Jay M. Smith and Mary Willingham provide an analysis of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) academics-athletics scandal that began in 2010 from their perspectives as UNC employees. Willingham was a tutor in the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes who went public with claims of academic fraud at UNC. Smith was a professor of history who researched these academic irregularities and pressed the UNC administration and faculty to formally investigate the issue and implement reform.
What began as an investigation of football players receiving improper benefits, including gifts and contact with sports agents, quickly spread to uncovering examples of academic misconduct, with tutors from the Academic Support Program providing improper assistance to student-athletes. Further investigation uncovered widespread academic fraud especially within the African and Afro-American Studies (AFRI/AFAM) program where “paper classes” were being offered with large student-athlete enrollments. These classes, which usually did not meet, only required that students submit a research paper in order receive a passing grade, typically an A or B. In 2003-2004, AFRI/AFAM was offering almost 300 independent study sections, largely consisting of paper classes; enrollment in one independent study course in 2001 topped out at 80 students. Further, creation and/or enrollment of these sections was often supervised by the department’s administrative assistant with little or no faculty oversight.
Although athletes were not the only students enrolled in these courses, they were well-represented. Academic Support Program tutors took full advantage by not only steering student-athletes to enroll in them, but also pressuring faculty and the departmental administrative assistant to create additional courses and sections. The authors describe how student-athletes who were not prepared academically to enroll at UNC received special exceptions for admission to the institution and were assigned a tutor who not only assisted them with coursework, but assigned both their majors and schedules, leaving the students powerless to choose their own courses of study. Smith and Willingham argue that the university should provide adequate and meaningful remedial support to students it has chosen to admit as well as empower them to choose and follow their own academic destinies in order to prepare them for life after their athletic careers end (and as they are promised when recruited).
Another troubling aspect of the UNC academics-athletics scandal as described by the authors was the complicity not only of the university’s administration, but also of faculty governance in protecting the status quo. Smith and Willingham provide extensive details regarding faculty and administrative discussions, investigations, reports and decisions, all of which served to protect the Athletics Department from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which was conducting its own review, and further resulted in separating the UNC athletic enterprise from the academic mission of the institution. In fact, a report commissioned by former North Carolina Governor Jim Martin in 2012 supported previous internal UNC investigations that defined the fraud as primarily an academic problem, largely absolving the Athletic Department and its Academic Support Program of wrongdoing.
Willingham left UNC 2014 and settled a lawsuit with the university in March 2015. She founded Paper Class Inc. (http://paperclassinc.com) along with Smith as a means to continue to advocate for college sports reform. Since the writing of this book, UNC hired former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein to conduct an independent investigation. The report, released in October 2014, detailed over 18 years of academic fraud and irregularities at UNC. In June 2015, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission (SACS) placed UNC on probation due to the exposure of academic fraud at the institution. UNC has begun to implement initiatives intended to correct academic irregularities. According the UNC Athletics website, the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes now reports directly to the Office of the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost.
Willingham and Smith provide a thorough, if disturbing, view of big-time college athletics from an academic affairs perspective within a prominent research institution.
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