the unc athletics scandal in context

[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[1] (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.

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[1] 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.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

17 thoughts on “the unc athletics scandal in context”

  1. I haven’t followed this closely enough to know better, but here’s my three thoughts:

    1. I don’t know if the public record contains the information needed to answer Jay Smith’s 12 questions, so maybe they’re superfluous, but if not I don’t see how you can argue that answering them isn’t necessary. I’m not sure that’s just a historian’s impulse; it seems like a basic question of accountability. Depending on some of the answers, more people might need to be fired or otherwise punished.

    2. I don’t know about the construction that the says revenue-sport students are harmed by being given eligibility-saving fake grades. That depends what their goals are. It’s fair to say the university failed in its mission with them, but that’s not the same as saying it failed them. That’s a question that requires their perspective, which I don’t know.

    3. It seems the biggest benefit from both a reputation and accountability point of view comes from starting at the top by firing people who, if they weren’t involved, should have been. I don’t see how anyone could seriously argue against firing coaches and top administrators whose players’ eligibility was saved by fake grades (if any). “I’m sorry to do this, Coach X, but the buck stops with you. I’m sure you understand. Here’s a zillion dollar parachute. Pack your things.” How could that hurt? Unless I’m missing key parts of the narrative, the jobs lost have been low in the hierarchy, which seems backwards.

    I appreciate your efforts and dedication, Andy. And, claiming no expertise, I’m happy to be corrected. I just figured since you posted on this blog you were asking for the uninformed impressions of random sociologists!

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Philip. My point isn’t that Jay’s questions are irrelevant, but that they’re not necessary in order to carry out reforms of the system. I do think some of the answers are already available, or so obvious as to not be necessary, but my main point is that fixing the problem is more important than assigning more blame than has already been successfully assigned.

      I don’t think you could say the heads that have rolled are “low in the hierarchy,” though — Chancellor, Athletic Director, Football Coach, Director of Academic Support Program for Student Athletes, Chair of African and Afro-American Studies?

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      1. Agree, no reason not to pursue reforms. Sorry, I didn’t remember the AD and Football Coach. (Jeez this has been going on a while.) That’s pretty good. Thanks for setting me straight.

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      2. Mr. Perrin…I don’t think you should spin those as “heads that have rolled” related to unc’s decades long scheme to keep athletes eligible via the handing out of good grades like candy.

        Butch Davis was fired a year ahead of the Martin Report. While unc has done a masterful job of concealing the full breadth of the scheme (if that’s something to be proud of)…we still didn’t know what we know now when Butch was fired (without being compelled to speak to the NCAA by the way). Butch in fact, was absolved of any knowledge of the scheme. So you can’t have it both ways. He was fired for the embarrassment brought about cash, jewelry and trips for football players only, having a Runner for an Agent as the Associate Head Coach and then of course a tutor doing work for (and later found funneling cash to players) FB players. He was in no way connected to and fired for the scheme.

        John Blake was accepting cash from an agent while employed by unc. His firing was also conveniently done without compelling him to speak to the NCAA and like Butch, handed a load of cash on his way out the door.

        Dick Baddour was allowed to transition (hardly a head rolling).

        Holden Thorp announced his intentions ahead of the release of the Martin Report. Certainly related to the scheme, but again, hardly a head rolling.

        Nyang’Oro was fired, and blamed for cheating that spanned decades and most sports at unc (yet it was just he and one either person….laughable).

        Deborah Crowder had already resigned (again hardly a head rolling). But here’s another question unc runs and cowers from…how did those phony classes and grades continue even beyond her retirement? Curious, no?

        And I believe the other person you referenced also transferred. So ONE person fired for decades of cheating to keep athletes eligible. Did you also happen to notice that the athletic team that as a percentage of team size abused the system more than any other (Men’s Basketball) is totally unscathed. We know that in ’92 nearly half the team jumped on AFAM (why would they just do that?), and we know at least two of the fake classes were 100% basketball participation….how is it that they get away with this scot free?

