the unc scandal, fall 2014 roundup

Since I last wrote about the UNC athletic/academic scandal in May 2014, we’ve had an intense summer and fall of revelations and reactions. Most visibly, the independent investigation by Kenneth Wainstein was released in November, touching off a whole new round of discussion, hand-wringing, and finger-pointing. We also learned some important additional information from the report: much of it quite embarrassing, some of it minorly reassuring. In this post I want to offer some thoughts on the report and many of the side conversations. I’m sure there will be more to say in comments and future posts as well!

I have no true “inside information” to share, but I do have in-depth knowledge of the situation. I was an original member of the Athletics Reform Group (although we have since parted ways); I am an elected member of the Faculty Athletics Committee; and I am a member of the Student-Athlete Initiative Working Group, convened by the Provost. Nothing here is official or on behalf of any of those committees; I’m writing only as myself.

My priors: college athletics is badly broken, and Carolina is not getting out of the college athletics world. We also can’t expect to make major change in the rules of college athletics, at least for now. So the best we can hope for is to be totally transparent and honorable in what we do, and establish reasonable, practical limits based on academic integrity. This doesn’t satisfy the critics who say the whole Division I College Sports enterprise is corrupt, either for reasons of athlete-exploitation or for reasons of academic compromise. I respect both of those positions, but in the end neither one offers a realistic path forward for UNC.

To be specific, I believe the current system puts revenue student-athletes in a “triple bind.” First, they are often underprepared academically, in large part because they have concentrated on becoming elite athletes. Second, once they arrive on campus they are required not only to be full-time students but also to be effectively full-time elite athletes. Third, they are anticipating a job market in which achieving in the very-small top tier is dramatically more valuable than achieving in the second tier, which means that both their habitus and their economic incentive is to concentrate on athletic achievement. That’s the problem we face, and I do not think it is realistic for UNC to shift those parameters in the short or medium term.

The Wainstein Report, and the scandal it details, are incredibly embarrassing. In particular, there are three elements in the report that strike me as particularly condemning. First is the sheer duration of the fake classes: they apparently began in 1993 and lasted fully 18 years! Second is the fact that there were several “missed opportunities” when it could have been uncovered and stopped: moments when academic faculty, staff, and administrators were either actively complicit or passively permissive. In particular,the active involvement of Jan Boxill, a trusted colleague and former faculty chair, is a terrible slap in the face. Finally, third is the extent to which athletics (mostly in the form of the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes, ASPSA) actively sought and relied upon such classes. (I’m not terribly surprised about ASPSA’s involvement, but Wainstein contains the actual documentation for it).

On the minorly-comforting side, the number of students involved per year is low: on average about 170 per year, or 0.8% of UNC undergraduates, roughly half athletes (way out of proportion to athletes’ prevalence in the student body). Again, as an average, this means about 10% of athletes were involved in an average year, with particular but not overwhelming representation from the football team.

Plenty of people have come up with variations on the “everyone does it” excuse. First, I don’t think it’s true — there’s a difference between “easy classes” and outright fraud, and we’re on the wrong side of that difference. Second, even if it were true, it would be irrelevant; we’re supposed to be better than that.

Variance partitioning between athletics and academics doesn’t work. The Martin Report contains the seed of this in declaring it “an academic scandal,” not an athletic one. The ARG and hardcore academics are convinced it’s all being blamed on them; the athletics folks are complaining it’s all blamed on them. On the academic side, Crowder, Nyangoro, Boxill, and Owen appear to be involved to various extents. But they are actively encouraged, used, cultivated by an athletics establishment in desperate need of shortcuts for athletes. This culminates in the awful powerpoint slide in the report in which an ASPSA person panics at the demise of the system. The reality is that the scandal is located in the connection between the two. Absent the active participation of people on each “side,” the whole thing wouldn’t have happened.

