At UNC, dithering is done, but still deep in denial


Jan Boxill has now officially been identified as a villain of the UNC athletic-academic scandal, but before the Boxill story can be properly put to rest, the University must come to terms with an embarrassing irony: Boxill was for many years empowered, enabled, and encouraged by faculty and administrative leaders all across the campus.

In 1988[1], when Boxill joined the faculty as a Philosophy instructor, she was simultaneously appointed to serve as the academic counselor for the women’s basketball team. This constituted an egregious conflict of interest that should never have been approved; no one has yet been asked to provide an explanation for it. By the time Boxill started enrolling her own advisees in courses and independent studies in which she did the grading, her supervisors-both in the athletic and academic departments where she worked-should, at the very least, have been vigilant about any signs of corruption. Instead, a pattern of looking the other way quickly formed. That pattern came to define Boxill’s entire twenty-five year tenure as an athletic-academic go-between.

Boxill had every reason to assume that the University approved of her coddling of athletes. In addition to being given a unique joint status as instructor and counselor, she quickly became the go-to person on matters academic in the athletic department. She gave presentations on “How to be an Academic Success” at annual summer camps for women’s basketball and other teams. She was appointed co-chair of a Chancellor’s task force on Minority Recruitment and Retention in the mid-1990s. Beginning in the late 1990s deans and provosts named her to the University Teaching Awards committee for more than a decade running. She was also given important roles to play-including Associate Department chair-in the Philosophy Department. In 2006 she became Director of the Parr Center for Ethics. Boxill also took home a much better salary than the typical non-tenured lecturer. In 2011, she was even elected Chair of the Faculty, the highest and most influential office a faculty member can hold.

She did all these things while carving out a distinct identity for herself. Jan Boxill was a fanatical sports enthusiast who never tried to hide it. She announced women’s basketball games. She rooted hard for every Carolina team. Everyone who had dealings with Boxill knew about her passionate investment in the morally redemptive qualities of sport. Her advocacy for athletics, particularly women’s athletics, had been important to her self-image long before her arrival in Chapel Hill. In short, Jan Boxill straddled the academic and athletic worlds like no other individual on the UNC campus, and everyone knew it.

Yet people in authority never cast a skeptical eye on Boxill’s twin allegiances or on the ways she managed the inherent conflicts between them. On the contrary, she was widely regarded as an ethical paragon and was nominated to run for Chair of the Faculty at one of the most sensitive moments in UNC history-when a first-in-50-years athletic scandal was set to dominate headlines and University business for a prolonged period of time. Simply put, Boxill served as a vector of the myth of the Carolina Way. She stood as one of the guarantors of the wellspring of integrity that supposedly nourished the UNC athletic program. The will-perhaps craving is the better word-to believe in that myth led faculty and administrators all across the campus to accept the “it’s really not all that bad” narrative of scandal that Boxill (and other campus leaders) tried to sell for three solid years. In spite of persistent prodding by a handful of critics, faculty happily formed a cocoon around Boxill, effectively protecting both her and her “let’s move on” scandal-management strategy.

Consider, for example, the dynamics that marked the aftermath of two of the investigative reports produced in 2012-the Faculty Executive Committee subcommittee report and the Martin report.

As everyone now knows thanks to reporting by Dan Kane of the News & Observer in 2013, Boxill worked overtime in July 2012 in order to get removed from the FEC subcommittee report a key phrase that suggested the scandal had been facilitated by Debby Crowder and her “extremely close” ties to the athletic program. Boxill sought the deletion of that phrase and Crowder’s name because, as she put it, “this could raise further NCAA issues, and that is not the intention” of the report.

What Boxill did not add in her communications with the FEC subcommittee was that drawing unwanted attention to Crowder and her extremely close ties to athletics would also have invited a closer look at academic counselors and their very cozy relationships with the AFRI/AFAM administrative assistant. This would have been a bad thing for Boxill herself, since emails provided in the Wainstein report and its supplements show her colluding with Crowder time and again to arrange for the fraudulent awarding of academic credit for athletes she wished to help. More broadly, had the university been alerted in the summer of 2012 to an “extremely close” relationship between Crowder and her friends in athletics, someone in a position of authority-or the journalists who pester such people-might have had the good sense to call for a deeper probe of the Academic Support Program and its mode of operation. We in the UNC community might have been spared two solid years of dithering and denial.

In the aftermath of Dan Kane’s 2013 reporting, however, nothing changed-and much of the blame goes to Boxill’s faculty enablers. In August of 2013, Boxill misled the community about her efforts to change the text of the 2012 report, and her misrepresentations of her efforts were accepted and even loudly endorsed by the Faculty Executive Committee (FEC). Before anyone could ask the Faculty Council for a discussion of Boxill’s actions, and before anyone could make the suggestion that Boxill step down as Faculty Chair, the FEC preemptively asserted its “full support” for Boxill in a public statement. “We have complete confidence in her judgment and integrity,” every member of the FEC insisted, thereby making it next to impossible for other faculty to ask hard questions of Boxill in a public forum. At the first Faculty Council meeting of the academic year in September 2013, only one faculty member, Jonathan Engel of the Physics Department, dared to ask Boxill to give an account of her actions from 2012. She artfully obfuscated the timeline for the editing of the report, and two members of the FEC-including report co-author Michael Gerhardt-jumped up to vouch for Boxill’s erroneous account of the report’s final drafting. To the consternation of several faculty members who observed the proceedings in dumbfounded silence at the back of the room, no further questions were asked; within a matter of seconds, the whole issue was put definitively to rest. A misguided desire to rally around the leader with the unexamined reputation led to the short-circuiting of debate and accountability on the floor of the Faculty Council.

