Monday, November 17, 2014

Worthy of Wall Street but not a University: A Failed Investigation at UNC

Worthy of Wall Street but not a University:  A Failed Investigation at UNC

Much like Wall Street’s investigation of its misdeeds, which I usually blog about, my alma mater has failed to get at the root causes of academic deficiencies largely centered on its major athletic programs.  The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has responded in the way I’d expect from an investment bank, not from one of the world’s great research institutions, which is how UNC defines its mission.   While the allegations of misconduct are deeply troubling, the administration’s reaction is even more disturbing.

The university has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep its athletes in football and basketball eligible for competition over the past fifteen years.   Revelations of misconduct began a few years ago with allegations that athletes received improper academic support from tutors.  The disclosures morphed into a broader scandal when a whistleblower charged that some athletes were functionally illiterate and then exploded when it became evident that the African Studies Department had offered bogus independent study courses.

Instead of getting to the root of the problem, UNC has deployed a damage control playbook.  Critics, whistleblowers, and the press have been vilified.  Consultants have been hired and studies conducted, but the investigations have carefully avoided the most serious questions and deflected attention from the Athletic Department.  First, former Governor Martin conducted an inquiry[1] into independent study courses that concluded  “This was not an athletic scandal. It was an academic scandal, which is worse; but an isolated one.”[2]  Rather than focus on the athletic department, the Martin Report cast the blame on the chairman of the African Studies Department, who was indicted by the Orange County District Attorney.  The charges were dropped in exchange for Julius Nyang’oro’s cooperation.  When further evidence leaked out, UNC commissioned the Wainstain report[3] that showed that the independent studies courses in the African Studies Department were centered on keeping athletes eligible. 

With each report and revelation, UNC administrators have announced that they’ve gotten to the bottom of the problem and will enact serious reforms.  However, there’s always more to the story.  In the last two weeks, The Daily Tar Heel has rummaged through some of the material collected as part of Kenneth Wainstain’s investigation.  The DTH, a college newspaper, reports that the independent scandal wasn’t confined to the African Studies Department.  Apparently the Philosophy Department also offered these types of courses to athletes.[4]  I suppose UNC will commission yet another study.

Instead of focusing on the misconduct by a particular tutor, or the chairman and administrator in the African Studies Department or a professor in the Philosophy Department, UNC needs to figure out how some of its athletes on the basketball and football have remained eligible to compete.  The Martin and Wainstain reports create the perfect foundation for launching a comprehensive probe.  According to both reports, the practice of using independent study programs came to an end in 2011.  Thus, the University should answer a series of important questions:

·      When the paper courses ended in 2011, what happened to the eligibility of athletes in the football and basketball programs?

·      Apparently these courses were critical to maintaining the grade point average for some of the athletes. Did grade points drop and did more athletes lose eligibility because the paper courses disappeared? 

·      Did these students and/or their academic advisors and coaches make adjustments and/or find other courses in which As and Bs could be achieved without doing much, if any, work?

I know that many folks would rather focus on Carolina’s exploits in the upcoming basketball season.  I’m sure alumni are hoping that the football team will pull out a winning record in 2014.  Undoubtedly, supporters are worrying about an ongoing NCAA investigation.   Losing scholarships, being banished from post season play, or forfeiting past championships aren’t UNC’s biggest worries.  If the university doesn’t conduct a comprehensive study of athlete eligibility, it will permanently damage the most important asset of UNC Chapel Hill: its integrity.

By attacking critics and by failing to comprehensively address the allegations in the first or even second place, UNC put its integrity at risk because its conduct failed to live up to its own mission statement.  In its mission statement[5], UNC Chapel Hill asserts:

We embrace an unwavering commitment to excellence as one of the world's great research universities.

Our mission is to serve as a center for research, scholarship, and creativity and to teach a diverse community of undergraduate, graduate, and professional students to become the next generation of leaders.

While UNC has many dedicated professors, instructors, and coaches who are devoting their careers to this mission, the university’s administration has failed to apply this mission statement when it comes to this athletic scandal.  The research and scholarship behind the administration’s investigation has fallen desperately short of the university’s commitment to excellence.  Moreover, they’ve set a poor example of leadership for the next generation of leaders. 

Administrators, professors, and coaches have expressed concern about the university’s reputation and brand.  At an academic institution, reputation and brand don’t mean much in the absence of integrity. 


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