The motivation for creating the fake-class system was sympathy for struggling students. Deborah Crowder and the others come across in the emails as “do-gooders” trying to do their best to help students they see as in a bad place because of a broken system. That doesn’t excuse what they did AT ALL but it’s important diagnostically. Very importantly, this is another link between the “pressure” from athletics and the behavior of academic personnel. Crowder saw herself as taking up the slack created by the triple bind mentioned above, a sentiment apparently shared by Nyangoro, Boxill, and others.

Nothing is simple in athletics. Not all, or even most, revenue athletes are underprepared and struggling; not all non-revenue athletes aren’t. 30% of athletes in the fake classes were “Olympic” (i.e., non-revenue) athletes. Money raised nearly exclusively from football and basketball keeps the other 26 sports funded, which is important so the university doesn’t subsidize athletics, which is also an important principle. The scandal was not limited to the “revenue” sports. Meanwhile, many student-athletes report being singled out by faculty as unworthy students!

Over half of the students in the fake classes weren’t athletes. This is not relevant to the variance-partitioning question above, but it is important to the sanctimonious “students-first” mantra holding that student-athletes are less legitimate because they are not on campus primarily “because they want an education.” Let’s face it: as we know from lots of recent research, even at elite universities like UNC, many of our students have a profoundly anti-intellectual orientation to college, to the point that it’s not surprising to us that students would prefer no-class to class. That problem goes way beyond athletics.

Major reforms have been made and more are underway. These include big changes to admissions, advising, monitoring, and transparency. However, if I’ve learned anything from all the work I’ve done in this and other areas of academic governance, it’s that it’s far more important to get things right than to do them quickly. We’ve been working on the reform process for nearly two years, and we have plenty more to go. The risks of unintended consequences are substantial. I know this plodding, careful process doesn’t satisfy people who want to make big changes quickly, but I would prefer to be confidence that we’ll have gotten this right within a few years over getting it wrong quickly.

Specifically, changes in admissions are enormous, both in terms of raising the bar for entry and in terms of transparency and monitoring of the link between admission standards and later academic performance. I would prefer the bar to be raised even higher, but that doesn’t detract from the fact of major change. We will be working on balancing time demands on athletes (formal and informal). The Complete Carolina program now provides funding for athletes who leave in good standing to come back and complete their degrees, as did Marvin Williams this year (how many one-and-done NBA athletes have done that? I doubt very many.). There’s some talk about adding additional support for student-athletes to focus on the student- side of their lives.

For the record, I do not think it makes sense for us to offer salaries to athletes, nor to simply give up and separate athletics from academics. The basic model, in which we agree to provide a real, rigorous, and serious college education along with elite-level coaching, athletic exposure, and facilities “in exchange” for athletic participation, doesn’t strike me as particularly unjust, as long as we can successfully manage the tensions inherent in it.

On the Mary Willingham situation: All the things she was criticized for remain true: her data analysis was outrageously wrong, her mode of working through the media irresponsible, her release of student information a violation of FERPA, her reckless violation of IRB regulations including obviously false answers to simple questions, straightforward plagiarism of her thesis on this topic, her willful mischaracterization of that thesis via CNN. Her presentation to FAC on 12/10/13 was an enormous missed opportunity; instead of presenting information, she was pushing a literacy-for-credit training program at Carolina, which IMHO is a terrible idea, though I’m sure from her limited experience it seemed like a good solution. Numerous requests from FAC members to be specific with explaining the problems she’d actually witnessed were unanswered. She didn’t accept an invitation to return. The kernel of her claim — that there were woefully underprepared athletes at Carolina, and that some of these athletes had used measures like the fake classes to maintain eligibility – was true, but was unremarkable at the point she was making the claim since the presence of the fake classes had already been discovered and widely publicized.  The specifics — grade-level reading scores, frequency of academic unpreparedness, legitimacy of her “research” — have been shown to be wrong in various ways. While I know she did what she believed was right throughout, it appears to  me that sometime around 12/13 she got tired of the more responsible, collaborative route that characterizes most university governance and decided to go public by exaggerating and sensationalizing claims. This is also about the time that the message she was broadcasting starts to be as much about herself (“whistleblower,” “hostile environment”) as about the issues.

