University of North Carolina fails athletes, punishes whistle-blower

Slaves helped build UNC, the nation’s first public university, which opened in 1795. The original Memorial Hall, dedicated in 1885, honored students and faculty who’d died defending the Confederacy. Taking office only two years after the Supreme Court ordered an end to “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board of Education, William Friday pushed for desegregation in the face of sometimes-violent opposition. Under his stewardship, Chapel Hill earned a reputation for excellence and became a powerhouse in the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

As she listened to the eulogies at his memorial, Mary Willingham pondered another aspect of Friday’s legacy. In his last decades he’d tried to stir discussion about whether commercialized intercollegiate athletics was distorting higher education. That’s why Willingham had approached Friday in his 92nd and final year. In private conversations, she’d told him about her mounting anxiety that rather than educating its recruited athletes, UNC was playing a shell game to keep them from needing to study at all…

Acting as an unnamed source, Willingham had been feeding information since 2011 about academic fraud to a reporter with the News & Observer in Raleigh. The coverage had put UNC on the defensive. But rather than seriously investigate the connection between sports and classroom corruption, top university administrators used vague committee reports to obfuscate the issue. Willingham’s conversations with the elderly Friday hadn’t addressed the tradecraft of whistle-blowing. Still, he’d encouraged her to act on her concerns. “At his memorial,” she says, “I realized I had to speak up.” In November 2012, she went public with what she knew.

…College sports is a $16 billion business, and it coexists uneasily with its host—nonprofit, tax-exempt institutions dedicated to education and research. The tension has become acute at UNC, in large part because of Willingham’s decision at Friday’s memorial service. What she disclosed has devastated UNC’s image of itself and may potentially hobble its athletic program. Beginning in the 1990s and continuing at least through 2011, UNC’s Department of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies offered more than 200 lecture courses that never met. The department also sponsored hundreds of independent study classes of equally dubious value. Internal reviews have identified forged faculty signatures and more than 500 grades changed without authorization. The students affected were disproportionately football and basketball players.

…Last summer she was stripped of her supervisory title—an action she’s appealing as retaliatory. In January senior UNC officials took the further step of publicly condemning her for suggesting that some football and basketball stars couldn’t read well enough to get through college classes honestly.

While her outspokenness and the vilification it brought make Willingham unique, her role as a secret enabler of NCAA Inc. is hardly unusual. Every Division I sports power employs low-profile advisers like Willingham without whom the facade of academic eligibility would swiftly collapse, says Richard Southall, director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.

“We pretend,” he says, “that it’s feasible to recruit high school graduates with minimal academic qualifications, give them a full-time job as a football or basketball player at a Division I NCAA school, and somehow have them get up to college-level reading and writing skills at the same time that they’re enrolled in college-level classes.” Willingham’s experience, Southall adds, shows how “we’re all kidding ourselves…”

Phony courses, forgery, lies about grades characterize athletic programs at more than just UNC inside the NCAA. The hustle extends from charging the electricity costs for running stadiums to building maintenance all the way to North Carolina’s example of recycling the one paper a year required of student-athletes – from year to year!

They learn a small percentage will go on to professional leagues. The so-called student athletes learn the university will phony up sufficient paper to get them a degree if they perform well enough in their chosen big-money sport. Mostly, they learn that corruption and hustles are just as acceptable in the world of American academia as they can be on mean streets.

China’s economic slowdown, unlike that in other emerging countries, should be welcomed

Once again, all eyes are on emerging markets. Long the darlings of the global growth sweepstakes, they are being battered in early 2014. Perceptions of resilience have given way to fears of vulnerability.

The US Federal Reserve’s tapering of its unprecedented liquidity injections has been an obvious and important trigger. Emerging economies that are overly dependent on global capital flows – particularly India, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa, and Turkey – are finding it tougher to finance economic growth. But handwringing over China looms equally large. Long-standing concerns about the Chinese economy’s dreaded “hard landing” have intensified.

In the throes of crisis, generalization is the norm; in the end, however, it pays to differentiate. Unlike the deficit-prone emerging economies that are now in trouble – whose imbalances are strikingly reminiscent of those in the Asian economies that were hit by the late-1990’s financial crisis – China runs a current-account surplus. As a result, there is no risk of portfolio outflows resulting from the Fed’s tapering of its monthly asset purchases. And, of course, China’s outsize backstop of $3.8 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves provides ample insurance in the event of intensified financial contagion.

Yes, China’s economy is now slowing; but the significance of this is not well understood. The downturn has nothing to do with problems in other emerging economies; in fact, it is a welcome development…Yet a superficial fixation on China’s headline GDP growth persists, so that a 25% deceleration, to a 7-8% annual rate, is perceived as somehow heralding the end of the modern world’s greatest development story…

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BioEthicists whine about “designer babies” – as more important than the lives of children facing genetic defects

The Food and Drug Administration is weighing a fertility procedure that involves combining the genetic material of three people to make a baby free of certain defects, a therapy that critics say is an ethical minefield and could lead to the creation of designer babies.

