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UNC leaders reject finding that administrators meddled in controversial sports history class

Jay Smith, UNC-Chapel Hill history professor and outspoken critic of how UNC has handled the academic-athletic scandal

VIDEO: Smith talks about the effectiveness of dozens of reforms UNC has introduced in the wake of the scandal and his reform group's unsuccessful efforts to obtain data from UNC officials to track the academics of special-admit athletes.
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VIDEO: Smith talks about the effectiveness of dozens of reforms UNC has introduced in the wake of the scandal and his reform group's unsuccessful efforts to obtain data from UNC officials to track the academics of special-admit athletes.

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt and the Board of Trustees have rejected a faculty grievance committee's report concluding that senior administrators pressured the history department over the scheduling of a class that delved into UNC's athletics scandal.

Provost Bob Blouin and Folt rejected the faculty committee's recommendations, and the trustees upheld Folt's decision on March 29, according to documents obtained by The News & Observer.

Last year, a three-member faculty panel ruled in favor of Jay Smith, a UNC history professor and frequent critic of the university's handling of the long-running scandal involving no-show classes for athletes.

Smith had filed a grievance alleging that his course, History 383, "Big-Time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes," drew undue attention and intervention from Kevin Guskiewicz, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

UNC emails published by The N&O showed that history department administrators worried about "blowback" and "a fight on our hands" from the powers that be if they scheduled Smith's course in 2017-18. The class was originally taught in 2016 by Smith, who co-authored the book "Cheated," which details the UNC scandal.

In his appeal to the trustees to overturn Folt's decision, Smith wrote that the dean "intimidated a department chair into blocking the scheduling of a single course he did not like." In the grievance hearing, history chairman Fitz Brundage was quoted as saying that Guskiewicz twice told him in 2016 that "This is not a threat, but ... in a time of scarce resources, etc. etc," Smith wrote to trustees, "leaving little doubt about his ultimate intentions."

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Kevin Guskiewicz, College of Arts and Sciences dean at UNC-Chapel Hill. DAN SEARS UNC-CHAPEL HILL

Smith also wrote that the stress from the controversy caused him undisclosed medical issues during a six-month period in 2016 and 2017.

The grievance committee concluded that Smith's history class was dropped from the schedule, resulting from pressure from UNC administrators that was inconsistent with the university's commitment to academic freedom. The panel recommended that university officials not interfere in individual courses and not threaten an academic department financially or with other negative consequences over a particular course.

UNC officials sought to have the grievance dismissed, saying it was a moot point because Smith's course was eventually allowed to go forward this spring.

In her denial, Folt wrote that the faculty panel's recommendation "would undermine the authority of the Dean to oversee curriculum in the College of Arts and Sciences" and would conflict with accreditation standards.

A university spokeswoman said state law prevents officials from commenting on a confidential personnel matter. The law does allow leaders to release information if a state agency's integrity is questioned.

"However, as we have said before, Carolina has a steadfast commitment to academic freedom and shared governance, and we respect the governance rights of all faculty to ensure that these principles are upheld," said the spokeswoman, Joanne Peters Denny. "Under the shared governance model, faculty and administrators must work collaboratively to determine the curriculum and course priorities consistent with the needs of each department, school, the University and our students."

She said no other appeal is available to a professor beyond the Board of Trustees' ruling.

Critics say the move renders the faculty governance process meaningless.

"Faculty governance has taken a real black eye here," Smith said in an interview. "I still feel that academic freedom is vital. It's important to defend academic freedom, but I'm more alarmed at this point by the administrators' show of contempt for the processes of faculty governance and the judgment of an impartial faculty committee that invested a lot of time and energy and hours into considering my case."

Smith wrote about the issue in an op-ed this week in the Wall Street Journal titled "How Sports Ate Academic Freedom." He related his case to the recent proposed reforms by Condoleezza Rice's Commission on College Basketball. "Before we 'put the "college" back in basketball,'" he wrote, "we need to get the academic values back into college."

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The book “Cheated,” by co-authors Jay Smith and Mary Willingham. N&O file photo

North Carolina representatives of the American Association of University Professors raised alarms, too.

"Years after the University of North Carolina’s academic-athletics scandal, the state's flagship university continues to let big sports interfere with the curriculum, academic freedom, and institutional integrity," said a statement from the AAUP's North Carolina Conference.

The AAUP said it stands behind Smith for three reasons:

  • Evidence suggests administrators intervened for the purpose of quashing a class.
  • The administration's rejection of the grievance committee's findings undermines due process and administrative accountability.
  • Lucrative athletics programs, and administrators who support them, are in a position to hurt academic integrity.

University administrators have in the past denied any wrongdoing. Guskiewicz, an expert on athletic concussions, was a guest speaker in Smith's class in 2016.

Folt's letter says that Brundage's testimony "corroborated Dean Guskiewicz that there were no threats" to the department over scheduling of Smith's class.

Smith calls that statement "galling."

Brundage could not be reached for comment. He was not reappointed as chairman of history, and his term ends next month.

Smith had 44 students in his class this spring, and he hopes to teach it to more than 100 students next spring. The sports history course was approved through normal university policies and procedures. Long-established practice dictates that it is the faculty's role to determine what to teach and how to teach it, Smith said, and he is not challenging the administration's authority to approve classes or set out long-term curricular strategies for the university.

But he said he's never experienced the level of interference by administrators on any other class, and neither had any professor he knows.

"This is one of the great ironies," Smith said. "They exercise no oversight over fake classes for 20 years, but then they insist on exercising oversight over the course that is, in part, about the fake classes that they failed to stop."

Former UNC-Chapel Hill reading specialist Mary Willingham and history professor Jay Smith discuss the academic scandal at UNC during a 2015 interview.

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