This is the first of a multi-part column series on the academic fraud scandal at UNC.
As the saying goes, “When it rains, it pours.”
That sentiment has certainly rung true for the NCAA and its member institutions over the past several months, and last week was no different.
That is when former Department of Justice official Kenneth Wainstein’s tell-all report on the academic fraud scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill was released — as if collegiate athletics did not have enough on its plate with the fallout from the O’Bannon decision and numerous other pieces of pending litigation. While the public has known for a while that some level of academic fraud existed at the (once) esteemed university, Wainstein and Co.’s comprehensive inquiry provided the public with an up-close view of what was actually occurring.
The detailed and lengthy investigation revealed the true depth and scope of the academic-related misconduct that took place at one of the nation’s best-regarded public schools over the course of nearly two decades. For those not familiar with the situation, here is a very brief summary:
Personnel within the African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department at UNC designed and furnished what came to be termed at “paper classes.” These classes were “irregular” insofar as they did not require much, if any, work or scholarly initiative on the part of enrolled students. In turn, a disproportionate number of the students enrolled in these classes were student-athletes, in particular football and men’s basketball players. The label “paper classes” is derived from the fact the only assignment in these independent study courses was a final paper, the quality of which was blatantly disregarded by AFAM personnel when determining the student’s final grade.
Furthermore, various academic advisors for student-athletes “steered” or pushed their athletes into these courses in order to maintain NCAA-mandated eligibility requirements, which include a 2.0 GPA. The existence of these courses flew under the radar for a period of time, but by their height in the mid-2000s, the classes were well-known around campus by athletes and non-athletes alike. Perhaps more significantly, there were signs that university administrators, both inside and outside the athletic department, either knew that fraud within the AFAM department was ongoing, or suspected as much and failed to initiate further inquiry into the issue.
What should we make of this report and the shocking and alarming conclusions it reaches? Let’s start with an obvious, but nonetheless important question: who is to blame? Who can we point to as being the reason why this scandal has rocked the world of collegiate athletics?
Like most situations of entrenched and unbridled fraud and (essentially) institutionalized cheating, the question is not ‘who’ but ‘whom.’ At the center was Deborah Crowder, an administrative assistant in the AFAM department, whose noble desire to support student-athletes led her to fabricate the “paper class” scheme, a system in which she “graded” final papers or altered student-athletes’ grades from other AFAM professors.
Julius Nyang’oro, the AFAM department’s chair from 1992-2011, has, up until now, been the most prominent name in the scandal, and for good reason. Nyang’oro not only delegated too much power and authority to Crowder, he also was unable to maintain departmental control over Crowder’s activities, in doing so failing to embody the necessary academic commitment for a man in his position.
How about the athletes’ academic counselors? What is their level of culpability here? While these individuals were not responsible for the creation of the “paper classes,” and were ostensibly doing their jobs by keeping their athletes eligible, they certainly pushed for the continuation of the classes when Crowder retired in 2009. After all, it was in their best interest to ensure that the “paper classes” scheme stayed alive, because their job security was tied to their ability to keep players on the field.
But perhaps the most egregious action in the entire situation was on the part of the athletic and academic administrators at UNC. Their actions, or lack thereof, allowed and enabled academic fraud of nearly unparalleled proportions to flourish at an institution consistently ranked amongst the best public universities in the country. This small but influential group of people had the authority to launch an internal audit of the AFAM department, but, despite several red flags that were raised over the life of the scheme, chose inaction over potential embarrassment.
And unfortunately for the Tar Heels, the deluge of humiliation has only just begun.
After this most recent scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill, it is clear from the Wainstein report that UNC’s best sport right now is the “blame game.” To discuss the scandal with Cameron, please e-mail Cameron at cmiller6 ‘at’ stanford.edu.