Academic life after UNC

It appears some of these guys weren't subjected to particularly rigorous challenges in the classroom. It appears in some instances there was no classroom.

It appears some of these guys weren’t subjected to particularly rigorous academic challenges. What’s far more surprising, however, is that neither were some of their fellow students in the stands. (Grantland)

After reading Kenneth Wainstein’s report on the University of North Carolina’s academic misdeeds between 1993 and 2011, it occurred to me that if I were a graduate of UNC the really galling thing would be that my highly prestigious alma mater was so badly outperformed in this one respect by Auburn.

Eight years ago more or less the exact same transgression that has now been documented so thoroughly in Chapel Hill also came to light at Auburn. In both cases a faculty member was found to be offering an inordinately high number of “independent studies classes.” In both cases the grades that athletes received in their independent studies were far higher than their overall grade point averages.

In fact the numbers from the two cases track so precisely as to suggest there’s some kind of natural ceiling to the extent that this kind of thing can be successfully carried off. At Auburn a professor, Thomas Petee, carried more than 250 independent study courses within the same academic year and, in the cases that we know about, gave 18 football players an average grade-point of 3.3 when their GPA in all classes was just 2.1. At UNC an administrator, Deborah Crowder, acting on behalf (and signing the name) of a professor, Julius Nyang’oro, carried approximately 300 independent study courses within the same academic year and, in the cases that we know about, gave eight football players an average grade-point of 3.6 when their GPA in all classes was just 1.9.

And in both cases the faculty member was free to do this because instructors at very large research institutions are ceded a good deal of autonomy. In Auburn’s case, the academic fraud was detected by sheer chance. Petee’s department head, James Gundlach, was watching the Tigers on TV when a player was saluted for academic excellence as a sociology major. As the head of Auburn’s sociology department, Gundlach realized he’d never heard of this player.

This, however, is where the two cases diverge. Gundlach promptly called his provost and the New York Times, in that order: “I’m a director of a program putting out people who I know more than likely don’t deserve a degree….It’s embarrassing.” Conversely at UNC Nyang’oro was the department head.

By now it was the summer of 2006, and when authorities in Chapel Hill read in the Times about the goings-on at Auburn, Robert Mercer, the director of Carolina’s Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes, wrote an email that surely ranks as a minor classic in the “I see nothing” annals:

Do I or anyone in the Department of Athletics have any say in how departments structure their courses — NO!

As a result the shenanigans at Carolina continued unabated for another five years, until the case of UNC football player Michael McAdoo attracted notice. “The Evolution of Swahili Culture on the East Coast of Africa,” a paper that McAdoo wrote for his sham class, had passages that had been lifted whole from other works.

McAdoo is no hero, goodness knows. (Wainstein’s report details how at least one instructor of Swahili all but begged the department to put the otherwise unruly and disrespectful athletes into sham no-attendance-required classes so they would no longer disrupt his classroom.) Still, I can’t help feeling that McAdoo and his fellow Tar Heel athletes are somehow the least blameworthy characters in this saga.

In my book fraud is always damnable, but there are circles of fraud damnation. At the highest and least nefarious level on my exculpatory rankings, there is McAdoo and his ilk. He won’t, I trust, be striving for a faculty position based on his academic record, nor will he be offering himself up as an analyst of African demographics and geography for a think tank in Washington D.C. or Geneva anytime soon. What he did was wrong, and he was encouraged in his wrongdoing by nominal elders who with their emails and deeds were reinforcing his preexisting tendency to view his academic responsibilities as at best a peripheral responsibility and at worst a joke.

One level down from the athletes we have the “normal” UNC students who also benefited from the GPA boost that these classes provided. Unlike the athletes, these students have been or will be passing themselves off as bona fide no-shortcuts-granted graduates of an outstanding university. Word got out that there were easy A’s to be had, and thousands of non-athlete students came running. Will there be any resulting “Myth of the Student” headlines?

And at the bottom and most nefarious level on these rankings, of course, are the grown-ups. Word got out that there were easy A’s to be had, and students and, as the report makes clear, the staffers of the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes came running. The two grown-ups offering the A’s should have demanded more of even their most ill-prepared students. (One proven strategy for helping ill-prepared students is to prepare them.) And the grown-ups on the athletic side of the house should have drawn the obvious there-but-for-the-grace-of-Harrick lesson from Auburn’s case and taken their foot off this particular accelerator.

As it happens neither set of grown-ups lived up to my not terribly demanding ideal, and here we are. It will be for the NCAA to decide what is to be done next, but I must confess at the outset that I cherish little hope that the decision — be it the death penalty or total forgiveness or anything in between — will change anything. A far more basic and important question than what the NCAA should do about North Carolina is what we should do about the education that is received by all revenue-sport athletes, and at root I don’t honestly believe that a regime premised on ex post facto investigations and sanctions can move this particular needle one bit. If it could it probably would have done so by now.

For my own part I have no a priori objection to schools admitting a few dozen revenue-sport athletes per annum who would otherwise not meet the entrance requirements. All I ask from that point forward is: a) an accurate assessment of their initial academic ability; b) measurable progress on top of that; and c) accountability if (b) does not come to pass. (A parallel version, if you will, of how non-athlete students are treated.) That strikes me as a fair accommodation of what is at root a spectacular accident, namely, the presence of mass-audience sports on our college campuses. Nor do I suppose (b) is so very impossible, and saying it is — as many of my fellow reform-minded colleagues like to do — strikes me as yet one more instance of the holier-than-the-NCAA fallacy. Amateurism isn’t really so very sacrosanct, and revenue athletes aren’t really so very irredeemable.