The “working group” worked hard not to see the truth

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When Galileo discovered the moons around Jupiter in 1610, thus providing firm empirical proof of the Copernican understanding of the heavenly spheres, he offered his telescope to the university philosophers who were intent on defending the prevailing Aristotelian/Ptolemaic cosmology. Tellingly, the philosophers refused to look through Galileo’s telescope; unwilling to confront evidence that contradicted their most cherished beliefs, they preferred not to know the truth.

We are reminded of those seventeenth-century university philosophers when we consider the conclusions of the provost’s “working group,” now unveiled after a long two-year wait. Over the next several weeks we will blog regularly about the messages sent by the working group’s informational website. That website certainly contains many words. Bullet points abound. Twenty-one “academic processes for student-athletes” are enumerated. But in general, the website consists of bland descriptions of existing policies, with remarkably little critical assessment anywhere in evidence. The page that lists the working group “responses” to recommendations made by other committees in the past is filled with non-committal observations, uninformative boilerplate, and a general insistence that we at Carolina are already doing things right. The overall effect of the working group’s report, if it can be called that, is to assure the community (and, perhaps, the university’s accrediting body) that all is well.

In the email announcing the unveiling of the long-awaited website, Provost Jim Dean and Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham noted that they had convened the working group in 2013, at a time when the university was “in the midst of investigating academic and athletic irregularities. We knew that we needed to make changes at Carolina to address these issues and promote academic integrity.” Chancellor Folt charged the working group to see that process through to completion–the process of “making changes” and ensuring integrity. In light of its origins, perhaps the oddest thing about the website that culminates the working group’s work is that it fails to identify the problems the working group presumably found. The few changes in policy or procedure that have occurred since 2013 are not always even represented as changes, and all appear without explanation, with little insight into the rationale behind the making of the change. Why? The Provost and AD claimed in their email that the working group’s goal was to communicate “transparently and comprehensively.” How, then, are we to interpret this basic failure to be transparent? Is it that the Provost and the AD wanted no one on the outside–whether from the NCAA, from SACS, or anywhere else–to see problems actually identified as problems? By neglecting to locate the point A from which their various points B supposedly moved, did the leaders of the working group hope to silently encourage everyone to “move on” and stop asking questions?

Whatever the reasons behind the working group’s refusal to declare “these are the problems we found and these are the changes we propose as solutions,” the larger issue is that the working group itself seems to have been uninterested in digging for the truth, unwilling to suspend its faith in first principles, unable to confront the possibility that the problems at UNC were deep and structural, requiring deep and structural solutions. They were unwilling to look through the telescope.

A fine example of the working group’s willful blindness emerges in its discussion of UNC’s Summer Bridge program and athletes’ relationship to it. The key paragraphs need to be quoted in their entirety:

UNC’s Summer Bridge is a six-week academic program available to all entering first-year students, including student-athletes. Summer Bridge aims to help students make the transition from high school to college. Summer Bridge typically enrolls incoming first-year students from small/rural high schools in North Carolina that may lack AP or other college preparatory courses. However, any student who has been admitted to UNC and plans to enroll in the fall semester may apply. Students in the program, offered during Summer Session II, take two courses and can earn up to 6.0 hours of credit….

Generally few student-athletes attend Summer Bridge because the lock-step Summer Bridge schedule provides little flexibility and generally does not allow absences. The Summer Bridge schedule frequently conflicts with student-athletes’ summer team activities, which, in turn, would interfere with these student-athletes undertaking the full range of Summer Bridge activities.

The working group would seem to have been unaware–or simply chose to be unaware–of the contradictions that jump out of its own anodyne description of Summer Bridge. They say of the program that it is “available to all” students, and that it helps with the transition from high school to college. They further specify that the program addresses needs known to be particularly acute among a large subset of the athlete population, whose high schools often lack “AP or other college preparatory courses.”

Yet after touting the merits of the Summer Bridge program, and noting its universal accessibility, the working group stunningly goes on to add that “few student-athletes attend Summer Bridge” because the program “does not allow absences.” The program conflicts with team activities (i. e., practice, meetings, fitness exams and planning) and so athletes are prevented from participating. They are held out of the one transition-to-college program that provides the sort of counseling, socialization activities, and academic tutoring that can help students integrate into a university life that may at first seem both daunting and alien. What does the working group think about the priority given to “team activities” in athletes’ first summer on the UNC campus? What do the members of the committee think about the subordination of academic concerns to athletic concerns in the lives of these students? What message do they think this sends to the students? What message do they think this sends to the world about the values of UNC-Chapel Hill?

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that the working group spent much time thinking at all about this issue. They blithely stated the established reality, offered no objections to it, acknowledged no conflict, and moved on to their next bullet point. This is one of a great many blind spots in the website they have created. We challenge the members of the working group to come peer through the telescope in the weeks to come, as we continue to blog about their website. We challenge them to sit down for a public dialogue with those who might wish to question them. We challenge them to use their website as an initiation to further conversation and not–as they appear to have planned–as a tool that forecloses conversation. We challenge them, in short, to be bigger, bolder, and more confident than the university philosophers who rebuffed Galileo. If their ideas are sound, they should be able to withstand open questioning and critique. If they are not, perhaps we will find that it really is time to “move on”–toward real problem solving and courageous leadership.

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