Cooperation between academics, athletics is ‘two-way street’
“We didn’t live up to our reputation,” Chancellor Holden Thorp told University trustees last December.
That was just before former North Carolina Gov. Jim Martin issued the results of his exhaustive independent investigation into academic problems associated with courses in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies.
That failure, Thorp suggested, stemmed from the pride that “we always did things the right way.” And that led to complacency and the failure to ask the hard questions that should have been asked.
Since the NCAA football investigation and campus academic investigations began nearly three years ago, a growing number of faculty members have been actively engaged in working with administrators to develop new systems and processes to prevent similar problems from happening again.
That same faculty engagement must continue in the future, Faculty Chair Jan Boxill told the Faculty Council earlier this month.
Three people who have been working toward that goal are Director of Athletics Bubba Cunningham and faculty members Joy Renner and Lissa Broome. Renner, from the Department of Allied Health Sciences, chairs the Faculty Council’s Faculty Athletics Committee (FAC). Broome, from the School of Law, is the Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR) to the ACC and NCAA; she also is a former FAC chair and was an elected committee member for 14 years.
Recently, they spoke about efforts already under way and where the University needs to go from here.
In January, the athletics department announced a strategic plan focusing on the need to “educate and inspire through athletics.” What are your aspirations for our student-athletes?
Cunningham: First and foremost, we are an educational institution, so we want to attract students who are some of the best and brightest in the country academically and athletically. We want athletics to be part of the collegiate experience for all students, and be something that unifies everyone who loves Carolina, including the student body, faculty, staff and alumni. We want the students who participate in athletics to excel competitively and, even more important, be outstanding students who earn their degree. (The strategic plan is posted at go.unc.edu/Dc7r3.)
Renner: Our goal for student-athletes is to have the same academic experience as every other student on this campus, and that requires both athletics and academics working together. On the academic side, that means doing some planning to build more flexibility into the delivery of some majors. And that has already started to happen.
The School of Education, for instance, has worked very closely with the FAC to make an education major possible for some student-athletes by finding ways to resolve student teaching requirements with student-athlete schedule commitments. This is a good example of both sides working together.
How has the role of the Faculty Athletics Committee changed through the years?
Broome: The committee has always played an important role. It is different right now in light of the NCAA investigation and the problems later identified with African and Afro-American studies.
Renner: Lissa is right. Years ago, there were not the red flags that came with the NCAA investigation. I also want to remind everyone that the University investigated more than the NCAA did and we were the ones who found some things we were not happy with and reported them.
It sounds as though the historical cooperation between many faculty members and the athletics department has taken on greater urgency in the face of the internal and external investigations.
Broome: Joy walked into the firestorm during all these investigations by addressing the questions some faculty members had about whether some of our student-athletes belonged here. That really is a very serious concern, and she understood we had to address it head on. We have to admit students we believe can be successful, and once we’ve admitted them, we need to support them and ensure that they get whatever resources we can legitimately provide so they can be successful academically.
Joy has really done a great job communicating with the faculty and using monthly reports to Faculty Council to address concerns as they develop. That, in turn, has led all of us to communicate better, and more, with each other than perhaps we have in the past.
Renner: I went into this role very, very cautiously because of all the conversations happening both on and off this campus and other places. I am not cautious any more. I am boldly moving forward, but that has a whole lot to do with Bubba Cunningham and our chancellor. I met with them early on and I said, ‘This is what I am about. The faculty are going to be very intrusive and very involved in all of the issues this year.’
I told them I had to be able to trust them 100 percent, and the first time I didn’t trust them I wouldn’t be chair of FAC anymore. I am still here. It’s been a wonderful experience in terms of the openness and the sharing of ideas. I have not been denied any of the information I have requested or had anybody refuse to speak to me.
A recent FAC report focused on the student-athletes who have been admitted under the “special talent” clause. Why are such reports needed?
Renner: I receive questions about this specific group, but I want to explain that we have a broader goal to improve the academic profile of all 160 student-athletes admitted each year. At the same time, we need to take special care with the relatively small number who are admitted under this clause.
