Big-Money College Sports, Fake Classes, and UNC: Readers Have Their Say

Our current cover story, “No Class,” on college sports and academic fraud at the University of North Carolina, drew heavy reader reaction. The comments appear online. For those in a hurry, let me summarize the main objections and then provide excerpts from a few other noteworthy responses.

1. ‘Nothing to see here, folks, please move along.’ A number of readers thought it was unfair to single out UNC. Most Division I schools, after all, bend rules to keep some top basketball and football players academically eligible. The sponsorship of hundreds of phony classes, however, took the dark and cynical art of undermining education to new depths.

2. ‘You’re carrying water for North Carolina State.’ It’s true that some rabid Wolfpack members take unseemly pleasure in the turmoil in Chapel Hill. I can assure all concerned, though, that I have no preference among North Carolina basketball teams (and that includes Duke).

3. ‘You’re making college athletes out to be dummies, when some do quite well academically.’ My article, echoing its main subject, remedial reading instructor Mary Willingham, emphasized that most UNC athletes succeed in class. Problems arise with a subset of football and basketball players who are recruited for their physical prowess, even though school officials know (or suspect) that they lack basic skills needed to thrive academically at the college level. This tricky situation was horribly exacerbated at UNC when tutors steered at-risk undergraduates into lecture classes that didn’t meet and “independent study” arrangements with a strong whiff of illegitimacy. No one is suggesting that athletes are stupid. Because of inadequate high school preparation, some need extra help to have any hope of passing college classes honestly. Bogus classes are not the solution.

Feb. 27 (Bloomberg) -- In 2012, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill educator Mary Willingham blew the whistle on a fraudulent system designed to pass athletes without educating them. The university has taken some actions to correct this but Willingham says it's still not enough. (Source: Bloomberg)

Some readers took a broad view of the issues raised at UNC and offered reactions that deserve consideration. Anthony Walton, a writer-in-residence at Bowdoin College whose research interests include African-American literature, reflected on racial aspects of the scandal and that the fake classes were offered in UNC’s black-studies department:

“A discipline that is often derided as ‘victim studies’ and ‘irrelevant’ was deliberately targeted as the focus of the scheme. … We need to see beyond just the athletes and the campus, into the families and communities that are impacted by this. For a number of the families of these youngsters—and they are youngsters—attending UNC represented the chance for them to achieve purchase in American society. It was an opportunity for them that may have been long in coming and may not come again. I think of some of the parents—not all of them, but certainly a significant percentage—putting their children in the hands of the University of North Carolina, a school theoretically charged with making the world a better place, thinking that they’d ‘made it’ when in fact they’d handed them to a system as corrupt and exploitative as sharecropping, and one that had no interest in their ultimate well-being.”

Madeline Levine, a retired UNC professor of Slavic literature who served as an interim dean of the university’s main faculty, saw the misdeeds at her beloved former professional home as the culmination of educational deficits reaching back to early childhood:

“Partly what we have seen at UNC is a reflection and consequence of the lionizing of athletes in American culture; partly it is a result of the power of the NCAA and the lure of big money from alumni and from television networks attracted only to consistently winning teams. But it is also—in the case of those students who were brought to UNC without the academic wherewithal to succeed unless someone else cheated for them—the terribly sad consequence of a failure to educate talented athletes from grade school on.”

Andrew Dykers, a member of the UNC class of 1995, offered a creative suggestion for how to address the situation of top athletes who need remedial help in the classroom:

“Rather than basing NCAA eligibility on the current sliding scale of SAT and GPA scores (which is ripe for manipulation at the high school level), universities should instead meet academically challenged athletes ‘where they are’ by offering a Core Competency degree. Such a degree would emphasize reading, writing, arithmetic, and computer literacy. … Obviously, those student-athletes performing well enough academically to pursue B.A. and B.S. degrees would continue down that path, just as they do today. Students who successfully complete a Core Competency degree (and subsequent SAT requirements) may be granted admission into their university’s B.A. or B.S. programs, but scholarship benefits would end the same as they do today. In other words, the academically challenged athlete who participates in a Core Competency program might not complete a B.A. or B.S. degree before their scholarship expires, but they would be attaining real skills in an honest fashion as well as moving closer to their B.A. or B.S. degree. One might say this idea turns academically esteemed universities into remedial institutions, but a Core Competency degree would establish fundamental academic honesty while facilitating athletic opportunity. It’s a straightforward solution to a real problem.”

Let the debate continue in a spirit of good faith and candor.

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