Jay Smith: A Word on the Media

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My colleague Andy Perrin is in high dudgeon over the media’s treatment of UNC. In a blog post┬áthis week, he expressed his resentment over the recent New York Times article that praised the investigative journalism of Dan Kane of the N&O. Perrin is convinced that the N&O‘s coverage of UNC has been biased, that it has unfairly focused on sensational allegations of corruption, and that the paper has failed to give the University due credit for all its reform efforts. Mary Willingham and I are singled out in the blog post for actively “fostering” the biased viewpoint that the N&O has developed.

Since Perrin linked me to a viewpoint he calls inaccurate, and since plenty of people rightly take seriously many of the things he says, I want to offer a brief response. Andy Perrin is a smart man, a good sociologist, and a critically important contributor to UNC faculty governance, but on this issue he has become captive to a destructive form of groupthink that now permeates the circles of UNC’s powers that be. For his sake and for the sake of the institution, I hope he soon snaps out of it.

My response to his complaint in a nutshell: UNC-Chapel Hill and its defenders will have a right to complain about media coverage of the scandal when and only when the institution has answered all of the critical outstanding questions that have been hanging over South Building for four years. These questions–enumerated below–are important because they go straight to the heart of the scandal and define the lessons that should have been derived from it. (How can the institution scream ‘give us credit for reforming!’ when so many of the key problems subject to reform–the problems that ostensibly made the reform necessary–have never been publicly identified or openly discussed? Does Perrin really not see this fatal disconnect in his own reasoning?) Questions about the nature, origins, and purpose of the scandalous behavior at UNC have been posed repeatedly by journalists, concerned citizens, and members of the University community; the University has steadfastly refused to answer them. It has gone to great lengths to avoid honoring public records requests. It has used FERPA as a cloak to conceal malfeasance. All complaints about the “unfairness” of those who keep hammering away with questions, and about the “bias” of the newspaper that has served the public so well by refusing to go away, will therefore be discounted and disregarded by rational citizens who care about integrity. It really is that simple. Nothing you do while dancing around the perimeter of the scandal is going to leave anyone satisfied.

Answer the questions, confront the issues that your answers will inevitably bring to the surface, and you will see all of your critics melt away. You will even begin to hear some of the praise you are already so convinced you deserve. The scandal will be over. We will all finally be able to “move on.” I list here some of the most important outstanding questions and then explain why real “reform” cannot proceed without accurate answers to them:

1. When and why did the systematic corner cutting–including but not limited to the scheduling of paper classes–begin?

2. Who were the primary beneficiaries of academic corner cutting when the whole process began, and how and in which directions did the disease metastasize?

3. Which individuals and offices became aware of, or actively promoted, the corner cutting in question?

4. What motives or forces pushed Nyang’oro/Crowder and any accomplices to do what they did?

5. How and why did Julius Nyang’oro manage to escape the forms of administrative oversight to which all other department heads are routinely subjected? (For example, did he ever go through post-tenure review? If not, how can the institution justify its neglect of this duty?)

6. The University has disputed Mary Willingham’s claim about the degree and extent of the underpreparedness of ‘special talent’ admits. Fine. Then explain how (or whether) you have determined there is no connection between past admissions policies/procedures and the development of academic fraud.

7. Did any athletes have their eligibility saved or restored through easy grades in fake courses?

8. Did any athletes have their eligibility saved or restored through illicit grade changes? In what ways did grade changes impact GPA’s? Why has the University not released a report outlining every grade change with every impact? Why has the University not nullified–if only for the public record–every illicit grade change?

9. Were any championships won with players who would have been ineligible if not for the class fakery? If so, what will the University do in order to make amends?

10. How and through whom have you verified that athletes are not “steered” to courses, majors, and faculty?

11. Why did the Faculty Athletics Representative, who helps to certify the eligibility of every athlete, never notice the sudden proliferation of high grades and certain courses on athlete transcripts in the middle 1990s? Why did compliance officials notice nothing amiss? Why did the Faculty Athletics Committee seem to know so little about the academic experiences of athletes in the revenue sports?

12. Given the greatest scandal of all–that so many athletes were denied access to real academic learning experiences in so many classes–what future steps will ensure that every UNC athlete gets a genuine UNC education, and that athletic eligibility concerns will not dictate course, schedule, and major choices?

The Faculty Athletics Committee and the Provost’s Working Group are filled with smart and well-intentioned people, and few of us doubt that they are working hard and in earnest to make improvements to UNC’s athletic-academic relationship. They deserve kudos for their efforts. But those efforts have not directly engaged the key issues of the UNC scandal, the essence of which is suggested by the twelve questions posed here. The institution needs answers because, otherwise, “reform” will proceed on an unsecure foundation that will inevitably lead the University toward another embarrassing collapse. Only by finding answers to these questions will we know, for example, whether the Academic Support Program should be abolished or merged with other advising offices. Or whether Faculty Athletics Representatives need to have the terms and conditions of their service revised. Or whether the Faculty Athletics Committee needs to be restructured. Or whether the entire advising apparatus at the University unwittingly fosters fraud. Or whether a pervasive tendency to be “friendly” to athletics led individuals to knowingly compromise standards. Or whether individuals connected to the athletics department deliberately cultivated faculty or staff who could be “helpful.” Or whether the University’s collective commitment to winning games and championships undermined our collective commitment to academic excellence. Or whether new thresholds now need to be drawn in the admissions process. Or whether racist assumptions have guided the University’s handling of its athletic teams over the years. We MUST know these things. And it would seem that only relentless questioning and tireless journalistic prodding will make it possible for us to find the answers we need.

If there is a “bias” in N&O reporting, the bias is in favor of answers. And that’s a bias we should all be applauding.

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