        Moreover, since the FB program punishment was well ahead of the Martin Report, how is that there hasn’t been one single repercussion for decades of cheating to win? How is that even possible? ONE person fired and not one repercussion for any of the athletic programs that benefitted…but let’s “move on”, right? Can you not see how silly you look in that thong and man purse?

        I know I’ve asked a lot of questions. I hope you don’t apply the PR spin similar to that joke statement of yours insinuating that heads have rolled as it relates to this embarrassment to the state of NC.

        You have a very serious FIDUCIARY responsibility to the taxpayers of this state to answer our questions with HONESTY, not to mention the implied integrity that one would hope would exist within all of the leaders of one of the allegedly better institutions in our state. Please put some thought into that responsibility before continuing with your PR/cheerleading spin towards this subject.

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  2. Andy–interesting post. I think it’s remarkably wrong, but it’s interesting. Let me first correct numerous errors of fact, just for the record. That first ARG statement you refer to came at the press conference announcing Fedora’s hiring, not his first game. ARG never met with Joe Nocera. And ARG never talked to current or former UNC athletes–the ARG members who had connections to the athletics dept never managed to round up a single athlete who would talk to us; they were afraid to speak out. The most misleading error of fact is your statement that “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.” This is a gross distortion of history, and it eerily resembles your earlier distortion of the process that led to your inclusion on the Provost’s working group. You said that ARG members had declined to serve, so…you generously served instead. No. So, for the record: The FAC certainly never approached me about running for FAC, nor did any other ARG members hear from FAC that I’m aware of. Also, as you know, I volunteered to serve on the Provost’s Working Group. The ARG was even led to believe that one candidate from ARG would be named to that group; the Provost looked away and asked you instead.

    OK, with the more trivial errors out of the way, let me now address your oddly jargon-y argument. You think historians focus only on the ‘specific,’ and that we don’t search for pattens? This tells me, above all, that you don’t read much history. Any historical fact/detail is positively irrelevant absent the context–the larger web of meanings–that make it a salient detail. Historians like to gather as many facts as can reasonably be gathered precisely because they want their interpretation of the big picture–the patterns–to be as true as possible. Willfully ignoring relevant facts before crafting one’s interpretation would be regarded as historical malpractice. Yet that’s what you counsel us (and the UNC community) to do. As I’ve told you before, I support most of the reforms that are in process, and I have no doubt that they will make outright fraud much less likely in the future. But there are some enormous “patterns” that you have evidently decided you don’t want to be aware of. What if we were to discover that a “pattern” of corruption was so pervasive, and so deeply imprinted on one of our marquee teams, that no one who had any connection to that particular team could possibly have had healthy values instilled in them during their time at UNC? Would that not be relevant to your reform efforts? How, pray tell, would you define that fact as irrelevant?

    This is an academic debate. We’re arguing about how many angels can dance etc. But the truth will come out, Andy. And the people who were not earnestly and determinedly trying to dig it out are going to look foolish in the end.

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  3. The fact that Jay and I disagree on matters of policy will surprise nobody, so I don’t see any point in debating that. What you call “jargon-y” I call scholarly — the distinction between idiographic and nomothetic inquiry is well respected in historiography and social theory and in many ways explains the difference between us. If you prefer to locate the difference in personality instead of intellectual style, feel free. I’ve made a careful, theoretically rigorous, substantive case for the reform approach that’s being taken. You call it “historical malpractice.” But that’s my point – we’re not practicing history here. We’re practicing organizational reform and leadership, so “but it’s bad history” is not relevant unless you put forward an affirmative case that it is.

    Speaking of bad history, you are wrong on several of your factual claims.

