Retired Professors Decry Faculty Reaction on Athletics, Academics

Thirty-two retired faculty members have called out their active colleagues on what they call a collective silence during UNC’s academic irregularities involving athletics, saying in an open letter that “the failure to confront these questions suggests a faculty that has abdicated its responsibilities.” The letter said that, with few exceptions, the faculty was “altogether missing in action.”

“Two chancellors have sought in their decisions and public statements to defend the reputation of the university or at least minimize the damage while turning their backs on the issues related to the integrity of UNC as an educational institution in the service of the state,” the letter reads. “This course, guided by familiar public relations stratagems, has been too clever by half. UNC’s reputation is now in tatters and integrity more deeply in doubt than ever. South Building and the Board of Trustees seem locked in a self-defeating course and unable to find an alternative path.”

It goes on to say that a presentation last week to the trustees by six academically accomplished athletes, who are satisfied the University has treated them fairly, “was one more embarrassing exercise in avoiding the heart of the issue.”

The letter was sent Thursday to the chancellor, the provost, the dean of the College of Art and Sciences, the president of the UNC General Alumni Association and The News & Observer.

History Professor Jay Smith has consistently spoken out about the issues between academics and athletics, as has Mary Willingham, a learning specialist and counselor whose research has been one of the centers of the controversy. Madeline Levine, retired Slavic languages professor who is one of the signers of the letter, wrote a much-publicized letter in January condemning “UNC spokespersons” for “ignoring, denying, obfuscating, and redefining the serious problem we have with revenue sports and our high-profile teams.”

Otherwise, except for a handful of letters to newspapers, few others on the faculty have made public statements outside the discussions of the Faculty Council. Over recent months, individual faculty members have expressed concern privately about the issue.

In reference to Julius Nyang’oro, former chair of what was then the department of African and Afro-American studies, the letter asks: “How did a single faculty member in a single department so grossly violate fundamental professional standards for so long? In what context did this violation occur, and how widely in other departments might similar breaking or bending the rules have happened? To what degree and how detrimentally have athletes in revenue sports been exploited, and in what ways have they been neglected or betrayed as students?”

Chancellor Carol L. Folt sent the following email to N&O reporter Dan Kane:

“I welcome the perspectives of our retired faculty, but their letter appears to ignore the efforts of many deeply committed faculty, and the real progress in terms of reforms and additional oversight that Carolina has made in just the last few years. A number of these reforms have been documented and shared with the Southern Association of College and Schools Commission on Colleges, and are available publicly. And more are underway.

“I think the letter-writers would be pleased to know that every person I have met at Carolina cares about the integrity of this wonderful University; I am encouraged daily to continue to drive reforms forward. In my first nine months as Chancellor, I have seen a faculty and administration willing to accept scrutiny, seek answers and devote time and energy toward meaningful change. More than 100 faculty and administrators are serving on committees that are working on these issues, including the Student-Athlete Academic Initiative Working Group, the Faculty Executive Committee, the Faculty Athletics Committee and the Committee on Special Talent. I also see a campus filled with students who want to share their own experiences, many of them positive, and to be a part of the solution. Their voices count, too.

“The progress we are making today is very real.”

The retired faculty call for department chairs and others to “help broaden the conversation by creating a web of communications essential to convening a larger forum.” This, they say, should be independent of the Faculty Council, the faculty’s governing body.

Previous investigations have uncovered irregularities in more than 50 classes, all in the former department of African and Afro-American studies (often referred to as AFAM) and many of which had been taught in summer sessions by Nyang’oro. In the period starting with summer 2007 to summer 2009, nine classes containing 59 students were found to be “aberrant” — showing, in the words of a report, “no evidence that the faculty member listed as instructor of record or any other faculty member actually supervised the course and graded the work, although grade rolls were signed and submitted.”

In 43 other courses, instructors were found to have provided an assignment and graded paper “but engaged in limited or no classroom or other instructional contact with the student.”

Investigations of records have found that in summer 2011, 18 football players and one former player had made up the entire enrollment of an AFAM class that was opened for enrollment on the eve of the session’s start and that Nyang’oro did not show up to teach. Further, academic advisers for the football program knew that despite the course listing as lecture-format, there would be an assigned term paper but no instruction.

In the decade starting in 2001, athletes were found to have accounted for 45 percent of the suspect classes. Athletes make up less than 5 percent of undergraduates.

Nyang’oro retired in July 2012 and has had nothing to say publicly about the academics/athletics matter. He is scheduled for a court appearance April 29.

Now, Kenneth L. Wainstein, a 19-year veteran of the U.S. Justice Department, has been retained by the University to look deeper into questions about the relationship between athletics and academics. Wainstein will have access to information acquired by Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall ’82 (AB, ’85 JD), and Wainstein has been charged by Folt to pursue the matter wherever the facts take him.

The former department of African and Afro-American studies is now the department of African, African-American and diaspora studies.

Nyang’oro’s longtime department administrator, Deborah Crowder ’75, is the only other person in the department who has been implicated in the irregularities. She is retired now and is said to be cooperating with Wainstein’s probe.

UNC administrators have undertaken a series of what they call comprehensive reforms of the relationship between academics and athletics and its impact on the college experience for athletes. Provost James Dean and Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham are co-chairs of a 10-member Student-Athlete Academic Initiative working group that is studying athletes from recruitment to when they leave UNC, with a goal of developing processes to ensure that the academic mission is consistent with athletics requirements.

An outside consultant to the working group is evaluating what’s believed to be the first comprehensive review of some 70 reform recommendations from several investigations toward deciding which ones to add to those already put in place.

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