The Academic Scandal at UNC

Tegularius beheld the landscape and, lo,
corruption of college athletics sat,
a plague upon the land.

Once pristine halls of learning,
overflowing with the bounty
of peerless intellect and civic virtue,
now wept from open sores,
tears of brawn.

Former monks of the mind,
they of keen vision, untroubled
by brutish pangs of flesh,
now brought low by the base distractions
of the masses.

The NCAA stalks their halls.

As many people have probably heard, there has been a scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill where, over the course of two decades thousands of students, about half of whom were athletes, took “paper classes” or “independent studies” and received disproportionately high grades. What happened was wrong and a failure on the level of pedagogy, administration, and ethics and there is going to be hell to pay on account of it. But there is altogether too much self-righteous finger-wagging going on right now at what is being construed as “the problems of big-money college athletics.” There are problems with college athletics, and there are problems with what happened at UNC, but the two do not completely overlap.

Some basics, taken from the executive summary of the report.

  1. An administrative assistant in the African American studies program, now retired, with the best wishes of the department chair developed the idea of “paper courses.”
  2. The students enrolled in these courses did not have to attend lectures or meet with a professor, but just turned in a term paper.
  3. The assistant “graded” the papers herself, usually reading only the introduction and conclusion, allowing for a significant amount of fluff or plagiarism. She then assigned disproportionately high grades.
  4. The grades artificially buoyed the GPA of many students, which allowed many athletes to stay academically eligible.
  5. thousands of students benefitted from the program, 48% of whom were athletes and half of those athletes were football or basketball players.

The report, or at least the summary is well worth reading. The news coverage has focused on how members of the athletics staff directed struggling student-athletes to the program to keep them eligible and how the students received excellent grades for shoddy or plagiarized work and one that (sort of) finds it troubling that the UNC officials are “eager” to pass the problem off as an sports one rather than an academic one.

My issue with this characterization is that the courses were open to all students. Athletes made up a huge percentage of the enrollment compared to their percentage of the student body, but the courses were not primarily intended to keep student-athletes eligible. In fact, the courses were designed to help types of at-risk and struggling students: sexual assault victims, people with mental illness, underprepared student-athletes, and students from challenging backgrounds. Although the assistant was described as a passionate supporter of UNC athletics, the inspiration came from her experience as a student where the professors (in her mind) unfairly catered to the “best and the brightest” of the students, leaving everyone else to struggle though. The department chair who took a lax approach to the independent study courses evidently also sympathized with the plight of student athletes because of two of his former students were expelled for academic reasons. One was murdered shortly after expulsion. The other went to jail.

Once the word got out about the program, institutions within the school such as fraternities and athletics departments took advantage of the classes in large numbers, with the result that many fraternity members “accidentally” minored in African American studies–something that the administrative assistant did not like, but wasn’t something that could stop without putting an end to the entire program.

I should reiterate: this is a failure of academics, administration, oversight, ethics, etc, etc. BUT: the students who the programs were designed to help are the students most in need of help and are often left behind by academic programs for cultural, environmental, and institutional reasons. This does not justify what happened, but neither is this only an example of corruption spreading from college athletics into the academy. There are blame and failures to go around, and the exploitation of a deeply flawed, but well-meaning system is not limited to the athletic department. The intent was to keep students enrolled so that they could benefit from the promise of a better life provided by college.

In fact, what troubles me the most is that those same people who the designers of the program intended to help remain at risk, while people who didn’t necessarily need the help benefited from it. There needs to be systemic overhaul on account of what went down, but imagining the academy as a virtuous entity, its integrity encroached upon by money-sports are willfully ignorant and are using the athletics as a scapegoat. Too, this vitriol is often a product simply of not liking sports. Thus they try to sever the connection between athletics and sports. There are a number of problems, but one of the big ones is not the relationship of money-sports with the academy, but the relationship more broadly of money with the academy.

Let me conclude with this. I have an extreme dislike of the rhetoric about democracy, but one of its core principles is an equal opportunity for education. At-risk and underprepared students, whether they are athletes, from inner cities, from poor backgrounds, non-native english speakers, or have mental health problems, are the hardest to ensure that right for and are the ones in need of most support. UNC’s program is not the answer, particularly because it circumvented learning rather than enabling it. Everyone, students, teachers, administrators, support staff–as well as legislators who fund college systems–need to create an environment in which any person who wants an education can get one. Of course it isn’t that simple. Students need to be proactive about their own learning and professors need to be more open to helping underprepared students, but it starts with the environment.

–I am also interested to hear other reactions to this story. The athletics angle is pretty well covered by the national media, but I am willing to hear out the case that athletics are the real problem here.

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