UNC honor court failed to find McAdoo's obvious plagiarism

Student-run honor court failed to find obvious plagiarism in a paper in a case against Michael McAdoo.

Staff WriterJuly 17, 2011 

Side-by-side examples of plagiarized passages in a UNC research paper, transcribed from Michael McAdoo's report (on the left) and the original source material (on the right).

SOURCES: COURT FILING FROM MICHAEL MCADOO SUIT VS. THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA; UNC CHANCELLOR HOLDEN THORP AND THE NCAA; SCANMYESSAY.COM, WWW.ARCHIVE.ORG

  • Former UNC football player Michael McAdoo made public his 2009 term paper on the evolution of Swahili culture earlier this month in a Superior Court filing in Durham related to his lawsuit against the NCAA and the university to win reinstatement to the team. The filing shows that the university's honor court ruled that he had received improper assistance from a tutor with citations and a "works cited" list.

    Along with the improper help with footnoting, examples of plagiarism have been detected within the paper since it was made public. Running McAdoo's paper through an anti-plagiarism scanner offered online on Viper's scanmyessay.com site, 39 percent of the essay was found to match content traced to other articles, websites and resources. Below are three passages from McAdoo's paper matched with source materials, including one not detected by the anti-plagiarism scan - a 1911 book titled "The Future of Africa," which was cited incompletely in McAdoo's text.

    The examples in the image above show how McAdoo's text, transcribed on the left side, compares to original source materials, on the right side. Click the image above this box to enlarge it.

    Sources: Court filing from Michael McAdoo suit vs. the University of North Carolina; UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp and the NCAA; scanmyessay.com, www.archive.org,

A front-page story Sunday on the plagiarism case of UNC-Chapel Hill football player Michael McAdoo did not fully report the penalty he received from the school's honor court. He received an F on the assignment, an F for the course, academic probation for the fall 2010 semester and an academic suspension for the spring 2011 semester.

Last fall, UNC football player Michael McAdoo accepted the university honor court's findings that he had received impermissible help from a tutor who footnoted and sourced one of his papers.

The ruling resulted in an "F" on the paper, placed him on academic probation for a semester and helped keep him off the football team last year. He's also one of seven players who sat out the season as a result of an NCAA investigation into allegations of academic fraud and financial gifts and trips from agents.

When McAdoo sought to return to the team this year, he was forced to make public the process that led to the honor court's punishment. And it didn't take long for the public spotlight to shine on something missed by the professor, the honor court, the athletics department and the NCAA: McAdoo had submitted a paper that was plagiarized from multiple sources, with many passages lifted word for word.

The discovery produced more embarrassment for a university still reeling from its worst athletic scandal in 50 years. This time, Athletics Director Dick Baddour had gone to bat for McAdoo to convince NCAA officials that he deserved reinstatement for what appeared to be a lesser, admitted transgression, only to realize afterward that the paper represented something worse.

"This has been the most difficult year in the lives of everybody involved," Chancellor Holden Thorp said in an interview Thursday. "And this is another sad part of the whole episode."

McAdoo, a defensive end from Antioch, Tenn., declined to talk about his case after a hearing Wednesday in which a state judge refused to grant him an injunction so he could play football.

The professor who assigned him the paper, Julius Nyang'oro, who is also chairman of UNC's Department of African and Afro-American Studies, is out of the country and could not be reached.

Baddour had testified to NCAA officials that McAdoo's paper was "his work." Baddour also could not be reached for comment.

The 39 percent solution

McAdoo's paper first became an issue when the university discovered that he had gotten too much help from a tutor, Jennifer Wiley, who wrote the footnotes and the bibliography for him. That led to his removal from the team for the past season, and after the honor court's decision, prompted the NCAA to declare him permanently ineligible.

McAdoo filed suit this month to challenge the NCAA decision. He contends that his misconduct, as found by the honor court, does not rise to the level of a full ban from playing football for NCAA member colleges.

Unlike honor court cases, state Superior Court proceedings are public, and that required McAdoo to produce the paper at the heart of the academic violations, as well as records of the honor court and NCAA proceedings. Message board commenters on Pack Pride, a sports website devoted to rival N.C. State, seized on the paper, finding several examples of plagiarism.

