The N.C.A.A. gumshoes have recently awakened from their slumber and, in December, filed a tough set of accusations against the university, the latest in an investigation bending and twisting — some might say stalling — during the past few years.
University officials take great umbrage at this. They claim to have investigated thoroughly. This is nonsense. I waded through their reports, and it was like watching a reluctant striptease.
The first reports, declared definitive by top administrators, found a problem with a professor and an administrator in the department in question, African and Afro-American studies. No one else knew, not the athletic director, the dean, or the army of tutors and athletic support personnel. “Aberrant” and “irregular,” the report’s authors harrumphed. Sleepy N.C.A.A. officials signed off: No real scandal here; let’s move on.
Emails show, however, that behind the scenes, the university officials and board members knew that the misconduct extended deeper. The chairman of the Board of Governors wrote in an email that he had repeatedly asked administrators to purge people who were involved in “fake classes.”
“Their inability to answer this basic question undermines their credibility,” he wrote.
It’s important to stop here and bow in the direction of one newspaper, The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and its reporter on the story, Dan Kane, who took to the scent like the finest of bloodhounds. He exposed nearly every corruption, including the emails mentioned here.
University officials reacted in time-honored fashion: They heaped abuse on the reporter and the paper, accusing them of vox populi scandal-mongering. Nor did the university appreciate faculty members who had the temerity to ask why a top academic institution tolerated decades of terrible education for its athletes.
A historian, Jay Smith, has written a book, “Cheated,” on this case, and recently taught a class: “Big-Time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes, 1956 to the Present.” Students loved it; his classroom was filled. Last fall, the university canceled the class for a year.
“It’s very disillusioning to live through the last six years here,” Smith told me. “The university is operating like a crime family, and it shows the lengths to which they will go to protect their athletic machine.”
Administrators finally commissioned a thorough report by Kenneth Wainstein, a former United States assistant attorney general, in 2014. The dimensions of the scandal he unearthed were daunting.
He reported that 3,100 students had received one or more semesters of lousy instruction and that poor work found reward in high grades. Student athletes, particularly those from the “revenue sports” — basketball and football — were steered to these poor or nonexistent courses, and in some cases, they were told they could sleep in class.
Many shared in the dirty secrets.
“Beyond those university personnel who were aware of red flags,” Wainstein wrote, “there were a large number among the Chapel Hill faculty, deans and athletics personnel, who knew that there were easy-grading classes with little rigor.”
“Little rigor” is a term of art that begs for definition.
Wainstein asked three outside experts to look at a sample of class papers. They found that in 40 percent of the papers, one-quarter or more of the content was plagiarized. The average grade for those papers was close to an A-minus.
It is worth noting that The News & Observer unearthed concrete evidence of worse, which is to say that athletes were given classes and “independent studies” that flat-out did not exist. And Rashad McCants, a former player on the Tar Heels’ basketball team, said that tutors regularly wrote papers for students. A number of his teammates have disputed this.
As always, mum was the word. Wainstein notes that many administrators “made a conscious decision not to ask questions” about irregularities. Some faculty members took the role of useful fools, vigorously defending the indefensible.
So the outlines of the mess came into focus. And the university dropped pretense. Last fall, its lawyers acknowledged that, yes, we have deeply flawed classes, but that is a matter for an accrediting organization. It is none of the N.C.A.A.’s business. They argued that N.C.A.A. investigators had had their chance to unearth this years ago. They muffed it, and so, tough luck.
“We’ve worked collaboratively with the N.C.A.A. enforcement staff,” said Bubba Cunningham, the university’s director of athletics. “We have serious concerns about the process.”
Cunningham is a man under much pressure. College sport, however, has its rewards. Last autumn, the university gave him a $60,000 raise, bringing his salary to $705,853.
Woven into the issue are questions of race, and class, and the grotesque economics of big-time college sports.
A few years back, Reginald Hildebrand, who is black and is a retired professor of history who taught in the department of African and Afro-American studies, wrote a searching essay. He pointed to evidence that, made-up classes aside, it was an otherwise rigorous department.
He wrote of the fundamental conflict between the educational mission of a great university and “running a successful professional minor league franchise” such as Tar Heels basketball. A good coach, he noted, for a revenue-producing sport is paid more than some entire departments. When athletics sets the priorities, one cannot help but corrode the other.
Then there’s the question of athletes who arrive at this elite university with often ragged academics.
“Everybody believes in affirmative action when it comes to the admission of athletes,” Hildebrand wrote.
North Carolina has made a show of addressing this, hiring a legion of tutors and note takers and building a 29,000-square-foot academic support center. This, Hildebrand notes, is done so that the athletes can survive in the classroom while never losing their focus on athletics, which is why they are at the university.
The athletes could be pulled into the mainstream of the university, he wrote, but to do so would require many hours of extra study in those first semesters, and time away from sport.
“It isn’t that coaches don’t really care about the welfare of the young men,” Hildebrand noted. “It’s just that they have millions of dollars at stake.”
So we have a truth outburst. Few coaches of sound mind would think of echoing it. In October 2014, reporters asked Williams about the N.C.A.A. investigation. He sighed.
“It’s been a pain in the rear end,” he said. “I feel strongly, strongly, that we did things the right way.”
He was strongly incorrect. Then again, he makes $2 million a year and got more than $500,000 for making it to the Final Four. So what do I know?
The expired are more honest. Butch Davis was fired as football coach in 2011 during the investigation into the academics of his program.
The Wainstein report described his awakening when he arrived at Chapel Hill in 2006: “He quickly realized that there was lots of talk about the importance of academics without anything to back up that talk. He found Chapel Hill’s attitude toward student-athlete academics to be like an Easter egg: Beautiful and impressive to the outside world but without much life inside.”
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