Comment

Barnett: Time to come clean at UNC-CH

ned.barnett@newsobserver.comJanuary 11, 2014 

Those waiting for the academic-athletic scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill to fade away should have welcomed the arrival of 2014. All the talk of no-show courses for athletes and the speculation about who in the athletic department instigated or knew of the arrangement should now be last year’s story.

Except it’s not. Indeed, the New York Times reported the situation on its front page on New Year’s Day headlined, “A’s for athletes, but charges of fraud at North Carolina.” Then the nation’s most influential newspaper followed with an editorial scoffing at UNC’s official explanation that the hundreds of phony classes were not intended to keep athletes eligible because non-athletes were also enrolled.

“Another shameful lesson in the multimillion-dollar entertainment industry euphemistically referred to as collegiate sports is playing out at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,” the editorial said in its opening. It added, “Chapel Hill officials have clung to the fiction that the dummy courses were not designed to protect athletes’ eligibility.”

The bad publicity continued. Paul M. Barrett, an assistant managing editor for Bloomberg Businessweek, wrote a stinging column off the Times story headlined, “The scandal bowl: Tar Heel football, academic fraud, and implicit racism.” Barrett wrote that UNC-CH would not have tolerated the academic abuses in a more traditional department, but showed little curiosity about what was going on in a department devoted to African and Afro-American studies.

The scandal’s new year also was rung in with an interview on NPR’s “All Things Considered” with Dan Kane, The News & Observer reporter who has doggedly peeled away the layers of obfuscation, denial and refusal in which UNC has cloaked the matter.

Days later, UNC figured prominently in a CNN report detailing the shameful lack of education received by many college football and men’s basketball players. The report relied heavily on information provided by Mary Willingham, an academic counselor at UNC-CH who worked as a learning specialist in the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes from 2003 to 2010. She said her research into academic screening results of 183 athletes admitted to UNC between 2004 and 2012 found that between 8 percent and 10 percent were reading below a third-grade level.

This run of news ought to bring an end to UNC-CH’s hopes that the scandal will go away on its own. Certainly school officials have exhausted their previous three approaches: 1) There’s nothing to see here. Everybody move along. 2) This situation was confined to two bad apples in the African and Afro-American Studies Department who have since departed – the former chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, and the department’s longtime manager, Deborah Crowder. 3) Everybody does it. Why are you picking on us?

Now the response has moved to Step 4: stonewall. The News & Observer has asked UNC-CH to release a report on no-show classes that includes the numbers of athletes enrolled by class and, in particular, those who played football and men’s basketball.

A review conducted by former Gov. Jim Martin determined that there were more than 200 confirmed or suspected no-show classes. But because some non-athletes were enrolled, he concluded that the classes were an academic scandal and not part of an effort to help athletes. That was apparently enough to satisfy the NCAA that there was no need for it to look into the matter on the athletic side.

However, this is a chicken-and-egg issue. Did the classes start as a backdoor to eligibility for athletes and then attract regular students who learned of the easy grades? University emails suggest that is what happened. A look at the earliest fraudulent classes and the percentages of athletes enrolled by sport would show if that was the case.

The university maintains that it can’t release that breakdown. It argues that releasing the report would violate student privacy. But that would be the result only if a small team were involved – such as men’s basketball. If there were 14 students in a no-show class and all were members of the men’s basketball team, yes, it would be pretty clear who they were.

The refusal to simply open the files and let the truth out only extends and broadens the damage to UNC-CH’s once stellar reputation for integrity. And it’s only going to get worse if information is forced out in the trial of Nyang’oro, who has been charged with taking $12,000 in state pay for a class he never taught. The professor, who retired and has maintained silence on his role, wants to give his side of the story, his lawyer said.

Former Chancellor Holden Thorp was pushed from office by his underestimating the scale and impact of this scandal. Now his successor, Carol Folt, is silent while she stands by the university’s withholding of the requested information on classes.

This is a case where the university needs to say what is hard to admit. It should reveal all that was going on with the phony classes and athletes. And it’s a full disclosure that must be demanded by Folt. After six months on the job, her time for assessing the situation is up. Coming from Dartmouth, a private school, she should demonstrate that she knows the responsibility of leading a public university includes holding it accountable to the public.

Those who love the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill should stop worrying about protecting reputations and athletic titles and stand up for what should claim a university’s first loyalty – the truth.

It’s that, not time, that will set it free.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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