC-CH, including findings by the NCAA of academic fraud involving several football players that contributed to sanctions against the program.

After Martin’s report, the mantra of everyone at UNC-CH was “moving forward.”

In 2013, the university will attempt to recover from past scandals while also launching a larger discussion of the role of athletics at the university.

The effort will be led by Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities and former president of Cornell University and the University of Iowa.

People say they want balance between athletics and academics, but Rawlings, a classics scholar, said “balance” might be the wrong word to use.

“I think it’s clear that institutions have to put academics first and athletics second, because these are fundamentally academic institutions,” Rawlings said. “Many universities do this well and certainly Chapel Hill has been one of those over the decades, but the problem is even the ones that do it well sometimes run into issues, sometimes severe issues. So it’s impossible to say that one place does it perfectly or is a great model for everyone else, because you might learn a week later that, lo and behold, they’ve had a problem.”

A family disagreement?

It is clear how difficult change could be.

Thorp said several months ago that UNC would look to move up plans for tougher admissions standards for athletes, among other possible reforms. The chancellor said he thought UNC could be “ahead of the curve” in enacting more stringent admission standards before the NCAA plans to have them in place for 2016.

A few weeks later, basketball coach Roy Williams contradicted that when he said he did not think UNC would jump ahead of others. On Thursday, Thorp said only, “We’re working on a plan we can all agree on.”

Last month, at a faculty meeting, Thorp highlighted one particular paragraph in a six-page report, written by the faculty’s athletics representative, that says academic integrity should be ensured, but that faculty should not allow “the transgressions of some to color your view of the vast majority of student-athletes who are fine students and excellent representatives of our University.”

That report was written by law school professor Lissa Broome, who says she thinks it’s time for UNC to move on.

“(W)e need to concentrate on fixing the problems we have found, develop controls to ensure they won’t happen again, engage in the coming discussion of how to find the appropriate balance of academics and athletics, and most importantly to move on to educate and support all of our students, including those who also play intercollegiate athletics,” Broome wrote in the Nov. 9 report.

Thorp has said that upcoming discussion on finding a balance – which has already started in many ways – will lead to “national news” when it is finalized in the spring.

Monitoring athletes’ classes

Nathan Tublitz says he knows how universities can solve their sports problems.

“We know that athletic departments and universities cut corners,” said Tublitz, a professor at the University of Oregon. “One of the most obvious corners that they cut is admitting students who can’t do the work. And then, once they admit them, they have to figure out ways to keep them eligible, which causes more corners to be cut.”

Tublitz led a report in 2007 for a national faculty group called the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics. UNC-CH is a member.

That report spelled out a long list of possible reforms for universities to consider and adopt, including many related to academic integrity. Among them was a call for schools to only admit students based on their potential for academic success and “not primarily their athletic contribution.”

Another idea says athletes’ classes should be better monitored by the faculty, a step that almost certainly would have stopped misconduct in the African studies department from persisting for so long.

Tublitz said classes, professors and grades related to athletes should be made public, with individuals’ information edited out. The Drake Group, an association also trying to reform college sports, has also pushed for more disclosure of classes taken by athletes and the grades they get.

The Drake Group’s founder, Jon Ericson, says transparency on classes and grades would end “academic corruption” in sports.

UNC has refused to release such information. Thorp has deferred requests for it until after Martin’s review. Martin said Thursday that his review did not include that type of inquiry into transcripts.

COIA’s landmark report on the issue of reform, Framing the Future, quotes former NCAA president Myles Brand from 2005 about how important it is to get athletics in balance with academics.

“When the public – both local and en masse – (begins) to believe that the value of the institution is to be measured by the success of its athletics teams, the core mission of the university is threatened,” Brand said.

Thorp has seen that first hand. When he fired football coach Butch Davis in 2010, after revelations of widespread misconduct in the program but not involving Davis himself, fans were divided. Some called for Thorp’s ouster, too.

One fan wrote to him after the firing: “I refuse to support the academic side of the university until one thing happens: you are no longer affiliated with the university.”

‘Two cultures’

Rebalancing the culture at a university is even harder at a time when the influence of money on athletics is pervasive, Rawlings said. In recent months, universities have hopscotched to different, and far-flung, athletic conferences to cash in on larger financial rewards.

“It’s more and more money and in the past few years the trajectory has been to get bigger and to have more money on the table,” he said. “That’s why we’re seeing, for example, these conference realignments going on. I think that’s a sign you’re talking here about very large amounts of money and an enormous amount of public interest. So this is big business and highly visible.”

There are many positives about athletics, Rawlings pointed out – building public interest and alumni excitement and providing opportunity for students to play sports at a high level.

The question may be whether the positives can be harnessed while the negatives are kept at bay.

A July report by a special faculty subcommittee at UNC-CH cited the university as a “campus with two cultures,” and asked why athletes get their own version of academic help in a fancy new building.

One of the authors of that report, law professor Michael Gerhardt, predicted a vocal debate when the larger conversation gets under way soon.

“There are going to be people who want to win national championships,” he said, “and there will be other people perhaps that don’t want to compete at all.”

Gerhardt suggested a deep look at Stanford University, which seems to succeed at both.

“There are different ways you can react to things like this,” Gerhardt said. “I think what the chancellor suggested is a very constructive way to do it, which is to try and learn from it and maybe try and become a model. So we have different options in front of us, but I think going backward isn’t one of them.”

Curliss: 919-829-4840

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