Academic Advisers for Athletics Grapple With UNC Controversy

Jacksonville, Fla. — It’s been a challenging couple of years for the people who oversee academic support for big-time athletes, as high-profile problems have cast aspects of their profession in a negative light.

Late last week, academic advisers from around the country gathered here for their annual convention. Many defended the industry even as it faces renewed questions about the appropriate definition of academic fraud and whether the NCAA should have an increased role in enforcing it.

Those questions took on fresh meaning on Saturday, as The News & Observer revealed newfound ties between advisers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a former leader of its department of African and Afro-American studies, who departed last year amid allegations of impropriety.

According to e-mails obtained by the Raleigh newspaper, members of North Carolina’s academic-support staff negotiated with Julius Nyang’oro, the department’s former chairman, to schedule a no-show class.

Athletics advisers also offered the professor free football tickets for himself and his family, and a chance to watch a game from the sidelines—practices that are frowned upon in this industry.

It’s unclear whether the latest developments—which follow reports detailing UNC players’ enrolling in aberrant courses, unauthorized grade changes for players, and forged faculty signatures—could lead to NCAA penalties.

At least two investigations are still under way in Chapel Hill, including one by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. So far, the NCAA has stayed largely silent about whether it sees violations.

But a former president of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics said that the e-mails suggested academic impropriety.

“This case clearly meets the standard of academic fraud in athletics,” said Gerald Gurney, a former head of academic support for athletes at the University of Oklahoma. “These e-mails clearly show that institutional staff members were directly involved in that department offering these easy courses that affected the eligibility of athletes.”

Phil Hughes, who oversees academic support for players at the University of Michigan, said it is difficult to draw conclusions in cases involving potential academic fraud. “But if athletics is exerting influence for the purpose of academic advantage or privilege, then that is inappropriate.”

Whether the NCAA will find violations is another matter. One veteran director of academic services said the association is ill equipped to deal with those issues, in part because it lacks authority over institutional curricula.

“It’s not a deficiency—they’re just not sure where to go or who to talk to, and it’s hard to discern what kind of violation there may or may not have been,” said this person, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution by the NCAA. “They’re not empowered to pass judgment.”

Despite his certainty that violations occurred, Mr. Gurney does not expect the NCAA to hand down penalties in Chapel Hill.

“I can assure you that the enforcement staff and Mark Emmert want the problem to go away,” he said on Sunday, referring to the NCAA’s president. “They want this to be an isolated academic issue within the institution and not a violation.”

In a session here on Friday, NCAA leaders spoke to academic advisers about their interest in exploring the definition of academic fraud. They sought feedback over what should constitute an academic violation in athletics, and asked if institutions wanted the NCAA to be more involved in monitoring potential improprieties.

Few people here said they wanted that. But the fact that the question has even come up says something about the increased scrutiny this field is getting.

If anything, academic advisers want a chance to tell their side of the story. They rarely get that chance, some said, as athletic directors often prevent them from talking to the news media.

The questions at North Carolina and elsewhere have painted an unfair portrait of the industry and the good work that many people in it do, said Mr. Gurney.

“Not only have we taken these hits, but they are clearly unfair to the 1,300 members and probably 3,000 total members in academic support,” he said. “These people work very hard every day remediating and assisting athletes—and we need to hear more of those stories.”

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