UNC faculty members ask probing questions about athletics

jstancill@newsobserver.comOctober 4, 2013 

— This fall, UNC-Chapel Hill enrolled 160 new student athletes, and 14 of them had a predicted grade point average of below a 2.3, or a “C-plus,” placing them at risk for academic trouble.

That’s according to Steve Farmer, the undergraduate admissions director, who shared his data with faculty Friday during a wide-ranging discussion of athletics.

Coaches might vet some 400 prospective student-athletes, Farmer said, and 160 with special talent make the cut. Of the 14 in the lowest predicted GPA group, nine are from the revenue sports of basketball and football, Farmer said.

“Risk is a spectrum,” Farmer said, describing the university’s effort to gauge who will ultimately succeed. “It’s not a bright line.”

Anthropology professor Vin Steponaitis asked a question that others have posed during three years of athletic and academic scandals at the university: Why not lift the academic threshold for athletes, he asked, so there is less risk in admitting them?

“The fundamental worry is that the system we have in place, no matter how hard we work at it, ends up admitting students who can’t do the work,” Steponaitis said.

He and his faculty colleagues put forth a number of penetrating questions on admissions standards, freshman eligibility, the number of hours athletes devote to their sport, and why basketball star P.J. Hairston will play for the Tar Heels this season after his much-publicized legal troubles.

The questions emerged at an hourlong faculty debate about how to balance big-time sports at a university where trouble has included improper benefits for athletes, no-show classes in the African and African-American Studies department, criminal investigations and an accreditation scare.

Timing of forum

The forum came a day after a former UNC-CH student tutor was indicted in connection with a criminal investigation of agents’ involvement with athletes. And it was held the same day a letter appeared in the student newspaper from a staff athletic tutor, saying he was resigning in protest of men’s basketball coach Roy Williams’ decision to allow Hairston to remain on the team after a series of traffic tickets and a marijuana charge that was later dropped.

The discussion focused on 28 reforms suggested by a panel led by Hunter Rawlings, head of the Association of American Universities. Chancellor Carol Folt pointed out that a number of the policies are already in place at UNC-CH.

Others aren’t, including one idea to bar coaches from contacting admissions staff. Farmer said about half of universities allow it and half don’t.

Farmer said he was contacted the other day by a coach who was interested in a high-profile prospective athlete. The coach asked Farmer for a preliminary review.

“I looked at the student, I called the coach back, and I said, ‘I don’t think this person is our person,’” Farmer said. “So the communication between the coach and our office, I think, actually sometimes works to our advantage because we can advise coaches earlier about who might and who might not eventually earn admission.”

Several UNC-CH officials said a few Rawlings recommendations are feasible only if other universities implement them, too. Those include bringing back freshman ineligibility for athletes, which was the standard until the 1970s.

‘Disadvantage’ cited

Wayne Lee, a professor of history, suggested that first-year prohibition would ensure that athletes perform better academically.

“Why can’t UNC unilaterally say this is what we’re going to do, this is going to be our policy?” Lee asked.

Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham answered: “It would put us at a very competitive disadvantage in two primary sports.”

Cunningham said the NCAA’s new academic progress standards have improved the situation.

Joy Renner, chairwoman of UNC-CH’s Faculty Athletics Committee, said the group will spend this year exploring how much time athletes spend practicing, traveling and playing their sports. Renner said when she took on the role, she didn’t know whether UNC-CH can be both a competitive Division I sports school and a top research university.

“I still don’t have that question answered for me,” she said.

Cunningham, who has a son at UNC-CH, tried to reassure the group that he has the university’s reputation and integrity as his priority.

“A questioning faculty is really good,” he said. “I think we do things really, really well, but we’re not perfect. We’ve made mistakes. … We’re starting to dig out of that.”

Jay Smith, a history professor, said Friday’s event only began to scratch the surface.

“This should be the first of about a dozen such campus discussions on these issues,” Smith said.

Stancill: 919-829-4559

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service