The Working Group’s Failure of Nerve

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Some of the richest, most revealing nuggets from the “working group” website recently unveiled by Provost Jim Dean and AD Bubba Cunningham are found on the page of “responses” to earlier recommendations made to the university by previous committees. Quite a few faculty- and outsider-review committees have been empaneled over the past five years–a headline-making scandal will do that–and there is no shortage of good (and some bad) ideas in the reports that they all produced. The Provost’s committee at least took the time to read them all (no small feat), but the responses they provide to the boldest and most substantive of the previous recommendations underline UNC’s extreme caution, its lingering arrogance, and its tragic lack of nerve.

The general strategy of dodging and weaving announces itself in every line. The working group’s “responses” frequently refuse even to engage the issues raised in the original recommendation. Just as often, they refer mechanically to some established policy or procedure as if to imply that the issue has already been addressed somewhere inside that procedure. Most frustrating of all, the responses sometimes acknowledge the wisdom of a recommendation before dispassionately announcing the university’s refusal to implement it. Exhibit A in this category is the response to a recommendation made by the committee chaired by Association of American Universities president Hunter R. Rawlings III.

Rawlings Report (Sept 2013)
Recommendation
UNC-CH should consider requiring a “year of readiness” for student-athletes admitted under the “special admissions” category, and consider advocating for this reform nationally. During this year, these students would be ineligible to participate in varsity competition (though they would retain four years of athletic eligibility) and would have limited practice participation.
Response
The Working Group would support a “year of readiness” nationally, but we do not recommend that it be implemented unilaterally by UNC.

The working group sees the wisdom in imposing a year of ineligibility on athletes with weak academic credentials, and the group would have no objections if the NCAA adopted it as a rule applicable to all, but they see no reason for UNC to lead the way in this matter–and certainly not by example. Supporting the athletic department’s quest to remain “competitive,” the group insists that there will be no unilateral disarmament. And we won’t be agitating on the national stage either. Every talented eighteen-year-old we can recruit is going to be out on the field helping the team immediately, academic needs be damned.

The UNC community needs to ponder the implications of this formal stance–a stance taken by the university’s chief academic officer and his handpicked committee. The provost is saying, in effect:

our athletes are recruited to be athletes. They are recruited by coaches who need their services. Who are we–mere professors and administrators–to get in the way of the competitive needs of the university’s athletic program? The weak students will probably struggle in the classroom in their first year, and their best long-term academic interests will be neglected. And yes, some will miss a long overdue opportunity to receive needed remedial help. But their teams and their coaches need them. And although winning isn’t everything, only winning can justify those otherwise obscene coaching salaries. Sacrifices must therefore be made. Go Heels!

And so…the provost’s working group has formally opted to place competitiveness above academics. (As we will make clear in subsequent blog posts, this is only one of many instances in their website where they make their priorities clear.) Who at UNC, if not the provost, might be expected to articulate the primacy of the university’s academic values in the operation of its athletic program? Who indeed.

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