After academic scandal, UNC officials still working to rethink support structure for athletes

Officials at North Carolina are working to reshape how the school works with athletes on everything from providing academic support to instructing them about following NCAA rules.

The goal is to avoid another scandal like the one that has shaken the school for the past three years.

The group of academics and athletics officials have spent the year reviewing policies in 22 different areas connected to the lives of UNC athletes. Led by provost James W. Dean Jr., and athletic director Bubba Cunningham, the group is looking for new ideas, ways to improve existing procedures and whether changes implemented since the trouble began are working.

"I continue to believe this is something we have to do," said Dean, the school's top academic officer. "And I think in some ways, other schools are probably going to want to do something similar for the same reason we're doing it: to make sure there's not some element of what we're doing that we haven't ever really thought carefully about, that doesn't really withstand scrutiny."

The group has met 10 times since starting in the fall and is scheduled to work into September. After completing its work, it will present recommendations to faculty groups to review and make them public.

One example will be to widely test incoming athletes to assess to assess their learning levels or potential disabilities during spring campus visits instead of waiting until summer. The school began earlier testing of some athletes this spring.

In addition, Bradley Bethel, a UNC learning specialist who works with football players, is developing a summer program to improve college-level reading and critical-thinking skills for incoming athletes — many of whom might need that help in staying eligible.

"Based on those kinds of interactions I've had ... it seems to me like they really are scrutinizing and looking at everything very meticulously," said Bethel, who has a blog defending UNC's academic support system for athletes.

The group was created in the aftermath an NCAA investigation into the football program in 2010 that later expanded to fraud in an academic department popular with athletes — most notably, lecture classes that did not meet and were treated as independent studies requiring only a research paper at the end of the semester.

The findings spawned a series of internal and external reviews, and reforms. Critics have said the "paper classes" were designed to keep athletes eligible. An investigation led by former Gov. Jim Martin found no evidence of athletic department involvement.

The group has compiled recommendations from those reports in areas including improving the admissions process for recruits, doing more to teach compliance with NCAA rules and better monitoring athletes clustering in majors.

Group members have an open forum in meetings to brainstorm on topics. Earlier this month, that discussion reached all the way to whether an athlete or coach should invite faculty to a practice or game as a guest.

French history professor Jay Smith, a critic of the school's handling of the scandal, attended earlier group meetings. He is "waiting skeptically" for its recommendations while saying it appears to be doing "busy work."

"For now, I'm willing to suspend judgment," Smith said. "I am eager to see what they come up with. ... If they come out with some series of bold statements and point UNC and perhaps even the national configuration of Division I institutions in a new direction, then I will applaud them.

"But I continue to find puzzling the unwillingness of so many people at this university — including people on that committee — to address head-on the evidence of corruption that we've seen rise to the surface thanks to reporting for the most part over the past three years."

The group includes admissions director Stephen Farmer, director of academic support for athletes Michelle Brown, compliance director Vince Ille, faculty athletic representative Lissa Broome, assistant anthropology professor Anna Agbe-Davies and associate sociology professor Andrew Perrin, among others.

Cunningham, who arrived in 2011, said the group's diverse makeup is important because "we've all got a hand in the responsibility here."

"We've had mistakes. I mean, they're well-documented mistakes," he said. "Started with NCAA issues ... but what it led to was internal breakdowns of supervision. Were we paying attention to classes we were offering? Were we paying attention to the number of students attracted to certain classes and why would they be attracted to those classes? We just weren't paying attention as closely as we should've been."


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