James Dean, the executive vice chancellor and provost of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, flew to New York, arriving at Bloomberg headquarters on Saturday to deliver a heartening message. He wanted to do it in person. “We made mistakes. Horrible things happened that I’m ashamed of,” he said over coffee in our newsroom, sparsely populated on a weekend. “Student-athletes and other students, too, were hurt” as a result of hundreds of phony classes offered beginning sometime in the 1990s. “The integrity of our university was badly damaged.”
Chapel Hill’s top executive for academics, its No. 2 official overall, came to New York to underscore that his fine university—a pillar of public education and a force in Division 1 sports—”hasn’t been clear enough about what went wrong.” He said he and his boss, Chancellor Carol Folt, are determined to change direction. “To fix things, we have to understand what actually happened in the past,” Dean added. He came to us because Bloomberg Businessweek has been examining the corruption of academics at Chapel Hill—although such problems are not unique to the school—as an illustration of how the drive to win lucrative college basketball and football championships undermines the education of undergraduates.
NCAA Inc. is a multibillion-dollar industry with tens of millions of avid customers—college sports fans. Holding UNC and the rest of the National Collegiate Athletic Association accountable, therefore, seems appropriate.
Dean, whose recent actions and public comments I’ve criticized as tending to obfuscate more than clarify, left little doubt in my mind that at least the message from Chapel Hill changed last week. Whether the rhetorical shift signals a deeper adjustment of actions and attitudes remains to be seen. Dean amplified comments made Thursday by Folt to the university’s board of trustees acknowledging “a failure in academic oversight for years” that was “wrong and…undermined our integrity and our reputation.” She added: “We actually do feel accountable and…we’re going to learn from that painful history.”
That painful history consists of the transformation of UNC’s former African and Afro-American Studies Department into a factory churning out fake grades from phony classes disproportionately attended by varsity athletes. No one is disputing that anymore. What’s still unclear is the degree to which Chapel Hill’s powerful Athletic Department initiated and/or exploited the fraudulent Afro-Am department. (It has since been reformed and “rebranded,” Dean pointed out, as African, African-American, and Diaspora Studies.)
In the most important piece of actual news he delivered during his visit to New York—news that as far as I can tell has not been reported anywhere else—Dean said he had commissioned an internal study on the entire history of African and African-American studies at UNC. He said he’s determined to get to the bottom of what forces and personalities caused the program’s ugly corruption. He also vowed to “look at” whether athletes were “clustering” in other departments and classes reputed to be the source of easy grades. If these inquiries are thorough and followed by changes, UNC could go from outlaw to leader in cleaning up the relationship between Division 1 “revenue sports,” as they’re known, and the provision of real undergraduate education.
Here are some of Dean’s other main points:
It didn’t happen on our watch. Folt and Dean assumed their positions just last summer. She came from Dartmouth; he had been the dean of UNC’s highly regarded business school. Eight campus officials tainted by the sports-academics scandal have either been fired or resigned under pressure, including Holden Thorp, Folt’s predecessor as chancellor, an athletic director, a varsity football coach, and the supervisor of the campus office that provides special tutoring to athletes. Also gone are the former long-time chairman of the counterfeit Afro-Am department, Julius Nyang’oro, and his administrative assistant. Nyang’oro was criminally indicted in December for defrauding UNC.
Until the last few days, the university’s leadership seemed intent on hanging all culpability around the necks of Nyang’oro and his aide. That made no sense: Why would a lone scholar have taken it upon himself to prop up athletes’ eligibility, and how could he have operated his scam for nearly two decades undetected? Now Dean and Folt are conceding that the story is more complicated and does have something to do with athletics.
That concession ought to bring NCAA investigators back to Chapel Hill. The sports association took a pass on probing the scandal, based on the notion that it didn’t have anything to do with athletes and therefore was outside the NCAA’s jurisdiction.
We’ve already made progress. Dean outlined a range of nascent reforms: New leadership for and tighter supervision of the athlete-tutoring office; more rigorous oversight of admissions exceptions made for athletes; a fresh “strategic plan” for the Athletic Department, aiming to keep UNC among the top three schools in its conference and the top 10 in all Division 1 schools in both academics and sports. This all sounds promising, assuming the school follows through.
No reforms will completely eliminate the anomalies created by the American decision to situate a multibillion-dollar sports business within institutions of higher learning. Those anomalies are exacerbated by the distortion of academic standards to admit top football and basketball players in the first place; the pretense that top Division 1 athletes—players who see themselves as candidates for the pros—really have the time, energy, or interest to take classes seriously; and the unfairness that so many people and corporations make so much money from college sports, while the performers are compensated not with cash but with an education that all too often lacks substance. UNC and its fellow participants in NCAA Inc. can do a lot to diminish deceit, but they can’t cure the basic conundrum that striving for the NBA or NFL doesn’t necessarily mix well with learning calculus or literature.
Disputing the the whistle-blower on campus. As I’ve noted in earlier posts, Mary Willingham has done more than anyone else to shed light on the problems at UNC. A campus “learning specialist” who tutored athletes for years, she went public in 2012 with the revelation that she and colleagues steered some of their charges toward fake “paper classes” and otherwise grappled with well-muscled undergraduates who couldn’t read or write at a college level. Dean and other officials have responded to Willingham’s whistle-blowing by viciously attacking her in public and condemning some statistical analysis she’s done of athlete reading skills. The debate about Willingham’s research deserves resolution; if she’s made mistakes, then invalid results should be set aside. (I haven’t come to a conclusion on the statistical clash.)
Willingham’s larger contribution, however, eclipses her disputed research—a point UNC’s leadership still doesn’t want to admit. It matters whether her numbers are solid, but it matters far more whether she’s telling the basic truth about the woeful education that’s been offered to athletes with whom she’s worked personally.
Dean, normally a measured man and every inch the courtly former business school dean, got emotional in our conversation when discussing Willingham. “She’s said that our students can’t read, our athletes can’t read, and that’s a lie,” he said. “Mary Willingham has done our students a great disservice.”
That’s a gross distortion of Willingham’s statements. Interpreted fairly, what she’s said is that her analysis of test data shows that 18 out of about 180 athletes whose records she assessed could be considered to read at a grammar-school level. She’s never claimed that most, let alone all, of the 800 athletes on campus at any given time are illiterate. And she has said nothing at all about the larger student body of 18,000.
When I interrupted Dean to point out his distortion of Willingham’s claims, he immediately conceded he had misspoken and restated his criticism in more precise terms. He also said that he doesn’t think Willingham is a liar—then why use the word “lie”?—assumes she’s well meaning, and shares with him and Folt the ultimate goal of seeing that top athletes leave Chapel Hill with an education that prepares them for life beyond the sports arena.
All good in a conference room on the third floor of the Bloomberg building. I appreciated Dean’s willingness to dial back his verbal assault on Willingham. Killing the messenger solves nothing, and it’s beneath the dignity of UNC. The very next step university leaders could take to signal their new candor and good will is to stop all public pillorying of Willingham and instead honor her as someone who’s bravely revealing inconvenient truths.
NOTE: Peter Grauer, the chairman of Bloomberg L.P., which owns Bloomberg Businessweek, is a trustee of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and sits on its Foundation Board and the UNC Global Research Institute Board.