As the spring 2011 semester wound to a close, UNC-Chapel Hill football player Erik Highsmith had nothing to show for the blog students were supposed to contribute to for a communications class, his instructor said. The blog accounted for 30 percent of a student’s grade.
Highsmith wrote two posts in seven days. The first was about poultry farming, the second about people and pets.
Very little of either post was in his own words.
The first entry was virtually identical to a passage on an education website written by four 11-year-olds for their peers. The second mirrored much of an essay someone posted on Urch.com, a website that helps people prepare for the SAT, GRE and other college entry exams.
Instructor J. Nikol Beckham said she spotted the plagiarism and reported it to the academic support program for student athletes. By then, an NCAA investigation had turned up numerous examples of a tutor providing improper help to football players, and Beckham was concerned the plagiarism went beyond Highsmith and her class.
“I suggested that they consider that this isn’t an isolated incident,” she said, “and I expressed my disappointment considering everything that had been going on for the last year. And I received a great deal of assurances that it would be handled.”
The four investigations into academic fraud at UNC-CH are largely focused on classes within the African and Afro-American Studies Department that never met. But another theme is also emerging as more becomes known about the school work: football players cutting and pasting from various sources to fulfill written assignments.
In Highsmith’s case, Beckham said someone at the academic support program told her they would talk to the student, “but after that, I never heard anything.” She has since left the university to teach at a community college in central Virginia.
Highsmith, a senior wide receiver from Vanceboro, declined to be interviewed, according to Steve Kirschner, an associate athletic director for communications at UNC-CH. Highsmith played every game last season, except for one in which he was held out for an injury.
UNC-CH academic officials did not respond to numerous requests for comment. Kirschner said in a written response that officials can’t comment on academic matters involving an individual student. UNC-CH officials typically decline to comment on student educational matters, citing the federal Family Educational Right to Privacy Act, which threatens the withholding of federal money if student educational records are released.
He disputed that the plagiarism found to date suggested a systemic problem.
“Faculty, advisors, counselors, coaches and staff interact with our student-athletes daily and often remind them of the responsibility they have to do the right thing in all aspects of their lives – academically, athletically and socially,” Kirschner wrote. “And we believe our student-athletes meet those responsibilities the overwhelming amount of the time.”
McAdoo and beyond
The first instance of plagiarism among UNC-CH athletes to surface publicly was a paper former defensive end Michael McAdoo submitted for a Swahili language class in the summer of 2009.
That turned out to be a no-show class, and the paper had several plagiarized passages. It became public in July 2011 when McAdoo made it a part of his lawsuit to get back on the team. His attorney, Noah Huffstettler, said in court papers that McAdoo researched and wrote the paper with the help of the UNC-CH Academic Support Program for Student Athletes and did not know that what he was doing was wrong.
Last month, The News & Observer obtained records from within the academic support program that showed football players who struggled to do college-level work were trying to fulfill written assignments by cutting and pasting passages from recommended source materials. In one case, a football player turned in to a tutor a 19-page draft for one of the no-show classes that was little more than a string of copied passages. The draft was for an African studies class in the spring of 2010 that only required a 20-page paper.
The player has declined to be interviewed by The N&O, according to an athletic department spokesman, Kevin Best. The player told UNC-CH’s NCAA compliance administrators that the paper was a draft and not the final version. The final version was only required to be kept for a year under UNC system policies, but UNC-CH officials would not say whether they have a copy.
That player has not been suspended from any games since the draft paper became public.
More incidents missed
It’s unclear what grade Highsmith received in the COMM 350 class. Beckham cited the federal privacy law in not providing his final grade. She also declined to identify him by name for that reason, but the records from the blog show he submitted the passages.
She did not realize that the blog for the class had been exposed on UNC-CH’s website, where a fan of rival N.C. State University found it, and contacted the N&O. The day after the N&O interviewed her, password protection was added to the site.
While Beckham said she reported the plagiarism to the academic support center, she did not notify UNC-CH’s student-run honor court. The university’s honor code requires students and faculty to report instances of cheating, but a survey last year found many faculty avoided the honor court. Some of them said they did not trust its ability to investigate and adjudicate.
Beckham said she did not consider the plagiarism to be an honor court violation because she had already given Highsmith a zero for the blog-related part of the course. That meant that Highsmith would have had to ace the remaining class assignments just to earn a C.
He was not the only football player to plagiarize in the class. The blog entries show Donte Paige-Moss, a defensive end who left the team after his junior season, copied a comment from the Collegiate Times website and posted it as a comment for the COMM 350 blog. Beckham said she did not catch the plagiarism, but it, too, was for a late blog post and therefore may have not affected his grade.
Paige-Moss, who now plays for a Canadian league football team, could not be reached.
McAdoo’s plagiarism was missed by the professor, the university and the NCAA. Once it became known, Chancellor Holden Thorp declined to take a closer look at the work football players submitted, saying that would amount to disparate treatment.
What’s being probed
When an internal investigation of the no-show classes was released in May, the authors said “no instance was found of student receiving a grade who had not submitted written work.” But the report was silent on whether that work was tested for plagiarism. The university also later acknowledged that the reviewers did not see every paper turned in because of the one-year retention policy.
None of the investigations under way appear to have a goal of determining how often football players and other athletes were committing plagiarism in their school work. Former Gov. Jim Martin is leading one of those probes at Thorp’s request. Martin said Tuesday that he and Baker Tilly, the national accounting firm hired for the probe, did not have the time to take that on.
Jay Smith, a UNC-CH history professor who has been outspoken about the scandal’s impact on the university’s academic integrity, said the academic support program needs a thorough review, regardless of what Martin finds. “It’s painfully obvious to anybody who has been paying attention for the last couple of years that plagiarism seems to be widely accepted among at least a certain subsection of athletes, and, it would seem, within a certain number of counselors and tutors,” Smith said. “And that is a problem. That is a huge problem.”