Dec 112012

Published: December 11, 2012

Our Views

Caution lights at UNC-CH over no-show classes

Was it a subject those up the administrative ladder at UNC-Chapel Hill simply didn’t want to discuss? Were there fears that powerful coaches might be offended? Why were deans and associate deans in the multiple layers of administration not talking to each other about academics and athletes?

These are among the questions raised by reports from The News & Observer’s Dan Kane on the troubled conflict between the missions of athletics and academics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There are now four investigations ongoing about various aspects of that relationship, including the most high-profile one, headed by former Gov. Jim Martin and an outside auditing firm.

Martin’s mission is in part to examine how it came to be that the Department of African and Afro-American Studies happened to offer athletes what appeared to be special treatment in independent studies courses, which normally are designed for good students capable of doing rigorous academic work on their own. The classes require no lectures; students study and write a paper at semester’s end. But as earlier N&O reports have found, athletes seemed to favor the courses and the courses and former dean Julius Nyang’oro seemed to favor them.

Initially it seemed that some football players under then-head coach Butch Davis were inclined toward such classes.

Very popular

Now Kane reports that for the first half of the last decade, those independent study classes were popular also with basketball players. Those players accounted in one year for 15 enrollments, according to university records. The year was the one in which the team won the 2005 national collegiate championship.

But two years later, those team members seemed to vanish from independent study. Kane writes that in 2006, The New York Times reported on a scandal involving Auburn University and the enrollment of athletes in independent studies. Chapel Hill officials say the decline in enrollments in independent studies there just indicates that athletes were interested in other subjects. Quite a coincidence.

Mary Willingham, a reading specialist who used to work in the academic support program that served athletes, recently told The N&O that when the basketball team changed counselors in 2009, the new adviser was alarmed by no-show, independent study courses and opposed them.

Lost on the wind

In other words, there were voices sounding, but their message seemed to be disappearing somewhere in the administrative atmosphere. James Moeser, chancellor from 2000 to 2008, said the enrollment numbers for independent studies were “excessive, and it’s not normal.” He told The N&O that such numbers demonstrated a problem, or at least indicated there might be one, and should have arrived on the desk of the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. The dean from that time period says no one came to her about independent studies.

This indicates either disinterest at several levels or a bureaucratic structure with too many people in it, hindering communication. Martin’s task ought to include answering how it happened that some people inside the university were aware of problems and potential problems, but the word never seemed to get where it needed to be.

And in the meantime, university officials would do themselves and the public a favor if they were as candid as possible, right now, about the problems and the conflicts between the academic and athletics mission instead of responding to each new disclosure with apparent confusion over how problems just didn’t get addressed. That makes for skepticism on the part of the public, the members of which, by the way, believe UNC-Chapel Hill is a great university, and one that belongs to them.


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