UNC learning specialist defends university

dkane@newsobserver.comMarch 3, 2014 

— Learning specialist Bradley Bethel wasn’t at UNC-Chapel Hill when counselors at the tutoring program for athletes were steering them to classes that never met. He was hired to help athletes in September 2011, just as the university was coming to grips with the long-running scandal.

But in recent days, Bethel, 33, who came to the university from a similar job at Ohio State, has become a leading critic of whistle-blower Mary Willingham, who has said her research revealed that some UNC athletes could not read at high school levels. He said in a lengthy blog post that she presented “virtually meaningless” research based on “profoundly incorrect” data.

The blog post was quickly cited by UNC fans and tweeted by UNC-CH’s Office of Faculty Governance. A closer reading of the post and other correspondence Bethel has written shows he is not rebutting a key concern posed by the scandal: The university admitted athletes who could not succeed academically, and the tutoring program used the no-show classes to help keep them eligible.

“From what I can discern,” Bethel wrote in an email to The News & Observer, “when the academic counselors at times recommended the easy, no-show classes to underprepared students, the counselors did so because they were already working long hours to help those students develop the skills they needed to succeed in their other classes.”

Bethel has jumped into a controversy that has roiled the university and brought significant national media attention this year. A university-backed investigation found more than 200 suspected or confirmed no-show classes dating back to the mid-1990s, with athletes making up 45 percent of the enrollments. The N&O has reported through records and interviews that the tutoring program counselors were steering academically-challenged athletes to the classes, which typically provided high grades for an end-of-term paper.

Bethel said in an email to The N&O that the former and current colleagues in the tutoring program who recommended the no-show classes were educators and not “eligibility brokers.” Part of the counselors’ struggle, he said, came from the high academic standards within one of the nation’s top public universities. He also contended the no-show classes represented a small percentage of the classes athletes took, suggesting they did not play a big role in keeping them eligible.

In at least two cases, football players who did not graduate had taken four or more suspected or confirmed no-show classes during their UNC careers, records and interviews show.

As a learning specialist, Bethel is a member of one of the fastest-growing professions at big-time college sports programs. His research found that from 2010 to 2011, the number of positions in such programs grew by 18 percent to an estimated 150 such jobs. He has worked to set standards for the profession.

“All these student-athletes are coming to campus who are really underprepared, which is why the need for learning specialists has arisen,” Bethel told The Chronicle of Higher Education, which wrote about his research in 2012.

Lower requirements, higher standards

The growth in learning specialists comes as changes in NCAA policies lowered minimum academic requirements for freshmen, while requiring athletic programs to pay a price if those athletes do not show progress toward a degree. The University of Connecticut, for example, was barred from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament last year for having a low academic progress rate.

That dynamic has also led to concerns that more schools are cheating to keep athletes eligible. Inside Higher Ed found that over the last decade the number of cases of major NCAA violations involving academic misconduct at universities nearly doubled to 15 cases from eight in the 1990s. It’s a problem critics say is inherent in a system that requires football and men’s basketball players to attend college to be eligible for a draft into the NFL or NBA.

UNC-CH has not faced NCAA violations over the no-show classes. University officials have acknowledged the “disproportionate” numbers of athletes in the classes, which typically awarded high grades for an end-of-term paper, but have often denied the scandal had an athletic motive. Last month, the university and the UNC system announced a prominent former U.S. Justice Department official, Kenneth Wainstein, will investigate the academic fraud.

Bethel has not shown whistle-blower Willingham’s pessimism about the ability of academically-challenged athletes to navigate college classes. Bethel grew up outside Toledo, Ohio, with a father who taught high school English before becoming a human resources consultant. His mother recently became a preschool teacher.

Bethel: Athletes’ learning disabilities hurt reading

Bethel would not consent to an interview, but in email correspondence and in his blog, he says that in many cases, learning disabilities such as attention deficit disorder hinder athletes’ reading ability. Those disabilities sometimes don’t become apparent until the athletes enter college.

He contends once the disabilities are addressed, athletes can catch up.

“What is important to understand about reading disabilities is that they do not indicate overall impaired cognitive functioning,” Bethel wrote in his blog, “Coaching The Mind.” “Reading disabilities are disorders that often involve difficulty decoding certain letters or performing other fluency-related tasks, but those with a reading disability can nonetheless engage in other complex cognitive tasks. Undoubtedly, the majority of people with reading disabilities are as intellectually capable as anyone reading this essay.”

In his three years working as a reading and writing specialist for Ohio State and for UNC-CH, Bethel said he has had three such athletes who succeeded academically once their learning disabilities were diagnosed and overcome through tools such as video lessons or audio books.

Officials said UNC would accept fewer ill-prepared athletes

When he told Chancellor Carol Folt in an email last summer – one Bethel hadn’t expected to become public – that there have been “many student-athletes who were specially admitted whose academic preparedness is so low they cannot succeed here,” he said university officials met with him and assured him they were reducing the number of athlete admissions that did not meet minimum academic standards set by the UNC system.

Stephen Farmer, the vice provost in charge of admissions, told Bethel those admissions had been cut in half for the current academic year and would be cut even further next year.

UNC system records show the number of those students had been cut from roughly five to seven athletes a year to two in 2011 and three last year. Those reductions coincide with the loss of the no-show classes.

Bethel wrote in his blog post that Farmer also told him the university is no longer admitting athletes who are predicted to have a first-year GPA below 2.0, and the number of athletes who scored a GPA below a 2.3 was cut by roughly half, 14, for the 2012-13 academic year.

“Next year the number is expected to be reduced even further,” Bethel wrote “In the wake of the scandals threatening UNC’s integrity, UNC’s recently improved admissions process demonstrates a remarkable commitment to establishing an appropriate balance between academics and athletics.”

A question of intent

Bethel acknowledged he has not seen Willingham’s research data, or the underlying tests that were given to the 183 athletes over an eight-year period. However, he says, her methodology is so flawed that the results could not be valid.

NCAA President Mark Emmert has said the UNC case turns on the question of whether there was an intent to help athletes stay eligible to play. UNC officials have argued that intent did not exist among the two people at the center of the scandal – former African studies chairman Julius Nyang’oro and his longtime assistant, Deborah Crowder, who retired in 2009. Neither has publicly explained their actions. Nyang’oro has been charged with fraud for accepting $12,000 for one of the classes; his attorney said he is innocent and will fight the charge in court.

But if academic counselors knew or suspected the classes were fraudulent and steered athletes to them anyway, some experts have said that should be grounds for a major violation.

The N&O asked Bethel if he had been at the university during the scandal, would he have recognized the classes were bogus?

“That is a good question,” he said. “However, because I was not here when the no-show classes were offered, I cannot say how I would have handled the situation.”

Kane: 919-829-4861; Twitter: @dankanenando

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