On the Michael McAdoo Lawsuit: McAdoo, a former UNC football player, is suing UNC for failing to provide him a true education. He claims he was “forced” to major in one of a few options, and that he took one of the fake classes to maintain eligibility. (As it turns out, he heavily plagiarized the paper he turned in for that class: one of the original revelations early in the scandal.) UNC has already said anyone who took the fake classes can take replacement classes at no charge, so he has the opportunity to make up the class. He apparently had to cheat even to pass the fake class he was in! And he certainly knew the character of the classes he was taking at the time. Furthermore, there is no right to major in any particular field; you have to be admitted to a major based on prior performance. IANAL, but this lawsuit seems like a major stretch to me.

I expect that, a few years from now, UNC will be have fully implemented a suite of reforms that constitutes doing the best job possible of participation in an inherently problematic system. By “best job possible” I mean that it will prevent future fraud and protect academic integrity, and that it will be fully transparent as to the compromises and processes necessary to being both an academic and an athletic powerhouse.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

18 thoughts on “the unc scandal, fall 2014 roundup”

  1. Andrew — Thank you for the update. It is nice reading something that is simultaneously passionate yet analytical. I feel like I either get Facebook vitriol from my friends who graduated from UNC or newspapers trying to sensationalize the situation for scoops.

    Like many, I have started thinking more about the compensation and expectations on athletes. Mostly revenue-generating athletes, though I don’t think that the problems are limited to them. Football, men’s basketball and, to some degree, women’s basketball make a ton of money and I don’t think that it is sufficient to say that a college education is payment enough. Especially in football where there is collusion between the NCAA and NFL to keep athletes in programs longer than they need to be there (it is the only one of the major four sports for which that is the case). At the same time, I don’t seen any way for athletics to be divorced from college.

    I have started to wonder if the Complete Carolina program can become a model to successfully navigate this conundrum. Here is my idea: student-athletes are granted admission and they are eligible to play for five years (four years + red shirt). During that time, they are paid a stipend and given room and board. They devote their energy to the athletic program as a full-time athlete. At the completion of their eligibility, they are given a four-year scholarship with room, board, and tuition covered. The elite won’t need this option — at least immediately — since they can move on to the pros. But the vast majority of athletes will no longer be in a triple bind, they can concentrate their effort on school. Perhaps universities could incorporate remedial classes to help prepare students during their athletic appointment.

    Thanks again — I look forward to hearing more soon.

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    1. Thanks, Andy. Although I believe it can be improved, I don’t share your optimism about working within the current system. I like Mike’s idea. Also, capping coaches salaries. Who needs a multi-million dollar coach? Even if they’re better, winning isn’t that important. Faculty should oppose these contracts.

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      1. Philip, I’m not sure I would call my position “optimism.” I’m confident that UNC will be fully transparent about how things are done, and will do the best possible job of them given the current (broken) college athletics system. That’s optimistic only because it lowers the bar awfully low!

        See below for my thoughts on the other part of your comment.

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    2. I disagree with you on this count: athletes are not simply getting a “free education”. They are receiving a priceless amount of exposure on both local and national levels – exposure they simply can not get any other way. They are also receiving professional technical, skill, and strength training. The value of that alone is incredibly high. If you have seen how much one session costs with a professional level quarterbacks coach or speed coach, you know that access to these at no cost WHILE receiving the aforementioned education is invaluable. We act as if these kids are forced to attend college. They choose this route as it is the BEST opportunity for them to live their dream. As for basketball – athletes are more than welcome to go play in Europe or the NBADL, however, they lose the perk of exposure and the benefit of a staff dedicated to the athlete’s skill advancement. In football, college is currently the only pathway to the millions of dollars that potentially await them in the NFL. They could pay someone to train them and quietly wait until they are 3 years removed from high school to enter the draft or they can go to college and hit a running back in the backfield (i.e. Clowney) and have that run on ESPN highlights nonstop for 2 years and then cash a big paycheck. Did South Carolina or Clowney benefit most from that one huge hit in the backfield and the ensuing exposure? Let’s stop acting as if only universities are using athletes – athletes are also using universities – and that’s fine.

      You simply cannot pay athletes, only 22 D1 schools are self sufficient – meaning they operate at break even or are profitable. If you are one of the 22, are you the only 22 schools that continue to have a football program? How do the other 98 or so schools pay their football players? The vast majority of revenue generated by the “revenue” sports subsidizes the entire athletic program. As is often said – there are only a few of these kids that go on to the NFL or NBA – by paying athletes and removing a free education from 98 schools x 12-15 sports, you are taking away valuable opportunities for kids who otherwise would not be able to attend college. Not to mention this still does nothing to address the academic integrity issue or the overly involved booster problem.

      I personally believe there are three ways to deal with this:

      1) Leave the current system in place with some changes as mentioned in this article

      2) Allow athletes to own their images (video game companies and clothing companies can pay them for the right to use their likeness) AND allow agents to provide perks and financial benefits to athletes as long as the agent(s) are not working on behalf of any individual school (for fairness in recruiting) – this year Khalil Mack could have made as much at the University of Buffalo as someone from an SEC school.

      3) Leave things as they are, but work with the NFL and NBA to form a NFL-Developmental League and increase opportunities for young players to succeed using the NBA-Developmental League. Athletes should NEVER be forced to attend college, but right now it is their best chance of success.

      I think the idea of forgoing the first 4 years of college for the average athlete is not fair to the 99% of athletes who will never go pro in their sport. graduate at 28 from a four year university? That would be putting them squarely behind the 8 ball in my opinion.

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  2. Andrew, are you really surprised that 10% of athletes at UNC were involved in the “fake classes” each year? After all, we are taking about courses largely populated by black students, and since black athletes comprise a significant portion of blacks on the UNC campus, would you not naturally expect for there to be a large number of athletes in these courses? (I’m sure
    65-70% of the athletes in revenue sports are black.)

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    1. That many black students took courses in AFAM is not surprising (though more white students should do so as well – it’s a great department!). But most AFAM courses were not fake classes — the overrepresentation of athletes in the fake classes in particular, not in AFAM in general, is the issue here.

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  3. Not an original idea, but what about having athletes major or minor in their sports? Those with pro potential could major after one year, with approval (similar to being admitted to the Business School?). Course work could include classes in public speaking/interviewing, financial matters including dealing with agents and contracts and credit would be earned for practice (tests on the playbook?), etc. Those not on the pro track could still have an athletic minor and earn credits for the time spent on their sport, which would reduce the overload on their time.

    I do not like the one (or two or three) and done. One solution might be four year scholarships which if someone leaves after one year they could not be replaced until after the fourth year.

    Thanks for the article – it’s the most reasonable and balanced that I have seen on the subject.

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    1. Rjchard, I think the coursework should focus on sports and sports facility management. Such a major would prepare former athletes for employment as coaches and athletic department work. Learn how to manage a sports arena, football facility, line a field, maintain the court, maintain lighting, coaching, and so on and so on. There’s good money already being paid for people with such knowledge. Why not let student athletes study to enter into such areas, where they probably already have a natural interest.

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  4. Comments from Mike, Richard, Philip, and Jeffrey all take a familiar direction in these conversations: “Let’s do X”, where X is some relatively large-scale reform of the college athletics system. Philip recommends capping coaches’ salaries, and says “faculty should oppose” high salaries. I do oppose them, as do many faculty — which has had, and will have, absolutely no impact on those salaries. Faculty opposition is irrelevant in this area.

    Mike suggests a clever expansion of Complete Carolina, which seems to make sense; Richard suggests a major/minor in sports; Jeffrey suggests specific skills to be taught in such a major/minor. Each of these deserves some attention, but they all share the characteristic that they cannot be carried out by one university. They require systemic changes. I took as my prior in this piece that UNC is not now, and will not be for some time, in a position to be calling for systemic changes (you don’t get to change the rules when you’ve just been caught breaking them!).

