Sunday, October 14, 2012

UNC-Chapel Hill, NCAA penalties, AFRI/AFAM, Fundraising, Leadership - Oh My!

After watching the UNC-Chapel Hill administration slowly but surely become a daily News and Observer headline for all the wrong reasons, I finally decided that I should voice an opinion on the comings and goings (and mostly goings they are) as well. 
To be clear, I do not believe that the happenings at UNC-Chapel Hill are unique to this university and that anything that came to light here has not happened at other universities. But the combination of so many things going wrong at the same time and the fact that local newspapers have been covering these events in regular reports and blog entries to an avid readership for more than one year and counting makes the events at UNC-CH somewhat unique. And with the latest report from the News and Observer detailing the problems  in the tutoring of athletes and their scholarly activities at UNC-Chapel Hill  - UNC players needed academic help, records show - I decided to finally publish this blog entry that was written almost a month ago.

Read more here:

Some general thoughts on scholarship athletes at UNC-Chapel Hill

So by now everyone in the USA, especially in North Carolina, will have heard about the tiny scandal that rocked the flagship university of the UNC system – the football scandal that broke more than a year ago, resulted in significant penalties for UNC and in its wake extended to a scandal involving academic fraud in at least one UNC Chapel Hill department.
Is this my first exposure to a scandal involving athletes at colleges? No, I was at another university at which watercolor painting was an extremely popular class with, you guessed it, “scholar” athletes. Back then, this also resulted in embarrassment to the University and a promise to do a better job in monitoring athletes on scholarship and ensure that the academic mission of the university was not ignored in favor of success in sports.
Only the most naïve among us will believe that university athletics is not mostly about money. Athletics, especially basketball and football, bring in big bucks for universities. Students do get scholarships in exchange for spending hours each week in practice. Even in my first year in the USA, I had been made aware that football players, especially in a state like Texas, had privileges. From staying in special dorms to getting better meal choices than the rest us, being an athlete at a university got you special treatment. It was accepted as the way it was supposed to be and I found nothing objectionable to it because money through athletics also helped the university balance its budget and keep tuition rates lower for the rest of us.

At my next university, things became a little bit darker. Football players took classes in billiards and watercolor painting and still could not finish their studies to obtain an undergraduate degree.. While most of us still thought it was hilarious to imaging football players discovering their love of the arts by filling up classes on watercolor painting, the university was embarrassed when reports of this understanding of "academic rigor" came out and promised to do a better job in ensuring that athletes on scholarships would indeed get what amounted to a basic college education.

Tutors provided for free, special exam times to not interfere with the road trip to a tournament, special sign up for classes desired by more students than slots were available. The coverage revealed that college athletics did extend to academia. Clearly athletes have to dedicate a lot of hours each week to practice, but does that excuse cheating them out of an education? Most athletes would not qualify for attendance, let alone scholarships, to most of the universities they attend were it not for the athletic ability and the promise to help the university teams reach post season events and increase news coverage as well as subsequent donations and advertising income. So even without hours spend on the practice field, many athletes will require assistance to make it in class. And there is nothing wrong with that, academic assistance is available for a number of groups on many campuses. International students may be able to enroll in special classes dealing with US history to provide them with a more meaningful class than the regular freshmen history class. Minority students may have specific academic support organizations available to them, single parents may be able to benefit from university-sponsored daycare and most universities have mental health counseling available to students. Universities are like small towns and like every local entity universities have social safety nets to help students at risk of being overburdened for a variety of reasons.
So when is the line from supporting athletes to academic fraud crossed? According to the NCAA report on the UNC football scandal, a tutor covered traffic tickets for athletes, who were allowed to accumulate significant numbers of tickets without detriment to their on campus privileges. In addition, donors and UNC staff members provided travel and other gifts to athletes. These transgressions were all listed in the initial report provided to UNC Chapel Hill and, while these offenses are serious, the academic reputation of UNC Chapel Hill was not implicated by them.
What really affected the academic reputation of UNC Chapel Hill was a secondary development that arose out of the NCAA investigation. It turned out that not watercolor painting, but the AFRI/AFAM department was offering the favorite class for athletes. And while taking a class in such a topic does not seem to be an offense at first blush, when whole courses that are supposed to be taught in lecture format never even require the students to show up for class once, the academic rigor of the classes seem questionable at best. It turned out that at least classes taught by one professor in the African-American Studies department were taken predominantly by athletes. Moreover, these same classes were known to be sympathetic to the special role of scholarship athletes.
Now we have a scandal that truly affects the academic reputation of UNC Chapel Hill. But is this scandal truly as shocking as UNC-Chapel Hill administrators want us to believe? And more importantly, is the scandal really limited to a FORMER chair of the AFRI/AFAM department and were not more people involved, some of whom may still be associated with the university?

(so far the initial post - before the chancellor resignation, advancement-gate and concerned tutors who were presented with cut and paste "original" papers by athletes)

By all accounts now, individuals were concerned about the attitude towards academics by athletes as well as the administrators. When tutors are the ones that have to raise this issue and the administrators point out that lower bars are to be expected for athletes, the priorities of a place like UNC-Chapel Hill are clear - money through athletics first, academics for athletes (and possibly everyone else) second. Because keep in mind that not just athletes enrolled in classes through AFRI/AFAM, but also a few (un)lucky regular students who were not scholarship athletes. So what about these students? Are we to believe that a different standard was applied to these students? And would that then be fair? On one hand, if truly a more rigorous standard was applied to the regular students, they likely benefited from the class and learned something. But is a differential standard between students and scholarship athletes fair, when it is understood that free tutoring, special accommodations etc are already provided to scholarship athletes to make up for the burden of them having to attend practice and roadtrips that interrupt their focus on academics. And reading in the latest report by the News and Observer that scholarship athletes were seemingly unconcerned about classes or academics in general, would it not have been better to treat the athletes identical to other students because the athletes obviously knew back then already what the rest of us are now slowly piecing together from newspaper articles and resignations at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Update 2: 
I finally decided to publish this post. Bill Friday, former chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill, died last week. I never met Mr. Friday, but by all accounts he had been concerned for quite some time about college athletics and whether academia was still being  taken important enough in college athletics. While these impressions are based on recent articles published in newspapers, I cannot help but think that Mr. Friday would agree that the victims in this situation are first and foremost the students, both regular students,who pay their way through college and end by chance end up in classes that do not meet academic goals, as well as scholarship athletes that are brought into the college environment for the sole purpose of assuring a winning record for a team and inducing alumni to donate money.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this blog are solely my own and have not been influenced by any third party.

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