Nor was this the first time in 2013 that Jan Boxill had used her authority as Faculty Chair to foreclose painful questioning. At the first meeting of 2013, in January, several members of the faculty had raised hard-hitting questions about the accuracy of the just-released Martin report. That report had alleged that on two occasions, in 2002 and 2006, John Blanchard and Robert Mercer, leaders of the Academic Support Program for Student- Athletes (ASPSA), had alerted the Faculty Athletics Committee (FAC) to the existence of suspect independent study classes in the Department of African and Afro-American studies. Having allegedly been told by FAC that professors have wide latitude to teach courses as they see fit and that ASPSA staff had no business questioning faculty teaching practices, ASPSA staff supposedly washed their hands of the issue of course integrity. They subsequently enrolled athletes in the ersatz courses with a clean conscience-so Blanchard and Mercer relayed to the Governor. This key Martin “finding” served as the foundation for his famed assertion that the UNC scandal was strictly academic in nature.

Several faculty-including people who had served on the FAC in 2002 and 2006-had the temerity to point out during the January 2013 Faculty Council meeting that Governor Martin had adduced no documentary evidence to support his claim about the alleged warnings given to FAC. No elected members of the FAC from those years had even been interviewed by Martin, and none could recall any conversations about suspect courses. Boxill, however, praised the Governor for the thoroughness of his report, and she responded to the handful of critical comments by questioning the memories of the former FAC members now disputing Martin’s claims. “Faculty do not precisely remember conversations that occur in committee meetings,” she declared. Boxill also asserted that the minutes from the FAC committee meetings in 2002 and 2006 confirmed Martin’s interpretation of events. (In fact, they offer no support for Martin’s interpretation.) As would happen at the later Faculty Council meeting in September, Boxill found many allies in the room who were ready to support her. Holden Thorp announced his embrace of the Martin report and touted its “independence.” Current FAC chair Joy Renner agreed with Boxill about the unreliability of faculty memory. Anthropology professor Vin Steponaitis scolded critics by noting that it was time to “move on” and stop asking so many questions. When members of the Athletic Reform Group requested, at a subsequent Faculty Council meeting, that Boxill schedule some open-ended public forums where the big issues brought to light by the scandal could at last be addressed by all interested parties, she evaded the question and refused to make a commitment. Biology professor Greg Copenhaver repeated the party line in saying that the whole scandal had been caused by “two academic officers” anyway [Debby Crowder and Julius Nyang’oro], and that there was simply no more blame to go around. His words drew loud applause from his Faculty Council colleagues. It goes without saying that there were no public forums in 2013 or in any other year.

Officials’ close embrace of Jan Boxill continued until quite recently. Chancellor Folt has not sought out meetings with faculty critics of the University since her arrival in Chapel Hill in 2013. (In fact, she has flatly refused to meet with at least one critic.) But, at least until the release of the Wainstein report, she always liked the company of Jan Boxill. When the documentary film ‘Schooled: The Price of College Sports’ was aired at UNC’s J-School in October of 2013, Folt attended the event with two other luminaries at her side: Jan Boxill and Deb Stroman (who was then an Exercise and Sport Science instructor). The privilege of gaining the Chancellor’s ear that evening was extended only to close allies of the athletic department-an athletic department that, not coincidentally, was portrayed harshly in the film. Why, at that eye-opening moment, did the Chancellor not ask herself whether the critics just might be on to something? Why did she not ask whether the allegations about academic fraud made in the movie were perfectly true? Why did she not question whether it was now time to begin taking counsel from a wider array of individuals, including some who did not see the world through Carolina blue-tinted glasses?

The Chancellor failed to ask these questions for the same reason that Jan Boxill enjoyed an unusually successful twenty-five year career as a fixed-term faculty member at UNC. Folt failed to challenge herself for the same reason that Boxill’s allies in Faculty Council repeatedly worked with her to squelch dissent and stifle discussion. For far too long faculty and administrators at UNC have found it soothing and convenient and oh-so-easy to believe in the bedrock virtues of our athletic program (the Carolina Way!) and of the larger system of college sports in which it participates (“student-athletes” are great!) A determination to ask the difficult questions about big-time sports and the ethical compromises they require-for the purpose of providing honest and productive answers to those questions-has not been part of the culture at UNC-Chapel Hill for a very long time. This is why we at paperclassinc are so saddened and discouraged by the University’s response to Ken Wainstein’s findings. The world has heard assurances about “70 reforms” and “22 processes.” And we are now witnessing the ritual sacrifice of the scapegoats-including one leader whose work was facilitated, rewarded, encouraged, and protected by all of the University’s leaders from 1988 until recent weeks. But to date we see no evidence that the University is ready to cease the feel-good mythologizing that has always helped to insulate the athletic department from scrutiny and criticism on our campus. On the contrary, the ID’ing of individuals whose supposedly exceptional corruption lay behind all our problems, and the insistence that faulty “procedures” have been all but fixed, suggests a desire to return to business as usual as quickly as possible. The Wainstein report should have been the machete that cleared the path to a new way of doing business at UNC-Chapel Hill. Instead, leaders apparently intend to use it as a decoy to distract attention from the structural deformities they plan to leave untouched.

[1] For more context on the pivotal year 1988, see the opening chapter of Cheated: The UNC Scandal, The Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports.

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