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.