The academic scandal at UNC is bad and we hope system president Tom Ross and chancellor Holden Thorp will rid our flagship university of classes little more than a sham. But this is only a first step to restoring integrity.
The complex financial tightrope administrators must walk complicates what might appear to be black and white decisions. Tuitions, while rising, provide less than one half the operating costs of most modern universities, especially in North Carolina, where our constitution provides that public universities “as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense.”
Our schools must compete for government and industry grants as well as donations to sustain themselves. Top professors and researches want a good environment but they also choose schools that pay handsomely. Top students want to matriculate to schools that provide great academics but also extracurricular amenities. Fundraisers report that alumni and donors are more likely to open their wallets for winning athletic programs than excellence in academics. Then there are television networks, eager to throw huge amounts of money to athletic conferences and institutions that attract large audiences.
It is unreasonable to expect a 19 to 21 year old man or woman to spend 30 or more hours per week in practice, travel or games while, at the same time, maintaining a rigorous course of study. We insist these “student-athletes” maintain certain grade point averages to remain in school and be eligible to compete, so we should not be surprised when they choose from the well-known menu of easy classes or lenient professors every college has.
Like peeling an onion, this is going to be tedious and teary. We need a holistic redesign of our universities, beginning with the composition of their boards. Instead of loading up with big donors, politicians, entertainers or corporate types we need governance from a broad coalition who have made significant contributions to society, who understand and support the essential mission of the institution. Administrators must know whether success is judged on the field or in the classroom and that they have board support when they choose the latter. Donors, especially lawmakers, need to reward those administrators and schools that do the right things.
There is, as there has always been, a place for athletics, but it isn’t first place. Let’s get creative and tackle (no pun intended) reform. Perhaps athletes shouldn’t be required to attend class in semesters when they are competing. Maybe we designate some schools to be athletic and others only academic institutions. Less than one percent of these athletes will ever compete on a professional level but many of them still want the chance. If they don’t want to do the work needed for a college degree let us consider developing a non-degree curriculum to maximize their future opportunities while entertaining us in the athletic arena or provide scholarships after they no longer compete.
Our universities are on trial and the court of public opinion is finding them lacking in balancing between academics and athletics. What we have now is unreasonable, unacceptable and unmanageable. As Bill Friday and the Knight Commission told us long ago, it is time college leaders end their silence or feigned surprise at the abuses and begin taking charge of change before it is too late.