A UNC course that dealt with athletics scandal is canceled. Now some want to know why

A UNC-Chapel Hill course on big-time college sports was canceled for the coming year, records show, after administrative angst and an offer by UNC’s athletic director to teach the class instead of an outspoken professor.

The course, “Big-Time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes, 1956 to the present,” was taught last summer and fall by history professor Jay Smith, whose expertise is in French and European history. Smith developed the sports course after co-writing “Cheated,” a 2015 book that chronicles UNC’s long-running scandal involving “paper classes” that never met and disproportionately benefited athletes.

Smith’s History 383 course got overwhelmingly positive student reviews. But it was kept off the schedule for the coming academic year. That prompted a letter of protest signed by 45 history faculty in April, calling the cancellation “a serious infringement of freedom of inquiry, a fundamental feature of intellectual life in every authentic university.”

College of Arts and Sciences Dean Kevin Guskiewicz said in an interview that scheduling courses happens at the department level based on each department’s needs. “The scheduling of courses is entirely up to the department chair,” said Guskiewicz, a concussion expert who hosted Smith’s class for a tour of his research center last year.

Guskiewicz said he has asked departments to make strategic decisions about course offerings. But he emphasized that he had neither pressured anyone nor been pressured about Smith’s class.

Emails obtained by The News & Observer show that history department administrators felt worried about “blowback” if they made the class part of the regular academic lineup. The course was initially taught in the summer, but Smith suggested the department offer it again last fall instead of his honors history course, which drew only four student registrations.

Fitz Brundage, chairman of the history department, wrote to Smith on May 16, 2016, saying he would have to run that idea by a senior associate dean, Jonathan Hartlyn.

“I am more than willing to fight for your right to teach this course in the regular academic year (or whenever you would like to do so),” Brundage wrote. “But I suspect that there will be resistance from the ususal (sic) suspects. I have no idea about on what basis the higher administration can interfere in course scheduling but I anticipate that they will try to do so.”

The department would probably have a “fight on our hands,” the email added. “If you want to proceed I think we should discuss our approach to the likely blowback.”

The course had already been listed and students had registered, and it proceeded last fall, enrolling about 30 students. But when it came time to set the 2017-18 course schedule, History 383 was out.

The faculty letter said Brundage felt pressured by the administration to cancel the course for this year, “concerned about adverse consequences for the department.”

An email from associate department chairwoman Louise McReynolds to Smith on May 17, 2016, said: “Hartlyn does not want you to teach that course in the Fall.” She asked if Smith would consider putting it off a year to give everyone time to prepare, “To know where we’re going to take cover.”

Hartlyn could not be reached for comment. He helped conduct one of the early internal investigations of UNC’s academic fraud.

In an interview, Brundage said he and officials in the dean’s office have an understanding that the course can be offered again in 2018.

When asked where the blowback came from, Brundage said “I honestly don’t know. I have no idea. Obviously there is someone somewhere who is troubled by the course.” The phrase, “the usual suspects,” was an ironic reference to a film, Brundage said.

The class is not entirely focused on UNC but does use the scandal as a case study to examine the forces that shape intercollegiate athletics. Students are assigned Smith’s book, but they also read a book about the history of sports reform movements. They study the rise of the NCAA, athletic scholarships, women’s participation in sports after Title IX and issues around race and athletics. Smith estimates that about 20 percent of the course is about UNC.

Last fall’s class garnered positive feedback, according to student reviews that showed 77 percent strongly agreed the course was excellent and 85 percent strongly agreed that they had learned a lot.

Lindsay Pasteris, a rising junior from Cary, said it was among her most demanding courses. She calls herself a sports lover and a “huge Tar Heel.”

“I definitely have a different perspective on it now, because I’m going to argue on behalf of the student athletes instead of the athletic department because of all the things I’ve learned,” she said. But she added: “I can’t blame UNC’s athletic department. What I’ve learned is that it’s just a huge system failure.”