In the 1990s, the number of student-athletes admitted under the clause was in the mid-30s. Last fall, 16 student-athletes were admitted under the clause – down from 23 in each of the two previous years. Although we want the number of specially admitted students to decrease, we are even more interested in ensuring that these students succeed once they are here. All 16 admitted last fall are on track to have grade-point averages above 2.0.
(Steve Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions, explained that each year the University enrolls roughly 160 recruited student-athletes under the “special talent” clause of the Board of Trustees policy on admissions. A relatively small number of these students are admitted based on review and recommendation by the Advisory Committee on Undergraduate Admissions Subcommittee on Special Talent. Farmer discussed the admission process for these students in a Nov. 24, 2012, point-of-view piece, posted on academicreview.unc.edu/news.)
Lissa, you serve on the Subcommittee on Special Talent that makes recommendations on admissions. How does that process work?
Broome: This committee works closely with people in admissions and the athletics department to work through issues about student-athletes who do not meet the high academic profile of the Carolina student body. A key question we wrestle with is determining whether we think they can be successful and should be offered an opportunity to become students here at UNC.
It is realistic for us to ask coaches what contribution the student will make to the team, and we factor that into the equation. At the same time, the central question is whether these student-athletes can succeed academically. It doesn’t do anybody any good to admit a student-athlete if he or she can’t be successful as a student because they won’t be eligible to compete.
Cunningham: I couldn’t agree more. The cooperation and collaboration with both Lissa and Joy has been great and is critical. We are going to bring in 160 or so new students each year and some of them are going to exceed the academic profile of the average first-year student, but some others are not. Our challenge is to find the right mix of students who can be successful in the classroom as well as helping their respective teams compete at a high level.
There is no magic formula for doing that because, as Joy has said, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. A lot of students look the same on paper coming out of high school but everyone has a different experience. That is what the stats show academically with the small cohort of students admitted under the special clause. They all come in at some risk, yet one student might struggle to do well, while another will thrive in this highly competitive academic environment. There has been no direct link statistically with regard to academic achievement in the students with special talents who have been admitted.
The trick is to find out which students will do the work to be successful academically as well as which ones are going to become great college athletes. Michael Jordan did not come into Carolina as he went out. Everyone knew he was going to be good, but no one knew how good. The fact is he worked hard to become the greatest player ever. Not everyone is going to become Michael Jordan, but we want to attract those young people who will put in the time and effort to improve in both areas.
What can we do to ensure that we maintain academic integrity?
Broome: We can’t assume everything is OK. We also have to instill in the student-athletes and in our colleagues that everyone has responsibility. The student-athletes have to comport themselves with academic integrity in all that they do in their course work, and the faculty have to treat everyone in their courses fairly. If everybody does what they are supposed to do, then ‘trust but verify’ is going to be a very easy exercise. But we still need to go through that exercise.
Renner: As Lissa said, it’s a two-way street. The role of every faculty member is to educate, challenge and support our students academically, including our student-athletes. That means providing equal opportunity and willingness to sometimes find alternative activities and assessments to accommodate their other commitments. The role of athletics is to respect and support in every way possible the academic commitment of each team’s students by altering practice and other commitments to accommodate the students’ course requirements.
Chancellor Thorp has invited Hunting Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, to campus this spring to continue the conversation about the proper role of intercollegiate athletics in higher education. What do you hope will come out of that visit?
Cunningham: The question is what is the role of Division I intercollegiate athletics today and how does it fit in American higher education. College athletics have grown dramatically in the last 20 years, particularly on the financial side, and that has created additional challenges for the universities. So what is the role today and moving forward? We have been wrestling with that issue for a long time. The Rawlings’ visit will present an opportunity to reflect not only on what has happened, but also to project what the future might look like.
Renner: I think it will frame the bigger conversation that I hope our campus will get to shortly. We have done all our fact gathering about what went wrong and putting systems in place to prevent problems of this magnitude from happening again in the future. That bigger conversation focuses on who and what we are in Division I collegiate athletics. We need to be able to say, ‘This is who we are,’ openly and publicly. That’s the conversation I look forward to hearing.