UNC-Chapel Hill faculty say it’s time for a broad and lengthy discussion about athletics following two years of punishing scandals that have hurt the university’s reputation.
At the Faculty Council meeting Friday, a leader of a professors’ coalition known as the Athletics Reform Group called for a multi-year, wide-ranging series of town hall meetings to “debate openly and honestly” the university’s commitment to NCAA Division I athletics.
“We’re talking about the culture of our university and how we should be dealing with the aftermath of a major, many-pronged scandal,” history professor Jay Smith said. “We, the faculty, and the entire campus community, need to have the opportunity to question our leaders – administrators, coaches, deans, faculty leaders, athletic directors – about actions that they have taken and about their vision for the university in the wake of our embarrassment. We, the faculty, as a collective unit, have to get in the game, to use a sports metaphor.”
In calling for a faculty-led debate, Smith read an email sent from an unnamed colleague that ran down a series of events that began as a scandal in the football program and led to the discovery of major academic fraud.
“We’ve had NFL-bound players banned from the UNC team, a football coach fired, NCAA sanctions, a department chair resigning, a chancellor resigning, suspicious grades, faked classes, an academic support program that’s now under a cloud, and finally the entire university’s credentials have been questioned, so much so that the provost is sending out inspectors to see if professors actually teach their classes. We need a response that matches this horrible record,” Smith read from the email.
Although no votes were taken, Faculty Chairwoman Jan Boxill agreed that it was a good idea. She said she would work to coordinate a schedule with Richard Southall, a UNC-CH exercise and sport science professor who is director of the College Sport Research Institute. Meetings could start as soon as next month.
At the same time, UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp announced that an outside panel led by Association of American Universities President Hunter Rawlings will hold its first meeting April 19. Thorp asked Rawlings to lead an effort to examine the balance of athletics and academics at the university.
Thorp said other members of the panel are: Jim Delany, commissioner of the Big Ten athletic conference; Bob Malekoff, chairman of sport studies at Guilford College; Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics; and former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson.
“I will plan the first meeting and then let them take it from there,” the outgoing Thorp told the faculty. Thorp will leave after this semester to become provost at Washington University in St. Louis.
The meeting, held next door to Kenan Stadium, was tense at times.
Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham attended but did not speak. Thorp bristled when Smith suggested the Rawlings panel “is not going to serve the function that most of us hoped.”
Some professors took issue with Smith’s proposal, suggesting that faculty have been concerned all along and the administration has launched reforms to deal with the problems uncovered. A revamped Faculty Athletics Committee is planning a retreat in the coming weeks.
Greg Copenhaver, a biology professor, argued that Smith cast athletes in a bad light, even though the vast majority of which “are good actors.”
He suggested that the faculty focus on moving forward, rather than looking back. And, he added, the academic scandal was a failure of the academic side of the university.
“Our system failed, and a small number of students took advantage of that failure on our part,” Copenhaver said.
But Tom Linden, a journalism professor, agreed that the debate was necessary. He said UNC-CH is part of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s “money-centered” sports culture and suggested that the university explore alternatives, including “getting out of the ACC and aligning with other universities that place primacy on both athletics and academics.”
The faculty reform group has thrown out a number of ideas, including providing legal counsel to athletes who face accusations by the NCAA or the university, increasing the number of learning specialists for athletes and banning weeknight football games.
Thorp told the faculty there would be a Thursday night football game in Chapel Hill this fall, a rare occurrence. But it will be held during fall break, he said, and employees won’t be made to leave campus early to provide parking for the crowds.
“I know there’s a lot of disagreement about this, and you can talk to Hunter Rawlings and the next chancellor and whoever you want to about this,” Thorp said, “but playing a Thursday night football game on fall break is the same thing as playing it on the weekend. So I’m proud of the fact that that’s the only conditions under which we’ll do it.”
Smith, the history professor, said he looked forward to “a meaty, probing, lengthy” public discussion in the months ahead. “That’s what intellectuals do,” he said.