Several students said it was the best class they’d taken at UNC, and most said they would recommend it to others. But there were a few critics. One unidentified student wrote: “The course was very biased and one sided.”

That may have been the concern of Bubba Cunningham, the university’s athletic director. Smith had contacted Cunningham in April 2016, asking permission for his students to tour the Loudermilk Center, which functions as an academic and training center for athletes. Smith had initially been turned down by the academic support center’s director.

In the email to Cunningham, Smith wrote: “This course is not a polemic, it is intended to be a rich and evidence-driven learning experience for UNC students who want to know more about the current debates involving big-time sports and the NCAA.”

Cunningham responded, and suggested that he teach the course, “thus saving the university a sizable amount of money and you a lot of time.”

“Given that I have a MBA and 20 years of relevant, practical experience in inter-collegiate athletics I believe I would be better suited to teach this class,” Cunningham wrote.

Smith responded: “Bubba: I can’t be entirely certain if you’re being serious here, but ... sorry, I’m the historian. And I’m the guy who went to the trouble of creating the course, getting it approved through all the proper channels, and getting it added to the history department’s listing of courses.”

He also invited Cunningham to come speak to his class.

Cunningham replied that the class tour of the athletic facility would not be in the best interest of the university. “The divisive nature of your public comments has made some of our students and staff uncomfortable, and I am not willing to assist in furthering such an environment for them,” Cunningham wrote.

Smith immediately complained to Chancellor Carol Folt and Provost Jim Dean, and Cunningham then scheduled a tour for the class. But Cunningham never spoke to the class.

Through a spokesman, Cunningham declined to be interviewed for this story.

Andrew Perrin, a sociology professor who is leading a group updating UNC’s curriculum, raised a concern with Smith about balance in the class after looking over the syllabus. In an interview, Perrin said it was valuable for UNC to have a course that explores the costs and benefits of college sports.

“My own view is that Jay Smith is probably not the right person to do that, but that’s not my call to make,” he said, adding that he trusted the internal processes that vet all new courses.

Smith has been a vocal critic of the university’s handling of the athletic scandal, in which 3,100 students took fraudulent courses over an 18-year period. The classes, in African and Afro-American studies, never met and required only a paper, resulting in high grades. The papers were primarily graded by an office manager who was not a faculty member.

A frequent questioner of UNC administrators at faculty meetings, Smith co-wrote the “Cheated” book with former UNC reading specialist Mary Willingham, who blew the whistle on the scandal.

The amount of scrutiny on his course is unprecedented, Smith said. “I’m in my 27th year,” he said. “Never seen anything like it.”

Brundage, in his fourth year as chairman, said he’d never had this much discussion about the scheduling of a course.

“We are ultimately dependent on the broader university administration,” Brundage said. “No department wants to be in a situation in which they’re at loggerheads with an administration. There are very high risks.”

Such attention may be more uncomfortable for humanities departments that already face declining enrollments as students flock to science and technology majors.

Brundage is confident Smith’s class will be scheduled a year from now. Smith isn’t.

“There is some very strong pressure emanating from somewhere to keep this course off the books, to suppress discussion of these issues,” Smith said.

There is the question of academic freedom, he said, but also about UNC’s recovery.

“I’m concerned about what this says about what the university has learned from our scandal,” Smith said. “Because if we’re not yet willing to examine our recent history critically with an open mind, and with a willingness to situate that history within broader patterns of intercollegiate sport and the politics of higher education, then that means we haven’t really taken any substantive lessons from our scandal, that we’re just managing perception.”

Smith’s history colleague, Harry Watson, signed the letter of protest and was part of a small group that met with Guskiewicz on Tuesday.

“Our concern is that the course attracted attention because it had the possibility of disseminating unpopular opinion or information, and that the university thought it would be embarrassing for that reason,” Watson said.

Now, Watson and others will be watching closely to see if History 383 appears in 2018.

“Our satisfaction will come when the course is offered again.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer