Blame it on Boxill?

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In our previous blog post, “Navigating the Flagship Post-Wainstein,” we noted that UNC-Chapel Hill has gone to great lengths to create the appearance of transformative change even as it has sidestepped the major structural issues brought to light by successive investigations of its athletic-academic scandal. Since the spring of 2012, UNC has repeatedly pretended to learn grave lessons from official reports while it has used those reports as cover to mask its merely minor tinkering. The world has heard many expressions of shock, horror, and dismay at the findings of Hartlyn-Andrews (May 2012), the Faculty Executive Committee special subcommittee (July 2012), Governor Jim Martin (December 2012), and Kenneth Wainstein (October 2014), but the institution’s remedial actions have never matched its rhetoric. UNC’s leaders seem not to have been motivated by a desire to grasp and wrestle with the large issues that propelled the athletic-academic scandal in Chapel Hill. On the contrary, everything suggests that they have been driven by a will to quarantine evidence of corruption, to contain the fallout from ugly revelations, to avoid honest dialogue about the meaning of those revelations, and to minimize any damage done to the athletic machine.

 

Having just marked the two-year anniversary of the release of the infamous “this- was-not-an-athletic-scandal” Martin report, we now urge the university to change direction in a way that will signal a true turning of the proverbial corner. A fortuitous opening for such a change is provided in the heart of the recent Wainstein report. There readers learned that the former Chair of the Faculty, Jan Boxill of the Philosophy Department, knew about and willfully exploited the sham courses made available to athletes in the office of AFRI/AFAM administrative assistant Debby Crowder. Readers further learned that Boxill routinely offered independent study courses to athletes, including her own women’s basketball advisees, and that she leaned on the generosity of Crowder and others to find easy (and even fraudulent) grades and load-lightening courses for athletes she sought to favor. Readers learned, in short, that the person who served as the elected Chair of the Faculty between 2011 and 2014 was deeply immersed in the whole course fraud scheme.

 

The University’s response to these embarrassing revelations was sadly predictable. Boxill was placed in a holding pen for scapegoats and lined up for the disciplinary treatment that “rogue actors” can always expect in college athletics scandals. In this, the first of two blog posts about Jan Boxill and her role in perpetuating a corrupt athletic-academic relationship at UNC, we outline the alternative route that the University might have taken–and could still take–in dealing with the revelations from the Wainstein report. Through the prism provided by the person of Jan Boxill, the University could shed light on many of the interrelated issues that have bubbled beneath the surface of the scandal era that began in 2010. The broad matrix of institutional complicity–both in the scandalous behavior brought to light by Wainstein, and in the powerful inclination to cover up as much as possible after details started leaking out in 2010–is laid bare through the collected words and deeds of Jan Boxill. Chancellor Folt should end her own conspicuous silence on the Boxill affair and use the experience of the former Faculty Chair to illuminate the deeper forces that corrupted UNC-Chapel Hill for a period of over twenty years.

After all, one of the most shocking aspects of the Boxill story is the discrepancy between her revealed underhandedness and her longstanding reputation within the University. Jan Boxill is not an evil person. Far from it. She has been a kind and caring friend to many. She has been an admired, even revered, mentor to many athletes over the years, particularly in women’s basketball. She is a popular teacher. She has done yeoman’s work on countless University committees and has been, to all appearances, an exemplary citizen of the UNC community. Faced with the evidence of her many lapses in judgment and ethics–lapses committed, in the greatest of all scandal ironies, by a specialist in sports ethics–the University’s response should not be knee-jerk condemnation. That’s much too easy. Blustery condemnation of individuals shields too many other actors from accountability; it allows us to pass over in silence too many issues that require a loud and thoughtful airing. Instead of condemning a person who, until very recently, was a regular companion and confidante to Chancellor Folt, the institution should reflect on the deep-rooted imperatives and the structural deformities that caused this good and much liked person to repeatedly do bad things.

