Friday, June 5, 2015

UNC's Lack of Institutional Control: Not an Athletics-Driven Scandal

As expected, the NCAA has accused UNC of lacking institutional control. No one should be surprised by that allegation.

However, contrary to the news media’s narrative, UNC’s alleged lack of institutional control (LOIC) was not the result of a corrupt Athletics department. Rather, UNC’s alleged LOIC was the result of a complacent Arts & Sciences (A&S) administration. Prior to receiving the notice of allegations (NOA), we had evidence that five A&S deans possessed at least some knowledge of either Julius Nyang’oro’s anomalous course offerings or his dereliction of duties, yet none of the deans intervened enough to put a halt to the infamous paper classes. The news media has ignored the deans’ failings, but the NCAA has rightly (for once) made the deans the focus of the LOIC allegation, stating that “individuals in the academic administration on campus, particularly in the college of arts and sciences” failed to supervise academic departments within the College (NOA, p. 49).

Again, the evidence pointing to A&S’s lack of institutional control (LOIC) has been available for quite some time, particularly in the Wainstein Report. Yet academic failings, though actually more threatening to a university’s integrity, are not as inherently sensational as the athletics-driven scandal the news media, especially the N&O, needs the story to be. The news media’s narrative of an athletics-driven scandal is now so entrenched in unthinking people’s minds that the NCAA’s clear allegation of LOIC against A&S will be hard for many media consumers even to recognize.

Nonetheless, the facts are clear: the paper classes were not the result of Athletics corruption.

A&S Deans

Primary among the facts the news media, especially the N&O, has refused to acknowledge is that Athletics informed A&S about the paper classes. Specifically, Senior Associate Athletics Director John Blanchard discussed the paper classes with Senior Associate Dean Bobbie Owen, and she told him that professors have the academic freedom to conduct their classes however they choose. The Wainstein Report states that Owen recalled

conversations with John Blanchard about the propriety of AFAM lecture courses that were reportedly being conducted as independent studies. Blanchard approached Owen with his concern, and while Owen does not recall precise details of the conversation, she stated that she would have told Blanchard that the professors decide how to teach their classes. Owen explained that even as the Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education, she was not responsible for course content; instead, she reported, the faculty are responsible for what happens inside their classrooms (Wainstein Report, p. 104).

Furthermore, the Wainstein Report reveals that Fred Clark, who was an Associate Dean for several years, not only knew about but also recommended the paper classes to students:

Clark was aware of the AFAM paper classes at the time that they were offered; his understanding was that they were courses that required a long paper and did not require attendance. Clark explained that professors do not question other professors’ courses, and so long as a department was offering a course, it was a legitimate course. As an advisor, Clark would frequently advise students to consult with the AFAM Department to see what courses were available, as he knew that the AFAM courses were not overly taxing and were popular with students (p. 107).

Important to note is that Clark was the Associate Dean to whom the director of the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes (ASPSA) reported. Though the Wainstein Report does not mention this, I have learned in interviews for my documentary film that Clark reaffirmed to ASPSA that they should not be concerned about the paper classes, because faculty have the academic freedom to conduct their classes as such.

Additionally, both Associate Dean Carolyn Cannon and Senior Assistant Dean Alice Dawson knew about the paper classes. Cannon was the director of A&S advising, and, though she refused to be interviewed for Wainstein’s investigation, retired advisor Betsy Taylor attested to discussing Deborah Crowder and the paper classes with Cannon:

At some point Taylor learned that Crowder was someone who was able to help students, including through paper classes. Taylor thought Crowder told her about the paper classes. Crowder would set up classes for students who needed the courses to graduate. Taylor said that most of the [A&S] advisors knew about these classes, including Carolyn Cannon. Taylor stated that she had specific conversations about the classes with Cannon, and it was Taylor’s understanding that Cannon spoke to Dean Owen about the classes as well (p. 117).

Dawson is still an A&S advisor and Senior Assistant Dean and testified to knowing that Crowder

would add students to independent studies after the registration deadline had passed, and would at times create a course section that a student needed to graduate. The advisors understood that these courses—both the independent studies and the lecture sections that Crowder created—required a long paper but no class attendance (p. 68).

Last, Jay Smith, though reportedly possessing no knowledge of the paper classes, did know Nyang’oro was derelict in his duties as department chair. While serving as the Associate Dean of Curriculum, Smith became aware that Nyang’oro had failed to submit his syllabi for curricular review. Smith admitted so in an email debate with a respected AFAM professor, stating,

The great majority of AFRI/AFAM courses were not submitted for Gen Ed consideration in time for the fall 2006 deadline. We only realized this well after we had considered the 4000 course syllabi that had been submitted. Our efforts to contact Julius were fruitless. (He never responded to emails.) Eventually, many of the courses were submitted, but it took about 2 years for Afri/Afam to catch up with the rest of the College on this.*

For nearly two years, Nyang’oro ignored Smith’s requests, but, apparently, Smith did not bother to inform any higher-ranking deans about the situation. Had Smith done so, the University may have investigated Nyang’oro sooner.

Recall that Smith and N&O Executive Editor John Drescher dismissed the entire Martin Report after they challenged Martin’s finding that Athletics and ASPSA informed academics about the paper classes. Well, seven months ago Wainstein demonstrated academics did know about the paper classes, but neither Smith nor Drescher have sufficiently acknowledged that fact or its implications. Athletics and ASPSA made deans aware of the paper classes, and those deans reassured Athletics and ASPSA that the classes did not warrant concern. Thus, UNC did demonstrate a lack of institutional control, but, as the NCAA has recognized, the lack of institutional control was on the part of Arts & Sciences administrators, not Athletics.

Impermissible Benefits

The NOA alleges that athletes received impermissible benefits “not generally available to the student body,” but, important to note, the NCAA does not identify the paper classes themselves as the impermissible benefits. In other words, contrary to the popular narrative, the paper classes were not the creation of a corrupt Athletics department. Rather, the paper classes were anomalous classes created for and offered to all students. The alleged impermissible benefits came from academic counselors and included the following “special arrangements” (NOA, p. 1):

  1. requesting certain course offerings within the AFRI/AFAM department on behalf of student-athletes
  2. contacting individuals within the AFRI/AFAM department to register student-athletes in courses
  3. obtaining assignments for classes taught in the AFRI/AFAM department on behalf of student-athletes
  4. suggesting assignments to the AFRI/AFAM department for student-athletes to complete
  5. turning in papers on behalf of student-athletes
  6. recommending grades 

Notice that writing papers for athletes was not one of the alleged "special arrangements." Basically, the "special arrangements" amounted to academic counselors’ acting "on behalf of" athletes when communicating with AFRI/AFAM—in other words, providing too much assistance to athletes enrolling and enrolled in paper classes. That does not mean, nor does any evidence indicate, that the counselors or anyone in Athletics knew the paper classes were fraudulent. Therefore, we can dispel the notion, critical to the news media's narrative, that academic counselors colluded with Crowder in an academic fraud scheme. Counselors did know the classes were irregular, but, as I explained earlier, both Senior Associate Dean Bobbie Owen and Associate Dean Fred Clark had assured Athletics and ASPSA that professors have the academic freedom to conduct classes in such a manner. 

Furthermore, UNC may be able to make a compelling defense against some of the alleged "special arrangements." Considering Fred Clark’s, Alice Dawson’s, and Betsy Taylor’s own arrangements with Nyang’oro and/or Crowder, UNC could argue that at least the first two "special arrangements" listed were not limited to athletes and therefore not particularly special (see quotations from Wainstein Report above). The other "special arrangements" certainly do not apply to all academic counselors. For example, we already knew from the Wainstein Report that Jan Boxill and Cynthia Reynolds were the only counselors who recommended grades. Likewise, they were the only counselors, I believe, who suggested assignments for athletes (if I am wrong about that, please let me know in the comments section). The remaining two "special arrangements" included obtaining assignment prompts from the AFRI/AFAM department and turning in athletes’ papers to the department for the athletes. Anyone tweeting hot takes about such arrangements is likely either a disgruntled expert on imaginary French monsters or a bitter fan of a rival school whose recent athletic success has been limited to bass fishing.

