During my interview for a new learning specialist position at UNC in the summer of 2011, I was asked one question that caught me off guard.

“Do you write on students’ papers?”

“What do you mean?” I replied.

“When you’re helping a student with a writing assignment, do you ever write on their paper?”

At the time, UNC was rebounding from the original NCAA investigation that began in 2010. Although initially prompted by a football player’s tweet suggesting that he was enjoying free champagne at a swanky club, the investigation eventually led to the discovery that an ousted tutor had provided improper academic assistance on papers. As a result, the University forced the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes (ASPSA) to overhaul its practices, and one of the issues causing staff a great deal of consternation was the expressed mandate to develop a new set of guidelines for tutoring writing.

Hence, the question about whether I thought writing on a student’s paper was ever appropriate.

That was six years ago, yet here we are, days away from what should be the final confrontation between UNC and the NCAA, and the issue is still what is appropriate for academic support staff.

Unverified: The Untold Story Behind the UNC Scandal from Bradley Bethel on Vimeo.

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In its latest statement on the case, the NCAA acknowledges that reviewing classroom curriculum is not within its purview. In other words, their case against UNC is not about whether the paper classes were fraudulent. Rather, their case is about student-athletes’ “access to and assistance in certain courses that was not generally available to other students.” According to the the NCAA, the extra benefits provided by academic counselors through that access and assistance gave UNC a competitive advantage in sports and thus constitute a violation of NCAA bylaws.

Given the high profile of the case and the public’s increasingly strident calls for NCAA reform, the governing body for college athletics undoubtedly feels pressure to adjudicate the case in a way that affirms both their authority and credibility. That likely means harsh penalties for UNC, despite the dubiousness of the allegations. To justify such penalties, the NCAA has applied a conspicuously rigid interpretation of the key bylaw on which they build their case.

In its entirety, Bylaw states,

Member institutions shall make general academic counseling and tutoring services available to all student-athletes. Such counseling and tutoring services may be provided by the department of athletics or the institution’s nonathletics student support services. In addition, an institution, conference or the NCAA may finance other academic support, career counseling or personal development services that support the success of student-athletes.

According the NCAA, “the bylaws are clear.” Sure, as a mandate to provide academic counseling and tutoring, the bylaw is clear enough. However, as a guideline for how to provide such academic support, the bylaw is wide open to interpretation.

Research supports various approaches to academic counseling. Intrusive advising is one such approach and widely adopted for first-generation college students. The popular radio show This American Life even produced an episode illustrating the positive outcomes of intrusive advising. As explained in a newsletter published by The Center for Research on Development Education and Urban Literacy, “The intrusive advising model is based on the premise that some students will not take the initiative in resolving their academic concerns, thereby needing the intrusive assistance of assigned advisors.” Essentially, when counselors adopt an intrusive approach, they strategically intervene in students’ academics but gradually reduce the level of intervention as students develop independence.

Furthermore, as explained by another expert on intrusive advising, “Contact with faculty and staff outside the classroom is a researched best practice and retention tool.” Though unconventional, counselors’ obtaining assignments on students’ behalf and turning them in after students complete them may be appropriate for particularly vulnerable students. Having been a learning specialist at two different Division I schools, I can conceive of how such interventions could be a constructive part of a comprehensive plan to help student-athletes with significant needs develop as learners and adults.

At UNC, I witnessed the care that academic counselors took to design and implement such comprehensive plans for student-athletes. Yet, citing a single slide from a PowerPoint presentation in 2009, the NCAA claims that UNC counselors used the paper classes merely to keep student-athletes eligible for sports. While I was a learning specialist, I had access to literally volumes of evidence contradicting that claim. Over a decade’s worth of other PowerPoint presentations, various reports, and ASPSA-created academic organizers demonstrated the counselors’ commitment to helping student-athletes develop into independent learners. Reducing the counselors’ work to a single PowerPoint slide is a blatant misrepresentation of who they were as professionals.

The National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) recognizes student-athletes as a special population requiring a different approach to advising, which the academic counselors at UNC understood well. Student-athletes who are also first-generation college students require an even more tailored approach. For those student-athletes in particular, intrusive advising and the interventions named above could be critical to their academic and long-term success.

In fact, student-athletes at Division I schools across the country openly receive varying degrees and other types of special access and assistance not generally available to other students. For example, at some schools, student-athletes receive priority registration. At many schools, counselors register student-athletes for tutoring appointments. And at most schools, counselors and/or coaches use class checkers to enforce class attendance.

In their case against UNC, the NCAA has contended that obtaining assignments and turning in papers on behalf of student-athletes are “basic educational tasks all students are expected to perform.” Yet others may argue that attending class and signing up for tutoring are similarly basic educational tasks students should do without assistance. However, just as with the NCAA’s contention, such an argument reveals a lack of understanding of academic counseling, especially of the intrusive advising model and its myriad applications for special student populations such as student-athletes who are first-generation college students.

Short of doing the academic work for students, any intervention that is part of a counselor’s comprehensive plan to help students gradually develop into independent learners should be acceptable. Therefore, when the NCAA alleges that the access to and assistance with the paper classes “alleviated the academic responsibilities for students that help them develop both as learners and adults,” the NCAA is indeed stepping outside its purview and setting a dangerous precedent for dictating how academic counselors support student-athletes.

“Take Ownership” from Bradley Bethel on Vimeo.

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“That’s the wrong question,” I eventually responded when asked during my interview whether I would ever write on a student’s paper.

The right question, I explained, is whether a given tutoring practice is part of a more comprehensive strategy for helping the student learn. A tutor can write on a student’s paper in ways that do in fact promote the student’s development. On the other hand, a tutor could follow an arbitrary rule against writing on a student’s paper but nonetheless employ ineffective strategies that fail to help the student improve their writing skills.

Effective tutoring can’t be reduced to generic rules. It is nuanced and personalized to the needs of the student. So is academic counseling. Both require education, experience, and an understanding of the literature supporting various models.

Evaluating academic counseling practices is no more within the purview of the NCAA’s infractions process than reviewing classroom curriculum is. The ambiguous wording of Bylaw does not grant the NCAA the authority to dictate which models of counseling an academic support program must adopt.

In short, the NCAA is clearly out of bounds here.

As Jay Bilas remarked in a recent interview, “They’re breaking their own rules to try to punish North Carolina.” In so doing, the NCAA is advancing an interpretation of the bylaw that can’t possibly be applied consistently. Are they going to start regulating academic counselors’ professional relationships with faculty or prohibiting counselors from registering student-athletes for tutoring appointments? If the Committee On Infractions (COI) upholds the NCAA’s case against UNC, a precedent would be set to justify dictating what models and practices academic support programs can and can’t adopt. Ultimately, restricting academic counselors would only harm student-athletes.

If truly concerned with “maximizing the academic performances of student-athletes,” the NCAA should acknowledge that academic counseling is not within their purview. Their handling of the UNC case poses a far greater threat to student-athletes’ academic and long-term success than the UNC academic counselors ever did.

“Blaming Athletics” from Bradley Bethel on Vimeo.