College basketball season is in full swing and college football just ended in dramatically awesome fashion with FSU toppling Auburn in the last seconds of an incredible game. When I look back with pride on my college days, I remember the great moments of sports triumph and reminded again with every victory since. I write this on a Saturday morning in L.A., watching Carolina play Syracuse (while wearing my lucky Carolina hat that's gone with me all over the world).
I'm a Tar Heel through and through and when my beloved alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, does well I bubble over with pride. When we do poorly, I loyally stand by my university and know that we can do better. Lately, when it comes to college athletics, something isn't right in Chapel Hill, but it's not just at Carolina. Things are likely amiss elsewhere in the college towns of Athens, Charlottesville, Austin, Louisville, Tallahassee and Columbus, and once fully investigated, pretty much every big college program under the NCAA.
Academic improprieties and cheating scandals rife with fake classes rocked UNC, and most recently an academic counselor is receiving death threats for publishing that many of the athletes she worked with could not read at an appropriate level (a headline just mentioned with the sideline commentary during our matchup against Syracuse on ESPN). Some articles from CNN, Raleigh's News and Observer, and the campus newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, highlight Mary Willingham, the academic counselor and reading specialist mentioned above, who claims rates as high as 60 percent of 183 academically challenged football and basketball players from 2004 to 2012 had a reading level between fourth to eighth grade, while 10 percent had a level below third grade.
As an alum and former student body president, I am disappointed, but I'm also hopeful that despite the beating we have taken publicly as a university, I know what kind of leader UNC can be when it comes to the matter of academics for student athletes. No better place than a school that has topped lists as the best value in college education time and time again with a legendary history of excellence in both academics and athletics to bring about change. Alums and faculty are Rhodes scholars and have Nobel prizes, and athletes who have played in Carmichael Auditorium, the Dean Dome, Keenan football stadium, Hooker soccer fields, and Boshamer Stadium have championships in not only the NCAA, but professional sports as well. It's time for Chapel Hill to be leaders in eradicating what is being exposed as a pattern of letting our student athletes down for profit and wins, and lead the charge to reform college athletics and the NCAA.
I wish I could say newly installed Chancellor Folt has inherited this problem, but given the findings, it's quite possible that she, and many other administrators across the country are dealing with similar problems at their respective schools. Furthermore, we're not having this discussion about sports like soccer or lacrosse,in part because of money, but this academic controversy also reveals other aspects of the discussion of collegiate diversity and race, the root of the academic achievement gap, and the emphasis on athletics in our country. It is about race, but not necessarily racism, also about access to education and what avenues many universities utilize to recruit athletes, particularly for basketball and football which are deemed the revenue-producing sports.
I know this is something being addressed at all administrative levels and not something that is going unnoticed by the Board of Trustees, the faculty, administrators, athletic department, and students. It's more than just recruiting and accepting athletes that are more adept at handling the basketball court and coursework. As a team, the entire university community needs to go on the offense with a bit more transparency. The "My Academic Plan" student academic support program is a good start, but let's devote some of our education and athletic experts to conducting some meaningful research on this subject to improve the learning experience for our college athletes, and if it has already been done, let's start promoting the positive strategies that work.
UNC has been educating students for over two centuries and as the nation's first public university, it is something they have become very good at and, quite frankly, are at the top of their game. Perhaps it's time to host a conference on the matter in Chapel Hill, the epicenter of collegiate athletic greatness! It's time for the University to publish their own data, continue efforts like the Student-Athlete Academic Initiative Working Group, and work to not alienate faculty and staff like Willingham so we can continue to be one of the greatest universities in the country. When even the NCAA is facing assumed obsolescence with ineffectual and inconsistent regulations and rulings, it's time for all parties involved to rethink what it means to be educators and student-athletes. It's time for Carolina to step up and bring about the reform that our students deserve, befitting the legacy of the Tar Heels that have come before, like Dean Smith, Michael Jordan, and Bill Friday. It's time to invest in a future that will continue the excellence that is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Justin Young, M.D. lives in Los Angeles and was Student Body President at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2001-2002.