Faculty needs to stand up for UNC-CH's academic mission

While it is encouraging to see the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill engaged in a dialogue about the Wainstein report, it’s frustrating that some faculty members see this as some sort of intellectual exercise.

Rather than jawboning the issue to death, faculty members should be strong and united behind a simple principle: The university must fix and hereafter protect the integrity of the academic mission no matter what the cost of that principle may be to the athletics program. Period.

Instead, some faculty members who attended a recent meeting to discuss the report wondered whether it’s possible to bring the athletics beast, a multimillion-dollar enterprise, under control. Others blamed the academic scandal involving athletics on a culture that values winning above everything, suggesting the cause is too pervasive at UNC-CH and elsewhere to eliminate.

Faculty rebuke

The faculty’s lack of protest and action as the decades-long problem with phony classes began to emerge was appropriately challenged in April by some esteemed former faculty members. More than 30 of them signed a letter to The News & Observer stating in part that the current faculty seemed to have shirked its obligation to speak out.

“The failure to confront these questions suggests a faculty that has abdicated its responsibilities,” the retired professors wrote.

That was an extraordinary rebuke, and should have gotten the attention of faculty members and administrators alike, but it made just a ripple.

There is a sad irony in the faculty’s role in the scandal. Many faculty members who participated in meetings about athletics are tenured, their jobs protected. But the one person who courageously spoke out first and foremost about the academic abuses was Mary Willingham, a former academic adviser well down the totem pole of those who teach at UNC-CH. The response from some of her colleagues in education was criticism, and perhaps even worse, silence.

Work called ‘unworthy’

After Willingham told CNN that her research found some athletes reading and writing at an elementary school level, UNC Provost Jim Dean attacked the quality of her work.

“Using this data set to say that our students can’t read is a travesty and unworthy of this university,” he told a faculty meeting in January, “These claims have been unfair to the students, unfair to the admissions officers, unfair to the university.”

Dean owes Willingham an apology, as does Chancellor Carol Folt, who stood with Dean at that meeting. Willingham did not have the job protections that full-time senior faculty have, and yet she stood up and spoke truth.

Kenneth Wainstein, the Washington attorney who led a definitive probe of phony classes often taken by athletes, certified the extent and depth of the academic fraud that alarmed Willingham and drove her to speak out.

Now some faculty members are hedging on what stance they should take to take. They wonder if they have a role in setting academic standards for athletes or the power to make a difference. They do and they should.

In responding to the report, the faculty should now be as assertive as it was previously passive. It should insist that breaks for athletes be eliminated, that coaches be held accountable and that all faculty members fulfill their duty to be guardians of the university’s academic integrity.