 

Evidence for those deep-rooted imperatives is found on virtually every page of the supplemental materials to Wainstein’s report. An honest UNC conversation about those many damning emails, and the content of those bracing mentor feedback forms, is long overdue. Boxill’s appearances in the Wainstein report make it abundantly clear that, whatever her own ethical failures, she was part of a broad network of individuals who saw things more or less as she saw them. Many people in the athletic department and in academic offices all around the campus helped her to bend or subvert standards of academic integrity on behalf of athletes (and some others) who ostensibly “needed” a hand. One student reports that graduation advisor Betsy Taylor, who worked in the Steele building advising office, sent him or her to Crowder for a 2-hour independent study-style paper class that required only a book report (which even the student later labeled “an enormous accommodation.”) UNC’s own director of NCAA Compliance, Amy Herman, is shown joking with academic counselor Brent Blanton about the “notorious” paper classes he used for one of his athlete advisees. (Blanton responded: ‘don’t knock what gets it done’, the “it” obviously being the acquisition of good grades that kept players eligible.)

 

Reading between the lines of the Wainstein documents one finds evidence of a broad network of cultivated faculty and administrators:

–Football counselor Beth Bridger is heard saying that students looking for a paper class in the wake of Debby Crowder’s retirement should go to professor Deb Stroman in the Exercise and Sport Science department. (Stroman is shown in another email thread offering to schedule an independent study for an athlete who initially wanted to add one of her Tuesday/Thursday courses.)

–Debby Crowder and basketball counselor Wayne Walden are heard talking about their traditional practice of distributing token gifts and UNC paraphernalia to “the various and sundry people who help keep these guys in school.” This practice dated to the era of Burgess McSwain, who had been the basketball counselor for more than a quarter century before her death in 2004.

–One of the “various and sundry” who “helped” athletes shows up in another Jan Boxill email in which she is seeking a Geography independent study for five women’s basketball players–“we need it for the FIRST summer session,” she specified in an email to the department manager. Professor John Florin responded that he would be “happy to do it.” Athletes were sent to Florin regularly.

— Women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance pressures Brent Blanton, in another email, to get one of his players into an independent study “plus the Unks course and the online courses” for the coming spring semester. Unks, who taught a slide course called Education in American Life for the School of Education, was famous for making life easy for athletes–so famous that even a head soccer coach knew about it. With online courses taking up half this student’s schedule, Dorrance also knew that what he called the “ace in the hole” of an independent study (most likely in AFAM or PHIL) would give his player a virtually burdenless semester, during which she evidently hoped to be traveling.

 

Independent studies–along with online classes, correspondence courses, and the famed paper classes–were vital to the “shadow curriculum” exploited by so many athletes, and the Wainstein evidence makes clear that there were numerous “friendly faculty” ready to oblige an ASPSA request to schedule one. (A future blog post will focus on the ironically misnamed “independent” studies so vital to the athletic curriculum.) Jan Boxill was among the most active instructors offering independent studies, however, as the Daily Tar Heel recently revealed. Boxill’s own Department of Philosophy somehow managed to look the other way while she offered 160 independent study courses between 2004 and 2012 (an average of 20 per academic year.) On end-of-year annual reports submitted to the dean of the college, the number of independent study courses offered by the department had to have been listed, and the department chair or other leaders had to have seen and signed off on reports that showed inordinate numbers of free-form undergraduate courses each year. The entire department of History–just to give a sense of how inordinate Boxill’s numbers really were–rarely offers as many as twenty independent study courses to undergraduates in a single year, and the History department has a fifty-member faculty. For one person to take on such extraordinary additional duties–160 extra courses over eight years–would be unheard of. In History as in most departments, the teaching of so many courses–especially if they were known to be packed with athletes–would have signaled that something was amiss. Yet the leaders of the Philosophy Department never reined in Boxill’s benevolence.

 

A close reading of the Wainstein evidence reveals, if we may state the obvious, that Jan Boxill was only one of many enablers of corruption scattered across the University between the early 1990s and 2012. Many winks and nods were required to sustain such long-term and systematic academic abuse. The removal and punishment of a scapegoat like Boxill does nothing to change the deeply instilled habits of corner cutting, the routine athletic favoritism, and the wide acceptance of double standards that–we now know–have shaped the Carolina culture for decades. Boxill, Blanton, Dorrance, Crowder, Florin, Stroman, Taylor, Herman, and the rest: none should be judged as moral failures because of their efforts to “help” athletes (though a bit of truth-telling on their part in 2010 or 2011 would certainly have been very helpful.) But there is no escaping the fact that they willfully participated in a system that was thoroughly corrupt.

