UNC Scandal

Dozens of reforms at UNC, but can big-time athletics and rigorous academics really mix?

Jay Smith, UNC-Chapel Hill history professor and outspoken critic of how UNC has handled the academic-athletic scandal

VIDEO: Smith talks about the effectiveness of dozens of reforms UNC has introduced in the wake of the scandal and his reform group's unsuccessful efforts to obtain data from UNC officials to track the academics of special-admit athletes.
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VIDEO: Smith talks about the effectiveness of dozens of reforms UNC has introduced in the wake of the scandal and his reform group's unsuccessful efforts to obtain data from UNC officials to track the academics of special-admit athletes.

In the five years since a football player’s transcript revealed an 18-year scheme of bogus classes, UNC-Chapel Hill has ushered in dozens of reforms that will make it virtually impossible for anyone to create such classes again.

Professors are limited to teaching two independent studies per semester. Where faculty members were once only scrutinized for teaching too few classes, they are now being checked for offering too many. Every so often, an academic administrator pokes his or her nose in a classroom to make sure it’s meeting.

UNC has a new director for “ethics education and policy management.” Its Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes is now directly under the supervision of the provost. A new committee takes up issues athletes face.

Virtually every administrator, faculty member and staffer associated with the scandal has either retired, been fired, stepped down or taken a job elsewhere.

But at a forum on campus earlier this month, it became clear that no matter how hard UNC may try to keep academics at the forefront of an athlete’s experience, the need to succeed at Power 5 conference sports presents the temptation to cut corners to survive academically.

The topic: “How can we help student-athletes who seek more time for academics and student life?” Among the participants: a men’s basketball player, a women’s lacrosse player, a fencing team member and a former football player.

All four said they treasured their athletic and academic experiences at UNC.

“I think UNC is a priceless experience and I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” said Maggie Auslander, the lacrosse player and a senior.

But each of them spoke of the difficulties juggling athletics and academics:

▪ Auslander said she’d be interested if athletes could cut back to part-time status as students during competition.

▪ Ezra Baeli-Wang, a senior fencer, said he has little opportunity to meet with faculty outside of class because their office hours conflict with practice time.

▪ Deunta Williams, a former football player who graduated in 2010, said Thursday night games out of town meant players with morning classes the next day got as little as two hours of sleep.

▪ Justin Jackson, a junior and basketball player, talked about the difficultly of taking tests after weeknight games.

All of them talked about schedules that had to be built around athletics, even in the off-season. Some doubted that required cutbacks on practice and other preparation for sports would result in athletes actually following them.

This is a problem at nearly every Division I school, as universities give up more academic time to athletic competitions that bring in millions of dollars through television contracts, particularly in the revenue sports of football and men’s basketball. It’s not uncommon for college football games to be televised five nights a week as the regular season progresses.

Support from Folt

UNC lists more than 80 reforms in the wake of the scandal, which involved hundreds of independent studies and lecture classes in the African studies department that had no professor and offered a high grade if a paper was turned in. The former department chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, and his office manager, Deborah Crowder, were behind the classes.

“Those 80 reforms – those things we put in place – I’ll put them up against anyone, for what is important and what is in place,” Chancellor Carol Folt said at a recent Faculty Council meeting.

But those reforms don’t supersede NCAA requirements that allow schools to admit students who will likely struggle academically and prohibit athletes from being paid beyond a stipend that covers the full cost of attendance. Plus, most basketball players and nearly all football players have to spend time in college before they can be eligible to be drafted, creating a dynamic that promotes cheating, critics say.

Moving toward such reforms as a reduction in practice time or automatically holding freshmen out of competition would put UNC at a disadvantage against other teams. Such attempts to disarm UNC in the college sports arms race have failed, even in the fallout of the fake-class scheme.

Folt and other UNC officials who are in charge of those 80 reforms turned down repeated interview requests. They include Provost James W. Dean Jr.; law professor Lissa Broome, UNC’s faculty athletics representative; and Joy Renner, a radiologic science professor who just finished a term leading the Faculty Athletics Committee.

Jay Smith, a history professor and outspoken critic of the way UNC officials have handled the scandal, said a reform group of faculty he put together five years ago sought data for more than a year that would show how successful the reforms have been in ensuring that athletes in revenue sports have the same access to a genuine education as nonathletes.

The group sought information on grades and classes for athletes who had been specially admitted because their academic profiles fell below UNC’s standards.

This month, he received a response from Renner saying the Faculty Athletics Committee was still discussing whether to collect such information.

“It is simply disgraceful that the (committee) refuses to collect and disclose the kinds of data that would enable the faculty to assess the academic experiences of the different athlete sub-populations,” Smith said. “If they’re not interested in looking closely, why do we even have” a committee?

VIDEO: Smith talks about the effectiveness of dozens of reforms UNC has introduced in the wake of the scandal and his reform group's unsuccessful efforts to obtain data from UNC officials to track the academics of special-admit athletes.

Stopping whistleblowers?

In other ways, the university is maintaining support of athletics. Leaders have given college sports watchdogs few opportunities to serve in academic leadership or on key faculty committees.

One of the changes could have a chilling effect on whistleblowers. UNC’s registrar two years ago added a monitoring system for academic records that triggers an alert when student academic records are accessed. It’s called “Splunk.”

While the tracking system helps identify suspect courses and professors, it can also find someone within the university without authorized access who might check a student’s record out of a concern for cheating.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was extensively investigated by the NCAA for a system of fake classes taken by thousands of students, roughly half of them athletes, that spanned three decades.

Staff writer Jane Stancill contributed to this report.

Key UNC reforms

Professors and instructors

▪ Are tracked for teaching more courses than they can reasonably handle.

▪ Can no longer teach more than two independent studies per semester.

▪ Will be checked if a course has no classroom listed.

▪ Are subject to spot checks of their classrooms.

Students

▪ Have to have a minimum 3.0 GPA and be African studies majors to take independent studies in that department.

▪ Have to sign a learning contract with their professor for independent studies.

▪ Need a dean’s signature to change their grade.

Athletes

▪ Have to meet with academic advisers who work with all students at least once a semester to select classes. Previously, some were relying on academic counselors in the athletic support program.

▪ Are no longer tutored by undergraduate students except in cases of “specific content knowledge.”

▪ Incoming freshmen or transfers must participate in an academic program that requires weekly academic plans to help them stay on track.

Administrators

▪ Department chairs are reviewed every five years before reappointment.

▪ Registrar must flag for review all courses that have at least 20 percent enrollment of athletes (25 percent in the summer sessions).

▪ Provost now oversees the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes.

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