The most shocking aspect of the academic and athletics scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill has nothing to do with cheating and nothing to do with sports.
It’s that it wasn’t quashed sooner.
It’s not that bogus classes helped many athletes keep grade-point averages high enough to maintain eligibility to play.
It’s that thousands of students – athletes and non-athletes – took the so-called “paper classes,” and countless other people knew about them, yet the scam was able to persist for nearly two decades before unraveling amid media scrutiny.
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A report released last week by Kenneth Wainstein, a former U.S. Justice Department official, offers the most detail to date about the bogus classes.
An office secretary – not a faculty member – in the African and Afro-American Studies department, Deborah Crowder, devised the “paper classes” scheme. The courses involved no interactions with a faculty member and required no attendance or work other than a single paper. Crowder graded the papers, giving them A’s or high B’s, often without reading them or evaluating their quality, according to the report.
Over 18 years, Crowder and the department chair, Julius Nyang’oro, offered 188 lecture classes and hundreds of individual independent studies in the “paper class” format. More than 3,100 students took the classes, and the report notes that number may be higher. Athletes – many of whom were steered to the classes by their academic counselors who knew about the scheme – represented a disproportionately large percentage of students enrolled in the classes. Many, particularly football and basketball players, maintained their athletic eligibility because of them.
The Wainstein report offers details that beg for more answers about how the fake classes weren’t identified and ended sooner by administrators or other university officials.
Among those details:
It became “common knowledge” among athletes, fraternity members and other students that high grades were given on papers regardless of their quality. How did this “common knowledge” not trickle out to other faculty and administrators on campus? Or did it?
Some of Crowder’s classes were listed on course schedules as lecture classes with classrooms assigned, but they never actually met. Didn’t anyone wonder why those classrooms were empty?
“Given the scale and brazenness of this scheme,” the report says, Crowder and Nyang’oro as far back as the early 2000s feared it could be exposed and that they could get into trouble. If it was so audacious and existed for so long, how did it never reach anyone with the power – or desire – to stop it?
According to the report, academic counselors for athletes of various sports steered athletes into the paper classes, called them “GPA boosters” and even suggested the grades the certain athletes needed on their papers to maintain eligibility or to graduate. Didn’t a single academic adviser ever feel uncomfortable enough about that to bring it to the attention of their superiors?
The report found that other faculty members in the African and Afro-American Studies program understood what was going on. Didn’t any of them have enough concern about the integrity of the department to stop it?
Similar problems with athletes enrolled in easy classes at other universities came to light during the years of the “paper classes” at UNC, and prompted discussions among high-level administrators about the AFAM department. Yet those talks never warranted any detailed look into the department or the classes?
The Wainstein report noted that the paper classes involved thousands of students and coordination between Crowder and many university employees, but the Chapel Hill administration never scrutinized AFAM’s operations or the academic integrity of the course offerings. It was only when media reports raised questions about AFAM classes in 2011 that the administration started looking closely at the department.
“They were shocked with what they found,” the report states.
And that is most shocking of all.
Patrick Gannon is the editor of the NC Insider news service.