Taking the “Independent” out of Independent Study

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One of the key features of UNC’s athlete-friendly curriculum, the contours of which came tantalizingly into view in the Wainstein report of October 2014, was the easy availability of “independent study” courses. In the parallel AFRI/AFAM curriculum supervised by Debby Crowder, but also in other departments across the College of Arts and Sciences–Philosophy, Geography, Communications, Exercise and Sport Science, French, and others–faculty and administrators seemed always ready to “help” athletes with the scheduling of requested independent study classes. To this point, most of the ire aroused by the Wainstein revelations has focused on the manipulation of grades for eligibility purposes, and that focus is understandable. It’s hard to top the shock value of seeing the Chair of the Faculty urge an administrative assistant to give a passing grade to a student who has turned in a “recycled” paper, a paper that should have occasioned a trip to the Honor Court and the threat of suspension from the university.

But the perversion of the very concept of “independent study” has so far passed without remark. This is too bad, because the abuse of the independent study model tells us a lot about the casual acceptance of double standards at today’s universities –as well as the ways in which such standards insinuate themselves into academic infrastructures where big-time sport enterprises have to be accommodated.

Academic departments, at UNC and elsewhere, create independent study course numbers to deal with those instances where students with unusual drive, specific intellectual interests, and out-of-the-ordinary ability wish to pursue some research-related project under the supervision of an appropriate specialist. The professor/specialist typically assesses the student’s talents, academic history, level of commitment, and proposed plan of study and then decides whether to accept the student’s request to work on an advanced topic of mutual interest to student and teacher. Independent study courses, in other words, are generally expected to be designed in whole or in part by a student who, on his or her own initiative, envisions a reading and writing project that cannot be suitably accommodated through the regular curricular structure.

These conventions were routinely flouted by the personnel in UNC’s Academic Support Program for Student Athletes. Emails show that independent study courses for athletes were created not at the initiative of students who had developed a strong interest in a special topic, but at the request of a needy student’s academic counselor. Always on the lookout for easy schedules and easy grades–because of troubled GPA’s, travel requirements, students’ weak academic abilities, or the simple desire for a break–counselors went in search of friendly faculty with reputations for “working with” the athletic department. Once the obliging faculty member had been identified, he or she would then create a shell of a course and concoct some form of assignment in return for which players would be given independent study credit. The athletes who took such courses showed little intellectual independence while completing the homework handed to them, and they probably gained little if any benefit from specialized academic mentoring on the part of the supervising faculty member (or, in one case, the administrative assistant.) Reading between the lines of the emails, one can see that contact between professor and student was often minimal; in the case of AFRI/AFAM courses, the contact was usually non-existent.

In short, the independent study scam illustrates with unusual clarity the reversals and inversions required by the big-time sport machine. Instead of mobilizing student talent and energy in pursuit of a well-considered curricular objective, the “independent studies” used by ASPSA counselors mobilized the UNC curriculum in the service of eligibility concerns and all the related needs of the athletic department. With drone-like precision, counselors sought and found a curricular soft spot–the independent study module controlled by helpful individuals on the faculty–that could be exploited so fully that they ultimately reversed the very meaning of the word “independent.” They thereby showed to the world, through the helpful lens provided in the Wainstein report, that the success of big-time athletic teams is eminently “dependent”–dependent on the subtle perversion of the educational missions of the institutions that host them.

Since 2012, UNC has done an excellent job revising the procedures for approving and policing independent study courses across the University. Unfortunately, the institution’s leaders have said nothing about their plans to reduce or eliminate the athletic department’s subordination of academics to the imperatives of athletic performance. Unless and until they do, counselors will continue to find the breaches in the wall that defends educational integrity against the persistent and corrosive demand to lower standards. The Wainstein report, by exposing so many previously invisible tentacles of corruption, demands that UNC treat the disease. Stop applying Band-Aids to symptoms.

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