[I apologize in advance to regular Scatterplot readers and authors, as this post, like my last one, has an awful lot of “inside baseball.” I plan to return to writing on matters of academia and social science soon.]
A few years ago I was part of a group of UNC faculty who began meeting in the aftermath of the revelations about fake classes. Horrified at the misconduct perpetrated by a colleague and upset about the apparent disregard for academic quality that disproportionately helped student-athletes stay eligible to play, our group—which eventually became the Athletics Reform Group (ARG)—met and discussed how to voice our disapproval and advocate for educational opportunities and academic integrity with respect to athletes. I was proud to be one of the signatories of a statement we released at the first game of UNC’s new football coach, Larry Fedora, and of a set of principles we put out later. We had many discussions about the problems of college athletics and the compromises that are required. These included experts in the field of college sports as well as many of us who are simply concerned, informed faculty. We met with outside figures like Taylor Branch and Joe Nocera as well as current and former Carolina athletes. The group included many faculty leaders at Carolina, many of whom have ended up on different sides of the debates that have followed since.
Our group was part of the impetus for the Faculty Executive Committee (FEC) to investigate, and the FEC authors met with several of us, including Jay Smith and me. The FEC report, in turn, pushed for the Martin investigation and the Rawlings panel. Meanwhile, members of the Faculty Athletics Committee (FAC), an elected faculty committee, reached out to us to recommend that one or more ARG members run for seats on FAC. Most ARG members declined, but Kenneth Janken and I agreed to stand for election, and I was elected. I offer this history to underscore that no one person or group in this debate has a monopoly on concern for academic integrity or athletic reform.
We know a lot about the academic misconduct that happened. Julius Nyang’oro, in collusion with Debbie Crowder and apparently without adequate oversight from above, offered a number of “independent study” classes that rarely or never met and offered students high grades. The students in these were disproportionately, though far from entirely, revenue athletes. Athletics and Academic Support staff almost certainly knew about this and likely encouraged student-athletes to use these as opportunities to pad their grades—which the student-athletes, along with a considerable number of non-athlete students, did. (Nobody will be shocked to find out that many college students are attracted to the availability of easy As!) Collectively, UNC badly failed these students—athletes and not—by allowing them to pass without demanding that they learn. This is utterly disgraceful and demands an intensive, institution-wide response.
That response has been comprehensive and thorough. The College tightened oversight of departmental administrations and started checking to ensure classes were actually meeting. FAC dramatically increased monitoring of classes and majors to identify clusters of athletes that might signal other problems. The Chancellor, Athletics Director, football coach, and Director of the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes (ASPSA) are all new following the scandal, Nyang’oro and Crowder are gone, and Nyang’oro is being prosecuted. ASPSA has been placed under direct administrative authority of the Provost’s office. The Advisory Committee on Undergraduate Admissions overhauled the procedures for assessing “special talent” admissions, making the procedure far more evidence-based and resulting in a dramatic decline in the number of very-underprepared athletes admitted each year. (I would prefer that number be reduced to zero, but there’s no doubt this reduction is already impressive.) And the Provost’s Working Group (of which I am a member) is poring over every single policy and procedure affecting athletes’ academic experiences, evaluating and documenting them so the integrity and transparency of that relationship are clear. We seek to guarantee not just that these transgressions never happen again, but that no other transgressions ever appear because we’ve put in place systems and oversight to prevent them. This has all been done out in the open with the active involvement of faculty, administration, and students.
There’s been a lot of talk—mostly by faculty in the History department, but more recently by the News & Observer‘s John Drescher—about a kind of confess-repent-punish approach. Outspoken History professor Jay Smith put it this way: “Answer the questions, confront the issues that your answers will inevitably bring to the surface, and you will see all of your critics melt away.” While I sympathize with Smith’s historian’s impulse to discover every detail of past misdeeds, I think this impulse is misplaced. Where historians prize the specific (what we call idiographic research), social scientists emphasize the patterns of behavior that characterize institutions and fields (nomothetic research). Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes evoked the distinction when he wrote that “great cases… make bad law” precisely because policies that try only to fix one specific problem inevitably create loopholes for new problems to emerge. A process review approach like that of the Provost’s Working Group is a better way to make policy because it adopts a nomothetic viewpoint instead of an idiographic one. That’s what I meant when I said we have enough information now to make the necessary reforms.
I’m proud to be part of this process, putting into place the kinds of policies we called for in that first statement of principles from the ARG. I have a long record of advocacy on behalf of academic quality, integrity, and independence, and of standing up to top administration when I think they’re wrong. I expect the people and processes we’re putting in place should make us live up to our ideals. If they don’t, I’ll be among the first to protest.
While all this is going on, though, let’s recognize that the scandal and its aftermath is far from the most important issue facing Carolina and our faculty – probably not among the top 10. We have over 28,000 students who are not athletes and who need support, innovation, and education. We face a crushing budget crisis; a state government and Board of Governors that shows skepticism, if not outright hostility, to the core intellectual ideals we represent; interference by the Board of Governors in campus educational policy; pressing problems of racial and gender equity among faculty, staff, and students; declining federal support for research; a need for major change in how sexual assault is prosecuted; threats to outspoken faculty’s free speech; and more. Many of these threats affect not just us but our sister universities including NCSU and the other UNC member universities. Each and every one of these is far more important than the athletics scandals and deserves the attention of faculty and administration alike.
 The substantial base of fans of North Carolina State University (NCSU) athletics, of course, likes this approach for a different reason: they see it as just one more piece of the ongoing rivalry. I don’t begrudge them their fun, but let’s not pretend they’re interested in academic integrity in general.