Sensationalism notwithstanding, the additional impermissible benefits Boxill allegedly provided (collectively comprising a distinct allegation against her in the NOA) do compound the seriousness of the NOA. Yet those additional impermissible benefits amount to only six instances, over a three-year period, of Boxill’s providing inappropriate assistance on athletes’ papers (pp. 35-36). She should not have provided that assistance, and her arrangements with Crowder over the years appear too intrusive, but even Boxill’s improprieties do not indicate systemic corruption in Athletics. Boxill was a caring teacher and academic counselor who went too far in her efforts to help student-athletes. None of the evidence suggests she was motivated by a desire to help the women’s basketball team win, nor does the evidence suggest women’s basketball compelled her to act as she did.

Boxill’s actions—and those of the other academic counselors—may technically make the UNC case an athletics scandal, but that is not the same as an athletics-driven scandal.

Lack of Institutional Control

Under the allegation delineating LOIC, the NOA states,

The AFRI/AFAM department created anomalous courses that went unchecked for 18 years. This allowed individuals within ASPSA to use these courses through special arrangements to maintain the eligibility of academically at-risk student-athletes, particularly in the sports of football, men's basketball and women's basketball. Although the general student body also had access to the anomalous AFRI/AFAM courses, student-athletes received preferential access to these anomalous courses, enrolled in these anomalous courses at a disproportionate rate to that of the general student body and received other impermissible benefits not available to the general student body in connection with these courses (NOA, pp. 48-49).

Though disconcerting, that statement is easily rebutted on multiple accounts. First, as I already explained, the extent to which those arrangements were special is debatable, as is the extent to which athletes’ access to the paper classes was “preferential.” Consider the fact, confirmed in the Wainstein Report’s exhibits, that Nyang'oro and Crowder offered more paper classes with only non-athletes enrolled (20) than paper classes with only athletes enrolled (18), and that an additional six paper classes had only non-athletes and Olympic sport athletes enrolled (meaning no football or men’s basketball players). Furthermore, statistics from the first paper classes do not suggest they were originally designed to give preferential treatment to athletes. The first four paper classes had two men’s basketball players enrolled, four football players, five women’s basketball players, and 46 non-athletes. If Crowder had created the paper classes specifically for athletes, those statistics would undoubtedly look much different.

Additionally, the above statement from the NOA includes the oft-repeated, racially dismissive notion that athletes’ disproportionate enrollment in the paper classes indicates some level of impropriety. N&O reporter Dan Kane consistently mentions athletes’ disproportionate enrollment, but the argument is intellectually dishonest. Jewish students are often disproportionately enrolled in Jewish Studies classes. Women are often disproportionately enrolled in Women’s Studies classes. African Americans are often disproportionately enrolled in African American Studies classes. The UNC student body is only about 10% African American, but over 50% of the football, men’s basketball, and women’s basketball teams are African American. We should expect a sub-population of students who are disproportionately African American to disproportionately enroll in African American Studies classes. Any argument that ignores that reality is nothing but a spurious attempt to sensationalize the narrative and thereby falsely depict the UNC case as an example of Athletics corruption.


No evidence suggests that the Athletics department created or compelled the paper classes. That is why the NCAA can neither designate the paper classes themselves as impermissible benefits nor accuse Athletics or ASPSA of colluding in an academic fraud scheme. The paper classes were available to the entire student body. Crowder and Nyang’oro offered more paper classes with only non-athletes enrolled than paper classes with only athletes enrolled. Again, no evidence suggests Crowder and Nyang’oro created the classes specifically for athletes.

The scandal at UNC involved a complacent College of Arts & Sciences and academic counselors who provided too much assistance to (acting "on behalf of") athletes enrolling and enrolled in classes that were available to the entire student body regardless. Call the UNC case an athletics scandal, but it is not an athletics-driven scandal.

CNN correspondent Sara Ganim (echoing the position of radicals from the Drake Group) wants us to believe the UNC case is “hands down, the largest academic fraud scandal in the history of college sports!” If the complacency of Arts & Sciences and the overgenerous assistance of academic counselors constitute the largest academic fraud scandal in the history of college sports, then college sports does not appear to be in as much need of reform as critics insist.

*The debate between Smith and the AFAM professor continued in this email, in which the AFAM professor effectively highlights the implicit racism of Smith’s campaign.