Point of View

In Chapel Hill, an academic change is in the air

December 20, 2013 

In a small conference room in historic South Building on the Chapel Hill campus, the winds of change are blowing. Whether this change is what the greater athletic fan base at UNC wants remains to be seen. But change is coming – slowly but surely.

It was my first time attending a meeting of the UNC Faculty Athletics Committee. I was there at the request of Mary Willingham, who had been invited to talk with the committee about her views on proposed admission and academic changes.

Yes, the very same Mary Willingham, UNC employee, considered by supporters a courageous critic of her employer’s previous practices with “student-athletes.” And the same Mary Willingham reviled by at least some in the UNC athletic community and fan base as a whistleblower, intent on bringing down the school’s athletic program.

The committee, chaired by Professor Joy Renner, is composed of a small group of university personnel – professors and staff, mainly women and overwhelmingly white. Their task since the athletic/academic scandal first descended on UNC has been to chart a course of reform. The background and experiences of the committee members are varied as are their perspectives – some closely aligned with athletic interests and others with a healthy suspicion of athletics and its role at UNC.

But there are new voices around the table, too. Jim Dean is the former head of the UNC Business School and now the executive vice chancellor and provost. Dean has all the trappings of a man used to making tough decisions. Calm, direct and in some respects serious and intimidating, he didn’t pull any punches. When one faculty member raised concerns voiced by one of the school’s coaches about losing prize recruits to UVA and Maryland because of tighter admission standards, Dean calmly said, “That’s an athletics problem. Talk to Bubba (Cunningham, the UNC athletics director).” Dean concluded his answer by noting that UNC would have its standards – other schools could have their standards.

Another new player in this drama is Dr. Michelle Brown, who now heads the school’s Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes. A former scholarship volleyball player at West Virginia, Brown, armed with a Ph.D. and a formal and professional demeanor, articulates a convincing commitment to making the academic experience of athletes at UNC as productive and meaningful as possible.

Even the university’s new vice chancellor for communications was there, fresh from a career in New York City. He’s not a member of the committee but was carefully monitoring the meeting. I suppose I expected a slick, Madison Avenue PR type, but Joel Curran is an engaging Tar Heel who chose to come home to help his alma mater do a better job in telling its story.

The course of the meeting dealt with serious discussions about admission standards for athletes, programs for better integrating them into the general student population and comprehensive standards for genuine academic accomplishment. The talk was somewhat academically slanted, but it was obvious that everyone there took the responsibilities seriously. Neither new Chancellor Carol Folt, nor Cunningham was there. Their presence was felt regardless. The competing worlds of big-time college athletics and the academic standards and reputation of our state’s flagship campus were playing out around the table.

When her time for presenting came, Willingham read from her prepared statement, occasionally looking up at the committee members. She lamented the challenges she had experienced working with athletes at UNC, individuals woefully behind in academic skills but genuinely wanting to learn and succeed. She talked about two former players whom she had recently talked with who had actually graduated from UNC but were working in low-wage, minimum-opportunity jobs. Her plea for an academy to help these students in remedial literacy skills so they could succeed beyond the playing field was emphasized. The committee members listened intently but with minimum comment.

With meetings open to the press and the public, the discussions, disagreements and challenges are there for all to see. Big-time college sports – whether at UNC or Notre Dame or Alabama – is a reality in today’s society. Winning, big money and big TV drive the system. UNC is now faced with a move to reform the academic side of the equation, and the school is serious about it. How that delicate balance between competitive athletics and a genuine university experience andeducation for those athletes is accomplished is the challenge. But the new chancellor has put together a team she believes can find that balance. Time will tell, but in South Building there are people serious about getting it right.

Robert Orr, an attorney, is a former justice on the state Supreme Court.

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