Amid an academic scandal involving athletics, the remnants of an NCAA investigation and multiple leadership changes, a key measure of academic progress for football and men’s basketball at UNC-Chapel Hill has dropped to a new low.
In the latest statistics from the NCAA, the men’s basketball team, at one point the best in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a near perfect score, is in eighth place. The football team never ranked higher than seventh, but it had managed to stay out of the ACC’s cellar until last year, when it had a score so low it is just a few points away from losing postseason eligibility.
Both teams scored their all-time lows on a measure the NCAA launched in 2003 – the Academic Progress Rate – to try to ensure that athletes are getting a meaningful education. The rate is built upon how many athletes on sports scholarships stay in school and remain academically eligible to play. It represents the four most recent years of academic performance and retention.
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The new scores for UNC’s revenue-producing teams are not in line with UNC’s profile. It is one of the nation’s top public universities, and officials there have long boasted that its athletes succeed on the field and in the classroom.
UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham and other officials declined to be interviewed.
Steve Kirschner, a UNC athletic department spokesman, said in an email message the declines in four-year APR scores have little to do with academic performance. He said, for example, that the basketball team had only lost three of 122 possible academic eligibility points during the past five years.
“We are constantly working to improve our students’ level of academic achievement,” Kirschner said. “The APR is just one measuring tool that is used to look at academic performance. The majority of our programs exceeded their respective sports’ national average in the APR. The coaches, students and staff in those programs that were not are working hard to meet that standard in the future.”
Last year, basketball coach Roy Williams blamed his team’s declining score on three students who had transferred from the program and a fourth he kicked off the team. The football program pointed to an NCAA investigation into improper financial benefits from agents and improper academic help from a tutor that caused several players to be suspended or dismissed.
Transfers and non-academic dismissals can trigger big swings in APR scores, especially in basketball because there are fewer scholarship players. Roughly half of the total points a school receives simply come from keeping academically sound athletes on the team until they graduate or turn pro.
During the years UNC’s basketball and football teams scored well on the APR, athletes were flocking to African studies classes that were supposed to include lectures but actually never met. Students were only required to turn in a research paper at the end. The department also had dozens more independent studies that had little oversight.
An analysis done by former Gov. Jim Martin and a national accounting firm, Baker Tilly, found more than 200 suspected or confirmed no-show classes with more than 500 suspicious grade changes dating back to the mid-90s. Their review of courses from 2001 to 2011 found that athletes took up nearly 45 percent of the enrollments; they make up less than five percent of the undergraduate student body.
Martin has said there’s little evidence to show that the research papers were actually read by an instructor, but everyone who took them generally received good grades. The average grade was just under an A minus.
The university has blamed the scandal on two individuals, the former African studies department chairman Julius Nyang’oro and his longtime department manager, Deborah Crowder. Nyang’oro was forced into retirement last year, while Crowder retired in September 2009.
A tougher standard
Data that UNC gave to Martin and Baker Tilly about athletes’ grade point averages was not mentioned in their report, but was later provided to The News & Observer in a public records request.
It shows that athletes placed in a remedial writing class had a grade point average in the range of a C plus by the time they completed their fourth year on campus. These are often the heavily recruited athletes for football and men’s basketball who get admitted despite academic scores far below that of a typical UNC student, and many would likely have struggled to remain eligible for athletics without the bogus classes.
Mary Willingham, a former learning specialist in the academic support program for athletes, has said counselors steered these athletes to no-show classes to help keep them eligible to play sports.
Martin’s investigation found the no-show classes were at their height in the middle of the previous decade. There were 33 confirmed or suspected no-show classes in the 2006-07 school year.
Three years later, in the 2009-10 school year and after Crowder had retired, the no-show classes had dwindled to one class. Three more would be offered the following year before the scandal became public. By then, the basketball team was no longer enrolling in the no-show classes or independent studies within the African studies department.
Athletic officials have said the players developed other interests; Willingham has said the athletic support program hired a new counselor for basketball players who did not want any part of the no-show classes.
The NCAA also tracks academic progress for athletes in the course of one year. Those annual scores show the university’s men’s basketball and football teams took dramatic plunges as the classes were ending.
In 2008-09, the records show the basketball team had a perfect score of 1000. The next year, it dropped to 961. In 2010-11, the score was a perilously low 909 before climbing back to a 959 last year. Football had a similar dip, plunging from a 953 in 2008-09 to an 895 before rising to a 933 in 2011-12.
The substandard scores at UNC from two years ago could put both programs in jeopardy. Tougher standards that begin with the 2013-14 academic year could trigger a postseason ban for teams below a 930 on the four-year score.
The NCAA has ruled several programs ineligible for postseason play on the basis of their APRs. The most prominent: the Connecticut men’s basketball team, which was ruled out of this spring’s championship tournament.
Improvement at NCSU
UNC is not the only school to go through big swings in the APR reports. N.C. State University is on the upswing this year, with four-year scores of 984 in basketball and a 947 in football. That’s because the annual scores for basketball rose 53 points to a 1000, while the annual score for football jumped 47 points to a 990.
Carrie Leger, the academic support director for athletes at NCSU, said the coaching change from Sidney Lowe to Mark Gottfried led to more stability on the team, allowing for improvement after departures following Lowe’s firing. The football team, she said, had settled under coach Tom O’Brien in his fifth year, but now that he has been fired, Leger worries that could trigger turmoil for next year and beyond.
“Coaching changes are a significant factor in the multi-year rate,” she said.
Duke’s scores for basketball and football have consistently remained at or near the top of the ACC. Officials there could not be reached.