Jay Smith: Starting Over With Bradley Bethel

When I learned last week that UNC learning specialist Bradley Bethel had launched an unprovoked personal attack on me at his website, I reacted first with a certain amount of disbelief (I asked him: “Have you lost your mind?”) and then—as is my habit—with a flood of words. Over a period of several hours I wrote a 4,000-word blow-by-blow refutation of his assault and prepared to launch it into the ether.

Lucky for me, I have many friends. Many smart friends. After proofing my mini-dissertation, they all reminded me that such tit-for-tat personal disputes rarely leave anyone looking like a winner, and that the cause of NCAA (and UNC) reform would not be advanced one iota by more charges and counter-charges involving questions of personal character.

So I have decided not to answer insult with insult. I will trust that my record of integrity speaks for itself. I will, however, make one last (and mercifully brief) effort at peacemaking. After all, one of the great mysteries of Bradley Bethel’s fierce hostility to me and to Mary Willingham is that…it really shouldn’t be this way at all. Bethel knows that on the big issues Mary Willingham is absolutely right. He has conceded that UNC has admitted badly underprepared athletes in the past; he concedes that the paper class system was perpetuated at least in part to help those athletes; he wrote Chancellor Folt eight months ago to complain that “there have been many student-athletes who were specially admitted [at UNC] whose academic preparedness is so low they cannot succeed here.” Both he and Willingham have passionately insisted that all athletes can and should be properly educated and that the University too often falls down on the job. On the fundamentals, in short, there is a broad swath of agreement.

Indeed, the discrepancy between what Bethel is saying now about the UNC athletic program and what he has said in the recent past is fairly breathtaking. According to a presentation he gave to the Faculty Athletics Committee last spring, he recently helped to establish in the Academic Support Program a “Learning Engagement and Enhancement Program” (LEEP) the explicit purpose of which is to support the “most academically challenged” athletes at UNC. One of the program goals he laid out for the benefit of the committee is to increase students’ reading comprehension and “fluency with college-level vocabulary.” (This obviously suggests they did not have such fluency when they arrived.) Another goal of LEEP, he explained, is to have students demonstrate over time an “increased ability to compose college-level texts.” In response to a question from a professor at that meeting, Bethel admitted that some of the athletes in LEEP, which has about eighty participants at any one time, will not achieve college-level reading and writing proficiency even after four years of intensive remediation. In a powerpoint slide that he forgot to omit from his final presentation to FAC, he even jokingly pinpointed a strategy for improving the program’s success rate: “How about admitting kids who can graduate from LEEP! Ha!” Yet now Bethel stands with Admissions director Steve Farmer and the University in claiming that at UNC we admit only those students we think will succeed. (Farmer insists this has always been the case, even though the University—for some mysterious reason—has recently moved to tighten admission standards.) Although he works in a remedial program that annually enrolls eighty students, Bethel now wants to tell the world that in his four years as a learning specialist he has encountered only three students “whose fluency was as limited as those Willingham described” in the famed CNN story. (This certainly conflicts with the rhetoric of his appeal to Folt, in which he cited “many student-athletes” who were so badly prepared that “they cannot succeed here.”) What exactly is going on? There seems to be a certain amount of cognitive dissonance that needs resolving.

To get past the dissonance, I would like to offer an invitation. Join forces with us, Bradley Bethel. UNC and every big-time sport university have an obligation to educate all students well. You clearly agree with that premise, but you seem not to have realized just yet that the current system needs to be dismantled if universities are ever going to get around to doing their duties again. We must ensure that athletes have both the support and the basic abilities necessary to succeed in a challenging academic environment. We must fight against a system that drains their time, constrains their range of motion, and limits their academic choices. We must fight to see that they have a voice at the bargaining table, that their health and well-being are protected over the long term, and that they enjoy the same basic economic and civil rights that every other student takes for granted. The energy required for this reform movement also means that petty personal attacks and time-wasting screeds just have to stop.

This will be my last word about any of your objections to me, Mary Willingham, or our work. But if you want to climb on board the reform bandwagon, you are hereby invited to pick up the phone. I will gladly bury the hatchet. I will even buy the first round of drinks.

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