Six months into her job as chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill, Carol Folt took her strongest stance yet on the athletics and academics scandals that have plagued the campus for several years.
In public remarks at a Board of Trustees meeting Thursday, Folt said the university accepts responsibility and is “absolutely” accountable for years of bogus African studies courses that were significantly populated by athletes. And, Folt said, the university must “fully acknowledge and accept lessons of our past” before moving toward meaningful athletic and academic reform.
Until Thursday, Folt had been comfortable letting Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham and Provost Jim Dean do most of the talking about the scandals.
But Folt stepped forward after more than a week of explosive headlines and national news coverage about the literacy levels of UNC basketball and football players.
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Like her predecessor, Holden Thorp, Folt said that there was “no evidence that the anomalous courses were initiated in order to benefit athletes,” but she noted that “close to half who did enroll were student-athletes.”
The unsupervised courses were “not reflective of the standards that we expect for our university,” Folt added.
“All of those students who were involved in those courses deserved better from us,” she said. “We also accept the fact that there was a failure in academic oversight for years that permitted this to continue. This, too, was wrong and it has undermined our integrity and our reputation, and created a very unhealthy atmosphere of distrust.
“I think we all know that to move forward we have to make sure that everyone understands that we absolutely feel accountable and we’re going to learn from that painful history.”
In the African and Afro-American Studies Department, there were 200 lecture-style classes dating back to the mid-1990s that showed little or no evidence of any instruction. Investigations also found improperly taught independent studies courses and noted that roughly 500 grade changes were suspected or confirmed to be unauthorized.
Repeatedly, university officials have placed the blame on the former department chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, and a department manager, both of whom left the university. Nyang’oro has been indicted on criminal charges of obtaining property by false pretenses.
Though her comments were nuanced Thursday, Folt seemed to say that the university also bore a major responsibility.
Her remarks were well-received.
Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor, said last week that Folt and Dean sounded like they were stonewalling. His comment came at a faculty meeting where Dean questioned the research of learning specialist Mary Willingham, who has been outspoken to the media about what she said were poor literacy levels of UNC’s revenue athletes.
On Thursday, though, Baumgartner applauded Folt for “moving away from reflexive defensiveness.”
“She seems to be striking a different tone,” Baumgartner said. “Whether or not these courses were created at the behest of the athletic department, it is obvious to everyone that it’s related to athletics. In that sense, Carolina is nothing special.”
‘Over and over again’
Some said they were glad to see Folt speaking on the issue, though they found her remarks to be similar to the university’s stance all along.
“To me it sounded like what Holden Thorp said over and over again,” said Vin Steponaitis, an anthropology professor.
Christy Lambden, UNC’s student body president, said students were probably glad to hear Folt’s comments because they have been fed up with constant news of scandal.
“It was an acknowledgment that I think students have been waiting for for a long time,” he said.
History professor Lloyd Kramer said he was impressed with the chancellor and the provost’s presentation of data last week. But Kramer said he also was “hoping that someone would also address the question of whether we had a responsibility as a university about these non-existent courses that athletes were being sent to.”
“We’ll probably never know everything that happened. This is history, you know,” Kramer added. “I think there’s an attempt to recognize and come to terms more fully with the implications of what’s happened.”
‘Early stages of reform’
Baumgartner said the best course of action for the university is to embrace its place in the spotlight and work for change in college sports. He said he was glad to hear Folt say the campus is “still in the early stages of reform.”
Folt called the academic fraud “a betrayal” of students and said the university has already taken many steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again. “There isn’t a faculty member or a staff member or people that are part of this that don’t want to get it right,” she said.
She referenced a work group that is doing a detailed review of the processes and experiences of athletes, from admission to graduation. The group is headed by Dean and Cunningham, the athletic director.
The Willingham controversy
The university’s most recent controversy has centered on Willingham’s claims. She said she had analyzed data showing that a majority of a subset of athletes over an eight-year period could only read at elementary or middle school levels. Up to 10 percent were functionally illiterate, she has said.
University officials examined the data and last week called into question Willingham’s methodology and results. Dean called Willingham’s research “a travesty” that was unfair to athletes and the university.
The data will also be reviewed independently, the university has said.
Willingham’s study is suspended for now, while she applies to an internal review board that monitors research on human subjects.
Lowry Caudill, chairman of UNC’s Board of Trustees, said Folt, who came to Chapel Hill from Dartmouth College, is bringing a new perspective.
“A lot of what she’s dealing with was here before she got here. So she’s providing an opportunity to put fresh eyes, a fresh voice on this. And frankly I like the way she’s approaching this,” Caudill said. “We want to compete at the highest levels for athletics and academics, but we want to do it with the utmost integrity. That’s something to strive for, and everything we do here needs to be geared to getting us there.”