Surrendering sports titles. Abolishing admissions exceptions for athletes. Launching a national crusade to put academics before athletics.
These were some of the ideas pushed by UNC-Chapel Hill faculty in an intense, two-hour session Friday to discuss last week’s Wainstein report, which chronicled 18 years of phony classes and academic abuses that kept athletes eligible to play for the Tar Heels.
The Faculty Council devoted its entire meeting Friday to the issue, drawing a standing-room-only crowd. Professors posed pointed questions to Chancellor Carol Folt and Provost Jim Dean, who responded and took notes throughout. Faculty brainstormed about new policies and pledged to take a more forceful role with athletics. And they did some soul-searching about how things could have gone so wrong.
“It’s about the foundations of this faculty and the university,” said Sue Estroff, a former faculty chair and professor of social medicine. “My trust has been tested. Has yours? What are we going to do about that? I don’t want to work in a place where I don’t trust, admire and take the word of my leadership and my colleagues. I feel betrayed by our leadership, our faculty leadership, people all around us that we invested with the presumptive dignity and integrity that’s on this campus.”
The unusual session followed last week’s revelations in a report by Kenneth Wainstein, a former federal prosecutor, who described a “shadow curriculum” in African and Afro-American Studies in which more than 3,100 students took no-show classes and independent studies over two decades. Athletes were steered to the classes by their academic advisers, and administrators and coaches had knowledge of aspects of the sham courses but looked the other way.
Professors lamented a culture that they said pressured good people to make bad decisions. They questioned top brass on whether recent reforms were enough to keep future trouble away. Some demanded an apology to Mary Willingham, the former learning specialist who blew the whistle on a system that she said exploited athletes woefully unprepared for college work.
Dean, who had discredited Willingham’s research on athletes’ reading skills before the council in January, said he and Folt could not talk about Willingham because she has filed suit against them.
The provost said it broke his heart to see a photo on Twitter of an empty wall, after an alumnus had removed a UNC diploma. “This just does not define this university, it just doesn’t,” he said, adding, “This is a time to come together.”
And while people may disagree about exactly how to respond, he said, “We’re doing our best.”
Cutting academic exceptions
To the suggestion to stop academic admission exceptions for athletes, Folt said the university had already dramatically curbed the practice. In 2001, there were 40 special talent admissions; last year, she said, there were nine. Most of those students currently have a B or C-plus average, she said. Only one didn’t make it academically, she said.
To the proposal that the university should take a visible role in athletics reform, Folt said she wasn’t sure the university could claim a national leadership position right now.
“I do think it’s important for us to get our house in order, and yes, I hope that every single thing we do is a model, but that’s not for us to say,” Folt said. “We have things to account for in our own history that we want to take full responsibility for without excuses.”
Some were critical of the faculty, saying they had been too passive on athletics.
“There’s something wrong with a faculty council which is incapable of confronting an administration,” said Hodding Carter III, a public policy professor. “Because you are not doing your duty to the university by essentially being rubber stamps for whatever is put before you by the administration.”
He said it was impossible for coaches and others in authority to have not known what was going on with the fake classes. “Please folks, don’t just try to sweep this and talk about all the good things we’re doing,” he said. “Try to undo the last of the bad things that were done.”
Lloyd Kramer, a history professor who served on the Faculty Athletics Committee during the peak of AFAM fraud, said there were good people who were brought down by systemic pressures.
“We didn’t ask the right questions because we trusted people,” he said. “We couldn’t imagine that something was going on in this way.”
Harry Watson, a history professor, spoke for a faculty group called the Athletics Reform Group in making six recommendations, including vacating any athletic championships that involved players who took fraudulent “paper classes” in African and Afro-American Studies. He also suggested a formal apology was due to Willingham.
“[She] told the university for free what the Wainstein report confirms and documents in excruciating detail,” he said. “Had UNC embraced her leadership in 2012, the university would have been spared years of humiliation and untold financial costs.”
Wayne Lee, history professor, said the university should rethink the quest for money that is inherent in college athletics. The faculty should be consulted on key financial decision points, such as expanding the Atlantic Coast Conference, scheduling games on weeknights or allowing alumni donors to drink alcohol in the “Blue Zone” seats at Kenan Stadium. The faculty should be able to say no to compromises even if it means the athletic program loses money, he said.
“We need to have a really serious faculty reaction in response every time in the future one of these moments come up, because they will come up again,” Lee said. “No matter how many fingers we put in the dike, the money’s going to come calling again.”
Joy Renner, chair of UNC-CH’s Faculty Athletics Committee, said her group is putting a major focus this year on time requirements that take athletes away from academics. And she said that some faculty were unfair to athletes, making it difficult to take their classes. One this year told all athletes to drop out of a class on the first day.
“The faculty have a responsibility to educate and also to advocate for every student in their class,” Renner said.
Sociology professor Andrew Perrin said he’d like the faculty and administration to affirm a simple principle: “That whatever number of wins, whatever number of championships, whatever number of star athletes recruited would be given up in the name of ensuring academic integrity, we will do that.”