CHAPEL HILL — On the day before the University of North Carolina released a four-year strategic plan for athletics, athletic director Bubba Cunningham sat in his office and described his desire to repair his department’s reputation.
On the table in front of him was a copy of UNC’s strategic plan, which the university released Wednesday morning.
Several NCAA violations, including academic fraud and impermissible benefits involving agents, kept the North Carolina football team out of the postseason. Improprieties in the university’s African and Afro-American Studies Department ensnared athletes, too, and called into question whether athletes enrolled in bogus classes to stay eligible.
“There’s no denying that we’ve got major violations and we’re on probation,” Cunningham said. “We didn’t go to a bowl game, and we’re under the repeat violator clause for the next five years. But I think overall, I think the Carolina brand is really, really good and strong, and healthy and positive. But do we have to do things better?
“Absolutely. Which is why I think we’re trying to do what we’re laying out here.”
The plan outlines a mission for the athletic department – “We educate and inspire through athletics” – and also defined four priorities:
• Alignment: “Align our operations to fulfill the mission of the university.”
• Academic achievement: “Achieve a top three academic finish in the conference and a top 10 finish nationally in each sport.”
• Athletic performance: “Perform to a top three athletic ranking in the conference and a top 10 finish nationally in each sport.”
• Administrative engagement: “Engage internal and external constituents to relentlessly pursue the resources and administrative structures necessary for success.”
The plan calls for UNC to “build stronger relationships within the university community,” and also to “improve the academic profile of incoming student-athletes” and to develop them “for a life of success beyond athletics.”
The relationship between the UNC athletic department and the rest of the campus has come under scrutiny in recent months and years, beginning with revelations that athletes received impermissible benefits. It has been strained further by questions about irregularly-taught classes in the AFAM department.
Athletes – especially football and men’s basketball players – constituted a high percentage of the students in at least 54 of those suspect courses, though a recent report released by former North Carolina Gov. Martin concluded the problem to be academic in nature, and not athletics based.
A faculty report that UNC released in July indicated that some athletes had been steered by academic advisors to suspect independent studies courses in the AFAM department. That report also described two cultures on campus – one academic and one athletic.
Cunningham on Tuesday said his “biggest responsibility” is alignment – ensuring that the athletic department fulfills the mission of the university.
“I think it’s just constantly being engaged with the larger mission of the institution,” he said.
The strategic plan calls for UNC to improve the academic profile of incoming athletes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the university will admit fewer athletes as academic exceptions, Cunningham said.
“This is kind of a framework and a philosophy and then you have to drill down into what are the actions you can actually do,” he said. “The NCAA standards are changing by 2016. And we already exceed the new standards in the vast majority of the cases.
“The challenge that we have, that Stanford has, that Duke has, that Notre Dame has is that you have a student body that has these incredible qualifications and you have some students that aren’t there, so how do you make sure that they get a great education? That becomes the challenge that we all have.
“But I don’t really think it’s going to come down to an admissions question.”
To improve the academic profile of incoming athletes, the plan calls for the university to “aggressively recruit prospective student-athletes who exemplify and embrace the core values of Carolina Athletics” and to “develop a compliance culture to serve as a model for responsibility and integrity.”
Ensuring that UNC plays a role in shaping the landscape of college athletics is also critical, Cunningham said.
“We want to be on NCAA committees,” he said. “We want to be active in the ACC, we want to be in the discussion of are we going to do the miscellaneous expense allowance – are we going to debate amateurism? Are we going to put any kind of limits to recruiting, text messaging, all that stuff?
“We need to formally as a group think about who’s going to be on these committees, and how we can be represented. Because I think one, we ought to be in the room. And two, I think we’re valuable in the room. Because I think people have respect for Carolina and what we’ve stood for over the years.”
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter