SACS, Lies and Audiotapes

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“We’ve made more than 70 reforms.” “Oh, behold the reforms we’ve made!” UNC-Chapel Hill has sounded this refrain ever since Chancellor Carol Folt and Provost Jim Dean moved into South Building in summer 2013. The fixes, these leaders have repeatedly suggested, have always already been in place. Who, therefore, could be so churlish as to ask questions about problems? How could problems exist after “more than 70 reforms”?

Everything is fixed so let’s move on. So deep-seated is this attitude in South Building, so reflexive is the insistence that all is well, that the University even claimed in a recent report to its accrediting agency, SACS, that the revelations of the 2014 Wainstein report had uncovered no new areas of concern. This was because the University, “well before the Wainstein investigation even commenced, had gone to extraordinary lengths to design and implement over 70 distinct reforms that comprehensively addressed the past irregularities even as described in the Wainstein report.” Even with the University’s accreditation at risk, our leaders ask: Problems? What problems? Look at our reforms, which we’ve always already been making! (For now we’ll leave aside the comical nature of many of the specific “reforms”–renaming an academic department, creating a website, hiring a new head football coach, etc.)

The great failing of this “look over there!” strategy, as we have noted before, is that it renders impossible the identification of the root problem that caused the UNC scandal: an eligibility-first culture that encouraged corner-cutting and favor-doing for a too-big-to-fail athletic program. It is not the removal of rogues but the overhaul of a culture that is required in Chapel Hill. To hear Carol Folt and Jim Dean tell SACS that they learned nothing particularly decisive from the Wainstein report is thus doubly disheartening. Not only does the statement contradict documented fact–page after page of emails in the Wainstein supplemental documents show for the first time that our institutional failure spanned many offices and involved many individuals–but it suggests that UNC leadership remains committed to bathing in the river DeNile. They refuse to acknowledge the fundamental reality behind our scandal, namely, that a propensity to “favor” athletes had become so pervasive, so ingrained, and so unremarkable that it led to the systematic lowering–and ultimately the systematic corruption–of UNC’s academic standards. Nowhere in the list of “70 reforms” that the University ceaselessly trumpets will readers find an item that addresses the deformities of that culture. We are asked to believe that the retirement or firing of a handful of individuals, the standardization of independent study protocols, the provost’s verification that professors actually hold classes, and the new (but not really new) requirement that all courses have syllabi have now banished academic “irregularities” from our midst. Onward!

But the evidence from the Wainstein report, together with the evidence from our book Cheated, shows why this approach to managing the scandal fallout is so woefully inadequate. That evidence makes clear that, for many years, the overriding priority of the Academic Support Program was to find the easiest pathways to eligibility for UNC’s athletes–particularly those in football and basketball. There were many cogs in the eligibility machine, academic counselors knew about every one of them, and many people outside of athletics either wanted or felt compelled to help athletes who found themselves in academic “need.” Pieces of UNC’s corrupted eligibility machine were scattered all over campus, far beyond the precincts of the former department of African and Afro-American Studies.

Consider the full breadth of the independent studies scam. The go-to courses for athletes with stressful schedules or perilously low GPA’s were always independent study courses or “topics” courses that could be managed like independent studies. Academic counselor, Philosophy lecturer, and sports ethicist Jan Boxill taught many such courses herself, including 160 in one eight-year period (see Cheated, p. 185.) But Boxill knew she was not alone. A longtime instructor with contacts all over campus and an iron will to help athletes, she also regularly leaned on colleagues in other departments to offer their own independent study (or similar) courses whenever select populations of athletes needed them. The assignments in these courses were presumably cooked up in a professor’s office with little or no input from the student (making a mockery of the very concept of the independent study), and in some cases the connection between “instructor” and “project” was so thin as to be non-existent. During one summer session an athlete emailed Boxill to find out the identity of the Geography instructor for whom he or she had written a paper. The unconcerned Boxill responded that “I’m calling to see if you can just send them directly to John Florin,” thus naming a key contributing partner to the UNC eligibility system over a period of decades. A neighbor and friend of basketball team counselor Burgess McSwain, Florin offered sections of Geography 95, “Topics in Geography,” every year, with athletes crowding in each time. They invariably got helpful grades. (One basketball player in desperate straits enrolled in TWO sections of GEOG 95 in a single summer session in the 1990s, making A’s in both sections.) In 2007 Boxill approached another friendly faculty member about scheduling an independent study in Sociology. When told that the course would need the approval of the department chair, Boxill instructed her friend to “tell him you’re doing it for me!” (She had many friends–including department chairs–from whom she could call in favors.) Another email from January 2010 shows football academic counselor Beth Bridger pointing to Exercise and Sport Science instructor Deb Stroman as someone likely to allow an athlete to do a “paper class” under her auspices. (Counselors Boxill and Jaimie Lee are likewise shown setting up courses with Stroman for other students in other semesters–Stroman even assures Lee that she “can handle two more” athletes for an independent study she created in January 2011.) For many years Anthropology 99, “Special Projects,” bailed out academically weak athletes with easy A’s and B’s. Independent study and special topics courses in Radio, Television, and Motion Pictures and the later Communications department also littered the course records of many athletes in the revenue or “profit” sports.

Independent studies courses were not the only safe harbors, however. Fred Vogler’s “French Novel in Translation,” and Fred Clark’s “Brazilian Literature in English Translation,” both offered virtually every year, made the Romance Languages department a favored destination for athletes for thirty-plus years. Vogler expected so many athletes in his course that he held his review sessions in the Academic Support Center in the East Endzone Building. (In 2002 Fred Clark, in his capacity as assistant dean, arranged for an athlete “to drop Math 10 and pick up an independent study with him” to compensate for the dropped three hours–all conveniently arranged in week ten of the fall semester. This huge favor was done long past the final drop/add date, with only three weeks of classes left in the term.) Gerald Unks from the School of Education annually taught “Education in American Life,” a virtual freebie course that few athletes ever skipped. (Counselor Brent Blanton is heard assuring women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance in one email that Unks is “EXTREMELY accommodating” to athletes.) Elsewhere in the Wainstein documents, one Mathematics instructor is shown awarding passing grades to football players whose marks warranted F’s, and in the same email in which she shares that happy news she also alerts football counselors (rather than Honor System personnel) to the troubling fact that she had found “fairly clear” evidence of illicit collaboration on an exam. But not to worry, she adds, since “I will not take this any further than this email.” (Football player Erik Highsmith benefited from similar favoritism in 2011, when his plagiarized blog assignment in a Communications course was reported not to the Honor Court but to the Academic Support Program, where the allegation went to die a silent death. ASPSA counselors cultivated faculty–particularly vulnerable, untenured faculty–precisely so that athletes would get special treatment in treacherous situations of this sort.)

We could multiply the examples endlessly. What these examples have in common, other than the fact that they do not involve the AFRI/AFAM department, is that they point to the existence of a pervasive culture of permissiveness, a university-wide culture developed and sustained to support the eligibility needs of the athletic program. (It is an irony, and a tragedy, that this permissiveness has harmed rather than helped the athletes themselves, whose educations were stolen from them.)

The recent modification of independent study rules that limit the number of students a professor can supervise in any one term is a good thing. So, too, are the new procedures for linking the online assignment of grades to professors’ personal identification numbers (PINs). These changes will make cheating at least somewhat more difficult going forward. But the only conditions academic corruption requires are the presence of a willing faculty member, an importunate student or advisor, and enough privacy to do the wrong thing undetected. Absent a change of culture–and so far there has been not even a perfunctory effort to modify UNC’s longstanding culture–no reasonable person should assume that the imperative to cut corners, and the willingness of some faculty and staff to cut them as needed, has gone anywhere. Indeed, many of the actors at UNC who facilitated shameful athletics favoritism over the years are still with us on the campus; some of them occupy positions of real influence. Over the past two years there has been a lot of rearranging of deck chairs on the good ship Carolina Way (though, to be fair, sometimes the deck chairs were simply left in the exact same spot.) But there have been no signs of a bold change in direction. Until Carol Folt, Jim Dean, and other leaders tell the world their plans for countering the influence and the long-established habits of the many athletics-friendly personnel at UNC, until they outline the steps they will take to overturn an institutional culture that fostered fraud and willful blindness for decades, skeptics will be right to scoff at the “70 reforms” and the diversion they were meant to create.

To share our own thoughts about the ability of our current leadership to inaugurate transformative changes, we will soon be posting to this website transcripts of audiotapes recording the conversations Mary Willingham had with a succession of influential leaders between 2010 and 2014. What those transcripts show, we believe, is a leadership cohort so in thrall to the athletic program that it was aggressively uninterested in learning what a whistleblowing insider might have to teach academic officers. With remarkable consistency, the questions and comments they offered were limited, hostile, defensive, and dismissive. Why? Stay tuned.

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