ACC Commissioner John Swofford said that during his final years at North Carolina he saw no warning signs about bogus independent studies courses that for nearly two decades inflated athletes’ GPAs and helped keep them eligible.
Swofford, who spoke Wednesday at the ACC’s annual basketball media day in Charlotte, was athletics director at UNC from 1980 through 1997, when he left to become the ACC commissioner. By the time he left, a long-running paper class scheme, as it has been described recently, had been ongoing for four years.
Kenneth Wainstein, a former U.S. Justice Department official, last week announced the results of his months-long investigation into suspect courses in UNC’s African- and Afro-American Studies Department. Wainstein concluded that, in 1993-2011, 3,100 students – nearly half of them athletes – passed through bogus paper classes in AFAM.
Among the athletes who were enrolled in the classes, which had no professor oversight, nearly half were football and men’s basketball players. Overall, athletes received higher grades in the courses than non-athletes – often As and Bs for papers that were found to have been heavily plagiarized.
Asked if he sensed any red flags about the AFAM courses during his final years at UNC, Swofford said, “I don’t think so.”
“I think if you look at (the Wainstein) report, in my last few years there, there were some, in terms of numbers, very relatively minimal, independent study classes and AFAM,” Swofford said. “But that really took off in about 2000.
“So it never came up while I was there as an issue from any source. If it had, obviously, we would have addressed that with the appropriate people. But it never arose as any issue at all.”
When Swofford was athletics director, the academic support program for athletes was, for a time, run by the athletic department. He changed that, though, and moved the academic support program to the College of Arts and Sciences. The program has reported to the provost since 2013.
The Wainstein report, however, showed that the athletic department continued to oversee the daily operations until the fraud was discovered.
Swofford said he made that move to reflect “a separation of church and state.”
“I asked that we move our academic counseling program for athletes out of athletics and into the College of Arts and Sciences not because I saw any particular problems with it,” Swofford said. “It just philosophically was and still is something that I believe in.”
The AFAM case at UNC has been the most publicized scandal among recent ones at ACC schools – and it’s likely among the most publicized anywhere in history – but it’s hardly Swofford’s lone concern these days.
Syracuse’s football and men’s basketball programs have been under NCAA investigation for nearly two years, and school officials are set to meet with the NCAA Committee on Infractions on Thursday and Friday.
In recent years, Swofford has also dealt with a prolonged NCAA investigation at Miami. Amid all the long-running NCAA problems and investigations, he as defended the ACC’s integrity.
“Our cornerstones in this league are the balance of academics with nationally competitive athletic programs,” Swofford said, “(and) doing it with compliance – you know, in compliance with NCAA rules.
“And that won’t change. I think what you do when you have these problems as an institution is identify them, correct them, make changes that need to be made, bring them to closure, which is sometimes very challenging, and then move on in a stronger and better way.”
Swofford declined to comment on how closure might come at UNC. It’s unclear when the NCAA might rule on a case some experts have characterized as among the most egregious academic fraud cases in college sports history.
Speculation of penalties has been widespread, from the vacation of national championships in men’s basketball to probation and the loss of scholarships and everything in between. Swofford described that talk as “a hypothetical right now.”
“Obviously you don’t want any of your programs hindered by NCAA penalties,” he said, “ But you know, if you have some that are, you move on, and that institution moves on.”