When athletics trumps academics

The investigation into UNC's "paper classes" is in, and it isn't something to be proud of:

A "woeful lack of oversight" and a culture that confused academic freedom with a lack of accountability helped more than 3,100 students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- many of them athletes -- enroll and pass classes they never attended and which were not taught by a single faculty member.

At least nine employees have been fired or disciplined so far, though Carol Folt, UNC's chancellor, said the university will not name the employees. "I know the Carolina community will find these findings sobering," Folt said during a press conference Wednesday. "This never should have been allowed to happen."

Speaking of sobering, it wasn't just ill-prepared athletes who took part in this scheme, the Frat Boys soon discovered they could party until the sun came up and still show mommy and daddy an impressive grade point average:

These "paper classes" were designed as independent study courses. The only work required of the students was a research paper, and they were nearly guaranteed an A or a B no matter the quality. Forty percent of the 150 papers analyzed by investigators were at least 25 percent plagiarized, the report stated. These papers generally received A- grades. Later, Crowder created a different type of paper class that was designated as a lecture course. The course appeared in the catalog as having a meeting room and a meeting time, but no students ever met.

No faculty members were involved in the courses, with Crowder signing up students, assigning them their papers, and doing all of the grading. Word of how easy the courses were spread around campus, attracting other types of students -- most prominently members of UNC's fraternities, some of whom took so many courses in the department that they inadvertently minored in African and Afro-American Studies.

And just to say it: Something this controversial, well-known and enduring, could not have gone unrecognized by the University's administration.



The reaction

Some are saying this is a local story that will "blow over" after a few news cycles. However, I think it will linger, especially with the lawsuits and other public debate about the amateur status of college athletes, the role of the NCAA, and broader discussions about the costs of higher education, student loans, and the big money involved in what is supposed to be "amateur" sport.

Here in NC, the Teabaggers and Art Pope conservatives will latch on to the fact that the scandal centered on an Afro-American Studies department, calling all Humanities and minority-focused academic programs as a sham. The truth is that this scandal could have happened in most any department at UNC with the right combination of corrupt staff and department leadership on auto-pilot.

The sad truth is that the UNC scandal exposes the type of academic shenanigans going on at many universities that focus on athletics. It includes a whole range of problems from pressures to inflate grades to careful scheduling of easy classes and custom "tutoring" to custom classes, all available to NCAA athletes and not to the larger student body. It's the "dirty little secret" of many name-brand US colleges and universities.

Already, the Republicans in Congress are going on fishing expeditions against Federal funding of basic science research at American universities. Some are probably salivating at the chance to bash public universities even more. By allowing these practices to fester for so many years, UNC has done itself and the larger academic community no favors.

The rounds of reports by UNC that have tried to deflect blame for this to a few individuals and their attempts to minimize the PR damage is as bad as the scandal itself.

What bears watching here are possible Congressional hearings that start peeling back some of the layers of fortress walls that have been erected around big money sports programs by university administrators and the NCAA.

Whatever happens at the national level with this scandal, we can be guaranteed that McCrory's response will be tepid and partisan, blaming "previous administrations" and rehashing his talking points about the UNC system offering "job training". We can always depend on McCrory to offer the best in dull incompetence and non-responses in any kind of crisis.

But, then again, perhaps all of this will be forgotten about when March Madness rolls around. Who cares about academics when there's basketball tv ratings and merchandising to worry about?

All the Humanities will suffer, I'm afraid

But you're right, the minority studies are likely to be removed completely in the wake of this. And considering the battles being fought right now over high school history texts, we're liable to find ourselves back in the 1950's one of these days in the near future, where African-Americans hardly get a mention in the pages or the classrooms.

Art & Pat must be pleased

They seem to view universities as corporate worker training factories, so expect them to latch onto this as an excuse to force universities to change curricula.

"I will have a priority on building relationships with the minority caucus. I want to put substance behind those campaign speeches." -- Thom Tillis, Nov. 5, 2014