    Personally, I also don’t think athletics is even among the top 10 major problems facing public higher education just now, which is why I’m not particularly jazzed about pursuing major systemic changes. Others should feel free to pursue such changes, but I’m limiting my own concerns to making sure UNC is doing the best, most transparent job it can given the existing system.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have to believe that the “fake class” administrator sought to accommodate the athletes demanding schedule. I don’t buy into the sinister “they were set up just to keep athletes eligible”. And Andrew, if UNC is going to continue to admit athletes who can’t possibly compete in the classroom with regular students, then a systemic change is mandatory. If you are going to admit them, give them a chance to succeed; don’t just add more tutors and remedial courses. UNC should not be doing what high schools are supposed to do.

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  5. How can you say UNC’s reforms are “based on academic integrity” when Jan Boxill is scheduled to teach PHIL 266.001 – Ethics of Sport in the Spring 2015 semester?

    This is a professor who knowingly submitted plagiarized papers to Deborah Crowder and dictated what grades they should receive so basketball players could remain eligible.

    And she’s still scheduled to teach a class called Ethics of Sport?

    Forgive me if I am skeptical of all this talk of “reform.”

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  6. Andrew,
    It is encouraging to see a UNC official agreeing that the “everybody does it” defense is invalid in this case, especially in the way you characterize the UNC scandal as “outright fraud” as opposed to easy classes.

    That being said, there are many things you represent here, which can only be stomached by those with incomplete information or those staring through light blue colored glasses.

    1) The Wainstein investigation being “independent.” – UNC commissioned, defined the scope, and paid for this investigation. Nobody outside Chapel Hill and unaffiliated with the university thinks it was an independent investigation.

    2) Assigning validity of any kind to discussion/analysis/conclusions based on the number of athletes/non-athletes involved in the fake classes is disingenuous. The supporting documents from Wainstein clearly show that the fake class perpetrators specifically manipulated the student mix to avoid detection of the fraud.

    3) Do-gooder motivations – Buying this story is comforting to those trying to justify the fraud but is also disingenuous. These statements in the UNC commissioned Wainstein report, as well as the inclusion of unchallenged denials by Roy Williams et. al., benefit from an aura of validation by being included in the report along with assertions backed up by hard data. The story of why the perpetrators committed the fraud should be heavily questioned as these statements are only being made after they were caught red-handed. As they are not under oath in the report, they have no reason to be truthful and are likely to be telling the investigators whatever they think will paint their behavior in the best light.

    4) Mary Willingham – Your description of her materials and presentation is very unbalanced from a partisan viewpoint. It is surprising to see this published on the internet while she is currently suing the university for damages that are at least partly justified by exactly such “attack the messenger” activities carried out by Provost Dean and others. Are you trying to get yourself added to the lawsuit?

    5) Football blame – You bring it up in passing, but never mention basketball. It is clear from looking at the dates and participant counts that the genesis of this scheme lays at the foot of the Men’s basketball program. The body count from the football team in the later years of the scandal tends to cover up the scale of the basketball participation since there are so many more players on the football team. However, the proportional participation of the basketball team in the fake classes is much higher and starts earlier in time.

    As long as UNC continues to try to avoid any punishment for the basketball team, this scandal will live on. No amount of future reforms can erase 20+ years of sanctimonious UNC platitudes directed at the rest of the collegiate world while they were running this fraud in the background.

    Can you please explain why UNC continues to act like they feel there should be no repercussions for the UNC basketball team?

    Bob

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    1. Mostly I’m inclined to let Bob’s reply stand as a valid alternative viewpoint. There are a couple of things to correct, though:

      1. I’m not a “UNC official,” just an involved, informed, and concerned member of the faculty.
      2. I don’t know of *anybody* trying to “justify the fraud.”
      3. My reason for raising the Mary Willingham situation is the large number of people claiming that the Wainstein Report shows that she was right, even a heroine, and deserves an official apology. The evidence simply doesn’t support that position. It’s particularly disturbing that any criticism of her claims and arguments (which is what I provide here) is simply recast as criticism of her. I do not think Mary Willingham is a “bad person” (

        ). I do think the evidence matters, and the evidence is that in many of the specific statements she made there were major errors, overblown claims, and breaches of ethics.

