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Carol Folt Addresses Media Reports on UNC's Academics & Athletics

Grant Halverson

UPDATE: UNC has issued this release to dispute the CNN report alleging UNC athletes are not meeting academic standards. In short, UNC takes CNN's threshold regarding SAT/ACT scores on the verbal portion of the test and offers some stats showing 97% of student athletes were above it. UNC offers an additional breakdown of the athletes who did not meet that standard saying that only a handful of them over the 2004-2012 period are not in good academic standing.

It is notable that UNC presented this as the school vs CNN rather than UNC vs Mary Willingham because the latter is a losing battle.

--Original post starts here--

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt, earlier today, offered her perspective on the recent media firestorm of the integrity of academics among Tar Heel student-athletes.

I am writing today to provide my perspective on a topic that has been reported in the media recently, and more importantly, is of great concern to our community: what we are doing to ensure the integrity of our support for student-athletes and their success from admission to graduation. Carolina’s recent academic and athletic improprieties shook our University to its core. In spite of seven investigations and numerous reforms already in place, this continues to be a painful journey for the Carolina community, and I will not ignore the lessons learned.

Even as we continue this work, Carolina is facing a surge of new stories in the national and local media about the academic preparation of our student-athletes. This interest was sparked in part by highly publicized claims about student literacy, and continues in the media almost daily. I take these claims very seriously, but we have been unable to reconcile these claims with either our own facts or with those data currently being cited as the source for the claims. Moreover, the data presented in the media do not match up with those data gathered by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. For example, only two of the 321 student-athletes admitted in 2012 and 2013 fell below the SAT and ACT levels that were cited in a recent CNN report as the threshold for reading levels for first-year students. And those two students are in good academic standing. Nevertheless, we are investigating all the claims being made and, if they are found to have merit, I will take all appropriate actions. We also will do our best to correct assertions we believe are not based in fact.

This issue is part of a larger national conversation about the role and impact of college sports and even further about the commitment schools make to ensure their students receive the support they need to succeed in the classroom as well as on the playing field. I assure you that I will not accept anything less than the excellence we expect Carolina to represent for our students and the community.

I am asking for your patience and understanding today. I still have many questions, and I am seeking to understand the complete picture of what additional work we need to do in this area. We have learned many lessons in the past few years, and I am actively building on those lessons to continue to improve our community. It is our responsibility to address these issues, the people involved, and the media attention being generated by them, very thoughtfully and thoroughly. Our goals are to be proactive in our analysis and solutions, to protect the privacy rights of individual students, and to apply the rigorous standards of assessment expected here at Carolina. Whether we agree or disagree, we must welcome healthy debate, respect each other and in that way show the true character of our Carolina community.

In closing, I want to thank you for your commitment to and concern for our students, faculty and staff, and for making this great institution even stronger. I will keep you informed of our progress and the results of our work. Our impressive, dedicated and talented students from the classroom to the playing field – and the work of our faculty and staff to improve the lives of millions of North Carolinians – are what makes us so proud of Carolina every day.

Folt is very careful not to do much with Mary Willingham's findings other than to say the school hasn't reconciled their data with what Willingham has alleged. Folt also notes that UNC has only admitted two student-athletes in 2012 and 2013 who fell below "the SAT and ACT levels that were cited in a recent CNN report." That would seem to be a nod towards UNC making a case that the issues raised by Willingham have either been fixed or are presently being addressed in a meaningful way.

That leads to an interesting question about the context of Willingham's findings. What is the year-by-year breakdown of the 183 athletes? In other words, when you are given a time period and a raw number then the only option is to then look at the average which leads to an assumption that the average is reality. Is that really the case here? Was the trend even over nine years? Did it get worse? Did it improve? Did it spike during a particular period? Did it improve after 2010 and the NCAA mess or get worse? Folt mentioned 2012 and 2013 as only having two athletes that fit the ACT/SAT level. If Willingham extended the period to make the data look more relevant when in fact UNC was doing a better job not admitting questionable students, the raw data would certainly show that. After all CNN still has not corrected their report from saying the study included "183 athletes in revenue generating sports" so it is difficult to trust they aren't shading relevant pieces of data because it doesn't fit the narrative.

The point is more needs to be known about the data and how it was trending. Simply giving a period of time and a raw numbers(without mentioning that number was roughly 12-13% of all athlete admissions) is a starting point but it would be nice to have the fuller context. Again, this is not saying Willingham is wrong and UNC is right, it is simply about understanding how those conclusions were reached. It also speaks to the question of whether these are current problems or something UNC has or is in the process of correcting. It should be noted, UNC did deny the admission of a football player in the 2014 class, something message board fans decried as a sign the football program could never be competitive. That doesn't mean everything is fine now but the fan response does illustrate why there is such a disconnect on this issue.

On a side note, UNC has conducted multiple investigations into this matter which has produced numerous reports. There were internal probes, accrediting agency reports and of course the report from former Governor Jim Martin which included the work of an auditor who specializes in analyzing data.. That report in particular was extensive and included a copious amount of data which was made available for public inspection. Yet, that report has been called a "whitewash" and generally goes unaccepted by a segment of the population because it didn't produce a certain result. Likewise, there is another segment that says the scandal should end with that report.

Mary Willingham comes along with a set of findings that fits neatly into the paragraph of an email. There is no publicly available data to view, there is not report detailing a timeline, methodologies, explaining what the terms mean, etc, etc, etc. It's one very limited set of findings that still lacks a certain degree of context and then gets reported in the media with even less context than that. Yet, Willingham is hailed as bringer of light and truth to the dark corruption of college athletics by the same people who dismissed other far more in-depth reports. On the flip side some people think Willingham is at best is grossly wrong or at worst a complete kook.

The lesson? The willingness to accept something is predicated on how well it fits our predisposed notion or an agenda of some kind. That is reality and no one(myself included) is absolved from that.  And that's why this debate is not really about the integrity of academics in athletics but about entrenched people on both sides serving agendas that have nothing to do with the actual issue itself.

No wonder nothing ever changes.