Jan Boxill apparently doesn’t want to talk. The chairwoman of the faculty council at the University of North Carolina’s flagship campus hasn’t returned my e-mail or phone messages. That’s odd, because I’m becoming a minor thorn in the vaunted Tar Heel.
Boxill is one of the most important academic officials at one of the nation’s most revered public institutions of higher learning. Her reticence, along with her past (lack of) leadership, help illuminate what’s gone very wrong in Chapel Hill, N.C. A new CNN national investigative survey of academic underperformance by college athletes, to which I’ll return in a moment, underscores why the UNC story should be of concern not just in North Carolina, but across the country.
Let’s start with Boxill. UNC’s faculty elected her chair in 2011, in the midst of a series of all-too-familiar fiascoes involving improper benefits for athletes from agents and excessive classroom help from campus tutors. The National Collegiate Athletic Association investigated; the athletic director and varsity football coach departed. Shortly after Boxill became faculty chair, a different and more troubling scandal came to light: Faculty members had created no-show classes to ease the lives of campus athletes, boosting their grade point averages and graduation rates.
Installed at a critical moment for UNC, when the relationship between sports and academics had come under much-needed scrutiny, Boxill was the first non-tenured scholar elected to head the faculty, according to the News & Observer of Raleigh. In some ways, she might have seemed an ideal person to address the intellectual cancer spreading from UNC’s Athletic Department to its classrooms. A senior lecturer in philosophy, she specializes in sports ethics and her recent publications include a chapter on ethical decisions in the book Introduction to Sports Management. The former women’s basketball coach at the University of Tampa, she began serving as the public address announcer for UNC women’s basketball in 1985 and soon started providing academic counseling to Chapel Hill athletes. Even as she rose in the academic ranks, Boxill has continued to do local radio commentary on women’s basketball.
Unfortunately, Boxill’s enthusiasm for Tar Heel basketball may have slowed her response to mounting evidence of academic fraud. The News & Observer‘s Dan Kane has dug up internal correspondence showing that that she “watered down” a faculty committee report into the no-show classes scandal to make it less likely that the NCAA would send investigators back to campus. At Boxill’s behest, the authors of the report diluted a suggestion that bogus classes were created within UNC’s African and Afro-American Studies Department as part of a larger campaign to maintain athletes’ eligibility. One of the most dismaying aspects of the UNC affair is that top university officials have consistently tried to obfuscate the connection between the Athletic Department’s goal of fielding top-flight teams and the creation of hundreds of phony classes going back to the early 1990s.
As the News & Observer has demonstrated, the NCAA has shied away from renewed investigation at UNC on the dubious grounds that the academic fraud doesn’t originate with sports and athlete-eligibility concerns. Boxill is in an ideal position to sound the alarm and initiate a house-cleaning program; she appears to have done the opposite. In an e-mail response to the News & Observer, she said she simply wanted “to make sure the facts were reported correctly without implications and innuendos we were not in a position to know.”
On reflection, one wonders whether a former basketball coach so dedicated to her sport that she still does radio commentary was the right person to be making such calls. Faculty colleagues have stood behind Boxill.
The recent criminal indictment of UNC’s former long-time African & Afro-American Studies Department chairman serves as a signal that the situation at Chapel Hill deserves more attention. It’s well established that numerous Afro-Am courses never met, but we don’t know whose idea that was originally, how so many Tar Heel football and basketball players ended up in the sham classes, and whether the practice existed in other fields of study as well. The university’s suggestion that the problem resulted from one rogue department chairman seems ludicrous at best. Making the entire situation even more outrageous is that a department devoted to black culture was corrupted to cheat a predominantly black population of athletes out of the education they supposedly went to Chapel Hill to receive. Where are the civil rights protests?
CNN’s good work projects this strange, sad story out of North Carolina and gives it national scope. “A CNN investigation found public universities across the country where many students in the basketball and football programs could read only up to an eighth-grade level,” the cable network reported on its website. “The data obtained through open records requests also showed a staggering achievement gap between college athletes and their peers at the same institution.”
Read the full CNN report. It contains not only disturbing statistics but also a harrowing anecdotal lead in which a campus “learning specialist” named Mary Willingham met a basketball player who was looking for help with classwork. “He couldn’t read or write,” Willingham told CNN. He wasn’t unique. He was a “student” at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.