 

To change that corrupt system, and the institutional culture that supported it for so long, the University must confront the two forces that called into being the “shadow curriculum” and the network of people who perpetuated it. First, UNC should admit that the multi-billion-dollar athletic business in which it participates makes academic success a strictly secondary concern to the stewards of the system. The expectations that arise from million dollar investments in increasingly professionalized commercial activities make “student” obligations a hindrance or an obstacle for all but the most academically driven and capable athletes. The profit-soaked athletic machine demands wins and championships from coaches; it consequently prioritizes player eligibility and practice time over student learning, and it places unrealistic burdens on “amateur” athletes who work 40- and 50-hour weeks while they ostensibly pursue meaningful degrees at a prestigious institution. Many manage to graduate, and the exceptionally talented and ambitious athletes acquire good educations and real preparation for life outside of sport. But the truth is in the transcripts. Far too many of them show the traces of the “shadow curriculum” that eased burdens, enabled lengthy travel excursions, balanced out the difficult courses and low grades, maintained eligibility, and rendered dubious all those academic achievements that were earned, after all, in the shadows.

 

The other action the University must take if it is serious about ending the culture of corruption that has defined our athletic enterprise is confront the discrepancy between the academic abilities of many of its admitted students and the high academic standards that prevail in the “real” UNC curriculum. The great majority of UNC’s admitted athletes are reasonably capable students, and many are highly capable. But significant numbers of athletes, particularly in the profit-driven sports of football and basketball, have come to Chapel Hill ill-prepared for the rigors of university classrooms. Everyone is aware of this reality, but coaches keep recruiting them, admissions officers keep admitting them, and academic counselors and the friendly faculty they cultivate therefore continue working to keep them eligible. Hence the creation of the UNC shadow curriculum.

 

The difficulty of the task faced by the ASPSA–keep those players eligible!–is spelled out in vivid detail in the mentor-feedback forms that Wainstein chose to include in his appendix (for no other reason, it would seem, than to illustrate the degree of “help” so many UNC athletes needed.) The feedback forms make for painful reading. They make clear that the purpose of the entire “academic support” enterprise, at least as it concerns academically at-risk athletes, is to hold athletes’ hands through every step of every academic exercise. Even for the scandalously undemanding paper classes, tutors had to ride herd on players to get them to churn out reasonable facsimiles of college papers. They managed the feat only after being provided the sources for their papers, being coached on the nature of an introduction and a thesis statement, having outlines written for them, and benefiting from extensive “editing” by the tutors (“we came up with his thesis,” “we finished outlining his paper,” “we corrected the grammar errors,” “we wrote a thesis for his paper,” “we wrote his introduction.”) More than once mentors express concern about papers they believe to have been plagiarized.

 

These athletes were incapable, or were assumed to be incapable, of navigating university coursework on their own. Athletes like these were the athletes people like Debby Crowder and Jan Boxill felt morally obliged to “help” with shortcuts, freebies, and fake academic achievements. Why did the University willingly place Crowder, Boxill, and the rest in that vulnerable position? How could they have been made less vulnerable?

 

It’s way past time to have an honest conversation on the UNC campus about the pressures placed on the University’s academic infrastructure by an athletic complex that recruits underprepared students and also burdens them with pre-professional duties that have nothing to do with academic achievement. Scapegoating Jan Boxill will do nothing to facilitate that honest discussion. It will only make it easier for the University to sidestep the issues such a conversation would reveal. Here’s an idea. Instead of “disciplining” Jan Boxill, the Chancellor should invite Boxill to host a roundtable discussion of UNC’s shadow curriculum and the ways in which she and so many others rationalized its existence for decades. That would be an edifying conversation worth hearing.

Smith/Willingham

 

 

 

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