The agency has asked a panel of experts to summarize current science to determine whether the approach — which has been performed successfully in monkeys by researchers in Oregon and in people more than a decade ago — is safe enough to be used again in people.

The F.D.A. meeting, on Tuesday and Wednesday, is meant to address the scientific issues around the procedure, not the ethics. Regulators are asking scientists to discuss the risks to the mother and the potential child and how future studies should be structured, among other issues. The meeting is being closely watched. The science of such therapies has advanced significantly in recent years, and many scientists are urging federal regulators to ease requirements for study in humans…

The procedure in question involves mitochondria, the power producers in cells that convert energy into a form that cells can use. Mitochondria with defects that could be passed to a fetus are replaced with healthy mitochondria from another woman. This is done either before or after an egg is fertilized…

The practice raised questions and eventually led the F.D.A. to tell researchers that they could not perform such procedures in humans without getting special permission from the agency. Since then, studies have been confined to animals…

So, for thirteen years, research has been confined to a precursor.

Such genetic methods have been controversial in the United States, where critics and some elected officials wonder how far scientists plan to go in their efforts to engineer humans, and question whether these methods might create other problems.

“Every time we get a little closer to genetic tinkering to promote health — that’s exciting and scary,” said Dr. Alan Copperman, director of the division of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York…“The most exciting part, scientifically,” he said, “is to be able to prevent or fix an error in the genetic machinery…”

Then, the TIMES lurches into predictable fears ranging from spooky anti-science to repeating truly incompetent suggestions about diet and stress for test monkeys. RTFA if you think they’re saying something Luther Burbank didn’t hear.

Dr. Celia Witten, director of the office of Cellular, Tissue and Gene Therapies at the F.D.A., gave few clues to the agency’s thinking.

“We haven’t made any decision about whether clinical trials will be allowed to proceed,” she said.

The conference was brought together in the first place to examine methodology and practical results. The kind of discussion science has been limited to since the days of our most recent King George.

No one ever had to wonder whether or not ethics questions would be evaluated in parallel. Most science simply doesn’t operate without such concerns as part of the process. Then, there are sufficient “bio-ethics” experts building anti-science consultancies, ready to turn them into cash cows at the drop of a teabagger’s silly hat. Questions will be raised whether prompted by real concern – or as PR for quasi-religious hustlers.

The arguments are the same as those advanced over stem cell research. We already lost a number of researchers to other nations during the Bush years. Bureaucrats are becoming accustomed to being second-guessed by 14th-Century moralists. They ain’t about to stick their collective necks out over something as “furrin” as genetic science. Especially since the topic scares the Ignorant Left as much as the Ignorant Right.

Let’s move on folks. Try to catch up with the last couple of decades of the 20th Century before we continue to limit 21st Century medicine – in the United states. Just maybe save the lives of a few kids.

Radioactive leak confirmed at nuclear storage site — UPDATED

WIPP at night

Federal officials Thursday confirmed a leak of nuclear waste at a southeastern New Mexico repository, but it could be weeks before workers can safely access the underground dump to determine what happened…

The DOE on Saturday announced that it had shuttered operations in response to an underground radiation sensor. But it wasn’t until Wednesday night that DOE confirmed that radiation had also been released above ground, about a half mile from the plant. And it wasn’t until a Thursday press conference that Jose Franco, manager of the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office, confirmed publicly that readings from the monitors matched materials from the waste that is stored there, indicating a leak…

Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said…”We will demand that federal officials share information with the public in real time. That’s the reason we are here…”

Flynn…said, “Events like this should never occur. From the state’s perspective, one event is far too many. Our primary concern continues to be public safety.”

“Even though the levels detected are very low,” he said, “radiation is simply not supposed to be released outside the building.”

The DOE is calmly issuing updates containing soothing noises. Carefully, cautiously, they’re working most of all to keep anyone from noticing they haven’t the slightest idea what is going on.

Thursday night they said they’d soon be able to identify the source of the leak of plutonium and americium — in about three weeks when they believe they’ll be able to re-enter the facility.


UPDATE: Thirteen employees of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant were exposed to radiation – americium-241 – according to test results taken the day a radiation leak was detected at the nuclear waste repository.

Next up? WIPP will have to test any employees who worked the same area – the following day.

Pic of the Day

Click to enlarge

The planet continues to experience climate change expressed in episodes ranging from temperature swings to tempestuous storms, in general – warming.

So, look at this image and guess what portion of the globe is populated by people ignorant and parochial enough to believe that what happens in their own backyard represents what’s happening to the whole world.

Thanks, Bill Nye