John Drescher

How UNC changed its story — and lost its voice on college sports

Former UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Paul Hardin
Former UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Paul Hardin File photo

When Paul Hardin, the president of Southern Methodist University in the early 1970s, found evidence that boosters were paying Mustang football players, Hardin reported it to the NCAA, which governs college sports.

Turns out, some of those boosters were on Hardin’s board. Hardin wouldn’t back down, and his board forced him out. Hardin later became the chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill, at least partly because of how he handled the cheating at SMU.

Hardin’s actions at SMU provide a stark contrast to how UNC handled its most recent case before the NCAA. Hardin died about three months ago, several years after the passing of the once-prevalent notion that Carolina was a national leader in doing big-time college sports the right way.

Carol Folt, the chancellor in Chapel Hill, and her leadership team inherited a major scandal when Folt took the job in 2013. After reporting by The News & Observer, UNC investigations revealed no-show classes with an abundance of athletes going back to the 1990s.

Questions remained about the thoroughness of the investigations. To her credit, Folt hired a former high-ranking official from the U.S. Justice Department to get to the bottom of what happened.

He concluded in 2014 that a shadow curriculum of “corrupted” classes had been used to keep athletes eligible. There were no classes and no instruction. Typically, a single paper was required; it was graded by an office assistant who usually skimmed only the beginning and end, and gave high grades. Counselors steered athletes to the classes to maintain their eligibility.

Folt embraced the report. She promised changes (and delivered on them). She said the classes were both an academic and athletic problem.

UNC’s accrediting agency said the classes were fraudulent and put Carolina on probation for a year. UNC said it “accepted full responsibility for the wrongdoing” and said “the academic fraud was long-standing and not limited” to two people.

Honor system

Carolina was on the right track. But then it had to deal with the NCAA. That association regulates college sports, not curricula; it leaves that up to universities.

It’s a kind of honor system. If UNC said the no-show courses were legitimate, the NCAA would take its word.

UNC said the classes weren’t up to its standards. But ultimately it had to say whether the classes were legitimate or not. This was the decisive question, the moment of truth. Legitimate or not? Fraudulent or not? Yes or no?

UNC told the NCAA the classes were legitimate. “The panel is troubled by the university’s shifting positions about whether academic fraud occurred on its campus and the credibility of the Cadwalader report [led by the former Justice Department official], which it distanced itself from after initially supporting the findings,” said Greg Sankey, chair of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions.

Sankey said that it was “more likely than not” that UNC athletes received fraudulent credit from the classes. He also said it was “more likely than not” that athletes were steered to those courses in an effort to maintain their eligibility. But his committee declined penalties because the NCAA defers to universities to decide whether academic fraud occurred.

After the NCAA announced its decision, UNC leaders participated in a conference call with reporters. The N&O’s Dan Kane (whose reporting was praised by Sankey) asked them if the classes were legitimate.

There was a long pause.

Finally, UNC lawyer Mark Merritt fell on the sword and answered, sparing Folt. He said the classes were legitimate because a topic was assigned; a paper was completed by the student; and a grade was given. He said no passing grade was given to a student who didn’t turn in a paper.

Now we know what it took for a class at UNC to be considered legitimate.

A platform

Folt wrote in 2015: “I can assure you that the University’s response, including by every member of my leadership team, has been defined by our unrelenting commitment to get it right and act with complete integrity.”

Yet two agencies raised questions about the integrity of UNC’s responses — the NCAA and the accreditation agency. The accreditor said UNC “was not diligent” in providing information about the scandal and that two UNC employees did not tell all they knew during its investigation.

UNC’s leaders have a long history of pushing back against the excesses of sports. UNC system president Bill Friday killed the popular Dixie Classic basketball tournament after a betting scandal. Chancellor Bill Aycock hired Dean Smith as basketball coach after another scandal and told him he wouldn’t be fired for losing but he would be fired for cheating. Paul Hardin stood tall at SMU and at UNC.

That kind of history gave Chapel Hill’s academic leaders for decades a platform to talk about the appropriate role of sports on American campuses.

Soon, there’s going to be another debate about the role of sports at our top universities. The recent indictments of four assistant college basketball coaches in a bribery and corruption investigation guarantees it.

In the past, UNC-Chapel Hill’s leaders could have had a prominent, respected voice in such a debate. Folt seemed to reference this proud history when she wrote The N&O in 2014 about athletics and academics and said, “We are the nation’s oldest public university and I believe we have a responsibility to demonstrate leadership....”

Sadly, in the next debate about the future of college sports, UNC’s leaders are going to have to sit this one out.

John Drescher: 919-829-4515, @john_drescher