The SportsbyBrooks news blog was the first to pick up on the controversy.

In the 21-page paper, about the evolution of Swahili culture, McAdoo lifted large chunks of prose directly from books and essays, and included one passage that appears to originate from various websites with little or no attribution.

The News & Observer scanned McAdoo's paper with an online plagiarism detection program, scanmyessay.com, and found that 39 percent of the content matched other material. Additionally, the program didn't catch passages from a 1911 book, "The Future of Africa," which McAdoo used extensively in his paper without giving the author proper credit.

Missing the plagiarism

For more than 130 years, UNC-Chapel Hill students have pledged to abide by an honor code that forbids them from lying, cheating, stealing and other misbehavior. Those accused of violating the code go before a court of their peers who serve as prosecutor, defense and judge, deciding their academic fates in closed-door sessions.

It is a process defended by students, faculty and administrators.

The McAdoo case caused the university to acknowledge that the honor court does not have the anti-plagiarism programs to catch cheating - programs that are free on the Internet. Some academic departments do have the capability.

Thorp and other officials acknowledged that the honor court rarely investigates beyond the allegations brought to its attention.

UNC history professor Jay Smith said he is not surprised the honor court missed McAdoo's plagiarism. He has been arguing for two years that the honor court system fails to get at the heart of the misconduct.

He became a critic when he turned in a student for plagiarizing a paper in 2009. Smith had found four examples of copied passages, but at a hearing, the honor court's prosecutor provided the evidence for only one example.

As a result, the court's panel could consider only that example. It found the student guilty, but the student appealed. The appellate panel, Smith said, threw out the charge on the grounds that it could have been an honest mistake, something the panel might not have done if it had known there were three other examples.

The experience convinced Smith that students do not have the time or expertise to handle complex misconduct cases. He also said the court is too often limited to considering the charges brought to it, rather than exploring the possibility that a more egregious offense occurred.

That's problem enough for cases involving non-athletes, he said. But when an athletic department relies on the court to determine facts crucial to a key football player's eligibility, he said that puts the university's academic integrity at great risk. Student-athletes on UNC's basketball and football teams help the university collect millions of dollars in television rights, ticket sales and licensing fees, creating pressure to keep athletes eligible.

The athletics department puts "UNC's credibility on the line without apparently doing the due diligence on the basic facts of the case," he said. "And I think that's a very serious problem."

The undergraduate honor court handles roughly 190 cases a year, and most students are found guilty - 90 percent for the most recent academic year. Often students admit wrongdoing, eliminating an evidentiary hearing before a five-student panel.

Earlier this year, Smith surveyed faculty about the honor court. While a strong majority favored the process, one surprising finding was that many faculty said they don't use it. They are not identified in the survey, which was made public in April by the reesenews.org digital news service produced by UNC journalism students.

Reasons varied. While some faculty said the punishments were too harsh, many others said the court was being too lenient on cheaters.

Several responses suggested preferential treatment for student-athletes by UNC officials or the honor court.

"The evidence of cheating could not have been more obvious, and the excuse given was completely implausible," one wrote. "Also, this case dealt with a student-athlete, and I found the interventions from the athletics department asking that the case not be brought before the honor court unethical."

More academic help

Thorp said he wished someone in the university had caught the plagiarism in McAdoo's paper before the Wolfpack fans did, but he also said the handling of McAdoo's academic misconduct does not suggest the need for an overhaul of the honor court.

He said there's no need to put the plagiarism-catching technology in the hands of honor court prosecutors because they are not asked to do more than prove or disprove the allegations before them.

He also did not back away from the university's position that McAdoo should return to the team if the NCAA reverses itself about ruling him ineligible. The school has invited McAdoo to serve as a "student-coach" on the football team while he tries to convince a state judge to let him play.

"He was tried by the honor court. He got a sentence and he served it," Thorp said. "So, if he wasn't (a member of) the football team and this whole thing happened, this is exactly how we would have handled it."

Thorp does believe, however, that some reform is needed. His fix is to do more to help them in the classroom.

"We need to do a better job creating an environment where our student athletes have the resources and time so they can do their academic work."

News researchers Brooke Cain and Peggy Neal contributed to this report.

dan.kane@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4861

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