CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina has been in an academic crisis mode for more than three years.
An NCAA investigation into the football program in 2010 expanded into a probe of how the nation’s first public university provides academic help to athletes. It led to a discovery of fraud in a department with classes featuring significant athlete enrollments.
Now, the debate of balancing academics and big-time sports at the university has been reignited by comments from a reading specialist about the reading levels of football and basketball players.
“It really has just been like we’ve been under siege for the past three years,” said Lissa Lamkin Broome, a banking law professor and UNC’s faculty athletic representative. “Now to the extent that we’ve uncovered problems during this siege, that’s a good thing – to find those problems and weed them out and to try to put processes in place to hopefully ensure ... that some of this stuff doesn’t happen again.”
In a CNN story this week, Mary Willingham said her research of 183 football or basketball players at UNC from 2004-12 found 60 percent reading at fourth- to eighth-grade levels and roughly 10 percent below a third-grade level. She said she worked with one men’s basketball player early in her 10-year tenure who couldn’t read or write.
“I don’t believe it’s true,” UNC coach Roy Williams said of the story after Wednesday’s loss to Miami. “It’s totally unfair. I’m really proud of the kids we’ve brought in here. ... We haven’t brought anybody in like that. We’ve had one senior since I’ve been here that did not graduate.
“Anybody can make any statement they want to make but that is not fair. The University of North Carolina doesn’t do that. The University of North Carolina doesn’t stand for that.”
Willingham, who hasn’t returned calls or emails from The Associated Press, has said in interviews that she has received death threats and hate mail. UNC police spokesman Randy Young said investigators have contacted her and “are responding appropriately.”
Broome said Willingham had shared her findings previously but hasn’t provided data that led to her conclusions.
“If Mary’s data uncovers issues that would be helpful to us in our admissions process or in our academic support process, then I want to know about those so we can benefit from whatever work she has done ... in moving forward and doing things better,” Broome said.
Broome is a longtime faculty member and part of an internal group reviewing how to improve athlete support efforts, from admissions to how the school provides help once they’re here. That group, led by provost James W. Dean Jr. and athletic director Bubba Cunningham, formed in August for a review lasting through the academic year.
Admissions director Stephen Farmer, a review group member, said his office won’t hesitate to tell coaches no if a recruit can’t handle coursework.
“We do not rubber-stamp anyone for admission,” Farmer said. “We evaluate students for admission and we decide whether the students are capable of succeeding academically at UNC. That’s about as plain as I can make it.”
The topic of balancing academics and athletics isn’t unique to UNC, such as the AP reporting in 2011 that 39 schools had at least 50 percent of football players clustering in one, two or three majors. But the scope of problems here has often left officials sifting through what happened as much as looking ahead.
The NCAA academic violations involved a tutor providing improper help on research papers. UNC later reported fraud in the since-renamed African and Afro-American Studies department, including lecture classes that didn’t meet, possibly forged signatures on grade rolls, unauthorized grade changes and poor oversight.
A 2012 investigation led by former Gov. Jim Martin found problems stretching back to 1997 and directed blame to former department chairman Julius Nyang’oro and a retired administrator. Martin said no athletic officials were involved.
Last month, a grand jury indicted Nyang’oro for receiving $12,000 to teach one of the no-show classes in summer 2011, a lecture course that was instead treated as an independent study requiring a paper. The enrollment was 18 football players and one ex-player.
The NCAA told the school as recently as September that it has no plans for charges or additional investigation. The agency that accredits UNC said in June that it wouldn’t sanction the school.
In all, there have been seven internal and external reviews or investigations since 2011 resulting in more than 70 recommendations to improve policies and procedures. The school has implemented numerous reforms, even having officials spot check classes to ensure they’re actually meeting.
“We are determined to do right by our students,” Farmer said. “... As difficult as those things have been, the whole focus has been on trying to get better. We want to learn what we can so we can do better, and actually, I think we’re on the right path.”