    1.) On December 9, 2011, then-FAC chair Steve Reznick wrote to you, me, and several other faculty who had signed the Fedora statement, reaching out to us and suggesting we build bridges. You responded to him later on the same day. On January 23, 2012, the ARG held a meeting, at which we discussed how best to build bridges with FAC and, specifically, who among us would run. On January 30, 2012, you sent out a message to the ARG list entitled “Andy Perrin for FAC!”, encouraging ARG members to contact the Office of Faculty Governance to push for me to be on the ballot. My *memory* from the 1/23 meeting is that you said you were too busy to run, but I am willing to believe memory is mistaken. In any case, though, it is indisputable that FAC encouraged *someone from ARG* to run, which is how Kenneth and I ended up doing so. The ARG is not synonymous with Jay Smith. So your claims that ARG members never heard from FAC, and that ARG members were not encouraged to run for FAC, is false.

    2.) On March 14, 2012, I and several other early members of ARG had lunch with Joe Nocera in the Blue Ridge Room at the Carolina Inn. There were two Carolina athletes (I don’t know if they were current or former) at that meeting. You were not there, so I guess if “The ARG” means “Jay Smith” then you would be correct, although according to the itinerary for Nocera’s visit (which you distributed by email on March 7, 2012), you were to give him a campus tour after the lunch. So your claims that we never met with Nocera and that we never met with athletes are false.

    As I already wrote you privately, you are correct about the process by which I was asked to join the Provost’s Working Group; I was misinformed by a colleague who should have known better. This is, of course, entirely irrelevant to the question at hand, but it may make you feel better. And you are correct that the initial ARG statement was distributed at Fedora’s hiring press conference, not his first game.

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  4. “[1] 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.”

    Not so fast… I would say that the NCSU base is far more interested in academic integrity than any official representative that UNC has put forth. For most of us it is not at all about watching UNC burn, we have a vested interest in this issue. Not only do we compete with UNC in athletics(which obviously brings in truckloads of money), we are attached at the hip with your school and anything that UNC does will reflect on State somewhat. This is a muddy mess that UNC has profited from for at least 2 decades, so logically State and other conference schools have been adversely affected by this. We just want an even playing field.(Everyone does it, blah blah blah. Well, only at UNC have they had virtually no attrition in revenue sports due to academic issues during the life of these ‘mistakes’ that you guys are so on top of).

    Another thing that seems to be lost here is that UNC is not some private company, it is OUR(NC Taxpayers) school. We aren’t going away until the doors are opened and we know the entire story, from head to tail. Feel free to blow through a few million more dollars to investigate yourselves, refute your learning specialists and in general circle the wagons around the Smith Center, which seems to be the most prized possession/achievement your University has created in its 225 year history. Isn’t that silly? You guys say that the money you are spending to investigate yourself is brought in from the athletic department, but there has to be a large financial impact on taxpayers.

    In the end it looks like UNC exists to serve basketball fans and a history of sports, not its students or taxpaying NC citizens.

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  5. UNC did not just “badly fail” its own students. They also massively defrauded their opponents in multiple NCAA sports.

    Forbes.com has reported that an NCAA championship can be worth millions. Would someone who stole such a sum be able to credibly claim reform while refusing to give back the money?

    I don’t doubt that the faculty has implemented reforms (if they didn’t they wouldn’t be worthy of their titles), but it’s clear to everyone why they have declined to look at the roots of the scandal–such an inquiry would lead to the vacation of NCAA championships and the puncturing of the entire mythology built around Carolina basketball. The school’s leaders and some of its faculty still value that mythology more than they do a full accounting.

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  6. Andy–I’ll take your word for it on the Reznick email, though I don’t remember it. And OK, that would count as a general “reaching out,” I suppose. As for the Nocera lunch, that was not an ARG event. I arranged Nocera’s visit and planned his luncheon, and since I have never imagined that “I am ARG,” it was not an ARG visit just because I arranged it, was it? But he had asked to meet with the players and the one player’s mother over lunch. There was also a prominent lawyer present, I seem to rememberl. I also suggested to Nocera that we include a couple of faculty in the lunch–you and one other that I can recall, and that person never attended a single ARG meeting while she was on the faculty. So, no, “ARG” did not meet with Nocera. That was merely a lunch to which I made sure you were invited. (And Andy Perrin was certainly not ARG.)