      4. Football is much larger than any other sport, which may well explain its greater involvement. The evidence is clear that basketball players (men’s and women’s) were involved as well.
      5. I’m not sure how to parse “UNC continues to act like they feel there should be no repercussions for the UNC basketball team.” Can you provide specific examples? I am sure there will be punishment, but I don’t know or have strong views as to what that punishment should be. I don’t begrudge the resentment of “20+ years of sanctimonious platitudes!” Again, though, my personal interest is in how we as UNC faculty insure that nothing like this happens again.

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      1. Andrew,
        I appreciate the thoughtful reply. On your points….

        1) You might not view yourself as a UNC official, but you are as far as the public eye is concerned. You ran for an elected UNC office and you are employed by UNC in a well paid position. I work in a public company and while not an officer of the company, if I go on the internet or to the press and make statements about my company, I will be viewed as a company official.

        2) I don’t disagree and I don’t think I claimed anyone was doing that. There are many that stop way short of calling it fraud as you did.

        3) I understadn your viewpoint on Mary, but my contention is that it is biased unairly. Mary is far from perfect in how she has handled the whole sequence of events, but I think your characterization of many of her faults is overboard. This whole situation of UNC staff attacking her is a sensitive spot after what Provost Dean did with the hired guns to discredit her data based on a very narrow “study.” Many of the conclusions of Dean and other UNC proponents related to Mary are very hard to stomach because of the biased approach they took. The main issue in this affair is that regardless of whether Mary was 50,70,90% correct or even 0% correct in her study, she was whistle blowing the whole general scandal and was being treated poorly by UNC admins as a result. When you cast yourself in the vein of piling on with Provost Dean and the others, you open yourself up for being painted with the same brush by those who oppose them.

        4) The important point I am hoping you don’t miss is that Men’s basketball started it all. At least that is what the data shows.

        5) Bubba Cunningham is on record as saying there is no need for UNC to sanction itself as a result of the Wainstein report. All official communications from UNC focus on “moving forward” with no discussion of any self-sanctions or actions related to the basketball team at all. Roy Williams is example #A1. He has a contract where he gets paid if his players do well in the classroom. However he is on record in the press variously (depending on which way the wind is blowing) as either knowing every detail of what his players are enrolled in and how they are doing, or knowing nothing about all of the fake classes. How can you justify getting paid a bonus for an activity you claim to know nothing about? Either way, he shouldn’t be getting paid extra for athletes getting fraudulent grades.

        It’s useful to use analogies to see how poor UNC’s behavior has been in being accountable. A good one to use in this case is to imagine that the scandal was a financial one instead at a bank or investment firm. You have a group of bank tellers and branch managers that run a fraudulent investment scheme. The scheme results in certain bank VPs and account reps making huge profits. If this were the real world, when the scheme is uncovered, the bank would fire all the tellers and managers involved, but also the VPs and account reps. They would also get court orders to reclaim the fraudulent proceeds from the VPs and account reps. However, if UNC was running the bank, they would apparently fire the bank tellers, put the branch managers on secret probation and put out a press release about how the VPs are very sorry this happened but they see no reason to pay back any money.

        The Wainstein report clearly shows that he has the data to determine each and every player whose eligibility to participate in athletic events was fraudulent. This includes the basketball team. UNC should immediately compile a list of which teams and years are affected and vacate those victories. Every other academic scandal at every other school has required this. UNC can get ahead of the need to “move forward” by doing something like this. It will also wake up all of the people following UNC that think it’s OK to just claim “everybody does it” and move on as if nothing happened. This is also one of the key components to making sure it doesn’t happen again. As long as there are no sanctions, there will continue to be pressure within and without the university to keep the fraud going.

        Bob

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