Four Blunt Points About UNC, College Sports, and Academic Corruption

Photograph by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The powers that be in North Carolina seem unable to accept that the scandal roiling the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill has become ground zero in a national debate about how big-time college sports undermines education. This is a story about the moral foundation of a multibillion-dollar business: Division 1 of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. That’s why we’re devoting time and energy to it at Bloomberg Businessweek.

Tens of millions of Americans—college basketball and football fans—are loyal customers of NCAA Inc. Ultimately it’s up to them to demand that the universities sponsoring lucrative sports extravaganzas live up to their promise: that in exchange for athletic services, undergraduates will receive a meaningful education. With that in mind, here are four blunt points to ponder while the UNC drama unfolds:

1. Keep your eye on the ball.
UNC’s administration for years has obfuscated the core elements of what’s gone wrong at Chapel Hill, and that pattern continues. This rigid defensiveness speaks volumes about the mindset that dominates the NCAA’s “revenue sports.” To cut through the fog of denial and personal vilification, one has to remain focused on what’s important: At UNC, the university’s own internal reviews and investigations—limited though they’ve been—have shown that since the 1990s, football and basketball players have been steered into fake “paper classes” that didn’t meet. Grades were routinely altered without authorization, and faculty signatures were forged.

Top university administrators have refused to acknowledge that this corruption resulted from a campaign to keep football and basketball players academically eligible to play. Instead, administrators have implied that the phony classes and grades were the work of one rogue department chairman, who in December was criminally indicted for defrauding the university.

UNC’s resistance to connecting the dots between its powerful Athletic Department and the counterfeit classes defies logic and reveals, at a minimum, willful blindness. The pending prosecution of longtime African and Afro-American Studies professor Julius Nyang’oro—and the prospect that, in pursuit of leniency, the former department chairman will explain who actually initiated and knew about the bogus classes—may finally force UNC leaders to face reality. Let’s hope so. The NCAA, for its part, has been equally lax in accepting the school’s implausible contention that there was no connection between sports and academic fraud.

2. The problem probably wasn’t limited to one department.
Why would it have been? Yes, numerous varsity athletes majored in African and Afro-American Studies, raising serious questions about whether past Tar Heel champion basketball teams were populated by players whose eligibility, in retrospect, ought to be questioned. But if authorities were earnest about wanting to find out just how widely the rot has spread, they would investigate the transcripts of all varsity players for the past 20 years, scrutinizing whether dubious grades were available from other departments. That kind of aggressive probe hasn’t occurred. Administrators just don’t want to know.

3. Rather than engage in painful introspection, UNC has changed the subject to Mary Willingham.
A campus “learning specialist,” Willingham blew the whistle on the shameful coddling of athletes. She explained to Dan Kane of the Raleigh News & Observer how for years she and her fellow tutors steered basketball and football players into sham classes, crippling them intellectually. She was just doing her job—until her guilty conscience prompted her to speak out.

On the side, Willingham, who has a masters degree, did some research on UNC athletes’ literacy levels. She gathered statistics that reinforced her personal experience that an alarming percentage of football and basketball players can’t read or write at a college level. She informed UNC’s top brass. Last summer, they rewarded her candor with a demotion and ostracism. Then, last week, in response to CNN’s having cited Willingham’s research, among other data, the university orchestrated the campus version of a public flogging.

At a faculty meeting on Friday, Provost Jim Dean accused Willingham of scholarly malpractice. “Using this data set to say that our students can’t read is a travesty and unworthy of this university,” Dean declared. “These claims have been unfair to the students, unfair to the admissions officers, unfair to the university.”

It’s difficult to know where to start in refuting Dean’s denunciation. First, to be fair, UNC raised interesting questions about whether Willingham correctly analyzed the facts and figures she gathered. She told me that she stands by her work. At least part of the discrepancy appears to arise from UNC’s stressing different and more recent data than the numbers Willingham relied on. I haven’t reached a firm conclusion about the statistical dispute. But I think it’s very possible that in its zeal to discredit a dissident, UNC has compared apples to oranges, vastly overstating Willingham’s mistakes, if she made any at all.

Much more important, though, is UNC’s transparent attempt to change the topic from undisputed fraud (phony classes, faked grades) to Mary Willingham. The “travesty,” to use Provost Dean’s highly charged word, consists not of one chagrined staff tutor who may—and I stress may—have misinterpreted test results. The travesty is that UNC put athletes in pretend Swahili language classes to keep them eligible. The “unfairness” stems not from Willingham’s desire to come clean after years of participating in a dirty system. It stems from UNC cheating its basketball and football stars out of the education they deserve. And let’s not forget that non-athlete students became collateral damage when they unwittingly wandered into sham classes that did nothing to build their knowledge or skills.

4. UNC students are learning a horribly misguided lesson.
By far the most disheartening reaction I’ve seen to the Tar Heel fiasco has been UNC student body President Christy Lambden’s statement (PDF), issued on Friday. Expressing lockstep support for the administration, he said student leaders “are convinced that the procedures and protocols that have been put in place are exactly the right measures to ensure that student-athletes at Carolina continue to succeed academically.” Lambden lashed out at Willingham for “hurt[ing] the reputation of Carolina without cause and in doing so hurt[ing] its students and student-athletes, for seemingly no other reason than to draw attention and to create a buzz-worthy story.”

This is exactly backwards. UNC has sullied its own reputation by hosting Potemkin courses. The university has hurt the students enrolled in those courses. Willingham, who has no discernible appetite for celebrity, has tried to put a stop to the harm. Sadly, Lambden and presumably other future Tar Heel alumni prefer to preserve the athletic spectacles they so enjoy, rather than consider the real costs to themselves and their classmates.

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.

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