The failures of Penn State leaders in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal are in a league of their own. But the separate and sometimes dominating culture of athletics at universities is not.
That separate athletic culture was highlighted in last week’s 13-page report from three faculty members at UNC Chapel Hill in the wake of an academic fraud scandal involving the school’s football team. The scandal resulted in the forced retirement of the chairman of the African and Afro-American studies department. The scandal followed another one involving the football team and academic and ethical misconduct that led to NCAA sanctions and the firing of the head football coach.
The report from a special subcommittee that the UNC Faculty Executive Committee formed called UNC “a campus with two cultures.” And though it said new head football coach Larry Fedora and his staff had a “well-articulated appreciation of the demands of the cultures of athletics and academics that have to be internalized by our student-athletes,” the report raised serious concerns about that “complicated relationship” and how it can work (and already has) to the detriment of students and the university.
Indeed, the report zeroed in on existing “conflicts and gaps created by the two cultures.” Chief among them is this:
Academic advisers for student-athletes were housed in both academic and athletic buildings. But the preponderance were in the athletic building, though their role was mostly to be ensuring students’ “compliance with NCAA eligibility requirements and progress towards degrees.” In practice though, it was “more complicated,” according to the report. And those advisers, whose salaries were paid by the athletics department, reported to both the academic dean and to the athletics department. The report rightly said this “reporting system is ambiguous, lacks clarity, and is likely not to be very productive.”
The system also usurped the role of the advisers in the academic building, whose focus is more directly on ensuring student-athletes get advice and guidance that is in their best academic interests. In fact, the report notes, “some student-athletes have complained … about receiving conflicting advice” from two advising groups.
The report lays out several additional concerns. Among them:
• The “need for institutional transparency regarding athletics”;
• That even though the school has “increased efforts to discourage candidates (for admission) that represent exceptionally high risks in terms of their ability to succeed academically at UNC … there is a widening preparation gap between some groups of student-athletes and other matriculated students”;
• The feeling among “a significant number of faculty” that “revenue athletics are seriously compromising the academic mission of the university.”
The group made several recommendations, including providing clear lines of accountability for academic advisers, oversight of department chairs and a watchdog over independent courses and grades. It also recommended an outside review of the relationship between athletics and academics at the university.
UNC leaders would do well to follow the advice, particularly if they truly agree with UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp, who took too long to act on some of these issues but acknowledges the integrity of the university has been seriously threatened. Of the sham classes students took, he said: “None of these students in these classes got the quality of educational experience that we expect Carolina students to get, and that is absolutely not OK.”
He is absolutely correct.