    As for your “scholarly” discourse, “well respected in historiography,” I must tell you that I have never heard a historian use such language. Ever. I suppose they may be out there, but I think it’s safe to say that they’re not attracting too many readers.

    And as for the “affirmative case” that what the University has done is inadequate, let’s see how it all shakes out. Affirmative cases can be built right only with access to all that carefully concealed evidence. I suspect some new evidence is on the way.

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    1. OK, so on the question of FAC, we can replace “gross distortion of history” with “accurate account.”

      On the Nocera visit: there were three faculty at the luncheon; two of us were, at that point, core to the ARG group. Two other core ARG members met with Nocera later in his visit. The itinerary shows dinner with at least four additional ARG members (I wasn’t there so can’t verify if they all came). All was distributed to the ARG listserv. I think that’s sufficient to say that ARG met with Nocera.

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  7. If the ARG had had a meeting at which Nocera presented himself for questions/discussion for the benefit of the ARG, you could say that ARG met with Nocera. But the mere fact that some people associated with ARG met with him while he was in town, at four different instances (lunch, a campus tour, his talk, dinner), while surrounded by other people, does not constitute an “ARG meeting with Nocera.”

    If I elided my misremembering of the Reznick email with what you have now admitted was a gross distortion of the working group history, I apologize. I’m always looking for patterns, you see, and maybe I saw one where none existed.

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  8. Let see about all those “firings” in somewhat chronological order:

    Ms. Crowder – retired with full pension in 2009

    Wayne Walden (Roy’s compliance man)- mysteriously left

    Football Coach Davis – fired before AFAM scandal – out of control
    football players being the main reason

    Chancellor Thorpe – resigned after Kupec/Hansbrough mischief – before AFAM really became a full-blown scandal

    AD Baddour – retired with full pension

    ASPSA Director – reassigned with same salary

    Dr. Nyangoro – retired with full pension – charged for fraud but has yet to go to trial (can’t wait for that to happen)

    So NO ONE has been fired for the most egregious athletic/academic scandal in NCAA history while said school was on NCAA Athletic probation. They all pretty much retired or resigned so they would not have to answer questions pertaining to this whole sordid mess.

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    1. The most egregious academic scandal in NCAA history was at University of Minnesota, not even close.

      > The Saint Paul Pioneer Press first broke the fraud story in March 1999, reporting that office manager and team tutor Jan Gangelhoff had admitted writing more than 400 papers for at least 18 players over a five-year period. The story prompted a nine-month, $2.2 million investigation by the university. The NCAA report echoed the finding of Minnesota’s internal investigation that former coach Clem Haskins and academic adviser Alonzo Newby participated in the fraud and helped cash to help a student after she was ordered to stay away from the team.

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      1. I’m pretty sure the head of a department creating fake classes, and getting indicted with a felony because of one of those, trumps 400 papers written by a team manager.

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  9. Y’all are doing a great job of articulating the confess-repent-punish viewpoint I referred to above. Thanks! My point in this article, though, is that the punishment approach is entirely separate from the fix-the-problem approach, and that the latter is ultimately more important, both to UNC and to college athletics in general.

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    1. So why aren’t both recourses being pursued by unc? Why do you and unc believe that there shouldn’t be punishment for decades of cheating your students, your opponents and defrauding the taxpayers of NC?

      I would think that a world class institution like unc would be capable of doing both things at once? Moreover, after hearing about the “carolina way”, I would think that unc would be EAGER to do both. Or am I misunderstanding what the “carolina way” is all about?

      Why is unc so terrified of accountability? Truth is, we can ALL get behind reform. What happened at unc affects us all. The system does need repair, starting in K-12. But that does NOT excuse what unc did. And unc needs to stop hiding behind reform and stand up and do the hard thing…be accountable. You got caught with not just your hand, but your whole body in the cookie jar.

      Reform is needed, but not because unc got caught. It’s needed because of what it allowed unc to do for decades. And mostly, because our children deserve it.

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