Rob Christensen

UNC used to be a leader in reining in big-time sports. Not anymore.

UNC academic scandal explained

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was extensively investigated by the NCAA for a system of fake classes taken by thousands of students, roughly half of them athletes, that spanned three decades.
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The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was extensively investigated by the NCAA for a system of fake classes taken by thousands of students, roughly half of them athletes, that spanned three decades.

The University of North Carolina lawyered up and beat the rap.

That is the broad public perception as UNC-Chapel Hill avoided NCAA sanctions for 18 years of academic fraud in no-show African studies courses that disproportionately enrolled athletes. While most of the criticism has rained on the NCAA’s feckless enforcement, UNC is also held up as an example of a big-time athletic program that escaped punishment.

This is only partly true. Before the house cleaning was over, UNC had a new football coach and a new chancellor, among many other changes. Carol Folt, the new chancellor, said 70 reforms and initiatives were put into effect including in the areas of academic advising and academic oversight.

UNC-Chapel Hill was put on a year’s academic probation in 2015 by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, a harsh rebuke.

The self-inflicted damage done to UNC by the sports/academic scandal is even larger than the wounds caused by the conservative Republican legislature.

UNC is now a symbol of sports out of control. That is a far cry from the vaunted “Carolina Way,” under legendary basketball coach Dean Smith, where winning with integrity was the watchword.

Investigator Kenneth Wainstein describes a lack of oversight by UNC while outlining his investigation into academic issues and athletics. Wainstein was presenting his findings during a 2014 press conference held by UNC.

But even more jarring than that, few universities over the years have provided more leadership on the need to keep the athletics programs under control than UNC. Two of UNC’s most beloved presidents, Frank Porter Graham (1930-1949) and William C. Friday (1956-1986) were strong national voices for reform.

In 1934, Graham was disturbed by a report published by the Carnegie Foundation on the recruiting and subsidizing of athletes that called it “the deepest shadow that darkens American college and school athletics.” The report found that only college presidents could solve the problem.

As chairman of a committee of the National Association of State Universities, Graham studied rules and regulations regarding college sports around the country. Graham wrote 11 regulations stipulating that an athlete should receive neither preferential nor discriminatory treatment in financial aid; athletics should be under the control of the academic faculty; athletes should have to provide statements of financial income; recruitment would be strictly limited; no member of the athletic staff should receive remuneration except from his college; athletic accounts would be audited and published; and there would not, under any condition, be postseason contests.

“Is student life to revolve mainly around a circus subsidized and brought into institutions?” Graham asked, “or is it to center around, mainly, the teachers, library, classrooms, laboratories, historic buildings, shrines and traditions which are part of the soil, the spirit of the place?” according to his biographer Warren Ashby.

In 1935, the so-called Graham plan was adopted by the National Association of State Universities and the following year by presidents of six of 10 institutions in the Southern Conference.

But the Graham plan drew strong opposition from the Southeastern Conference, from sportswriters, from many fans and alumni, and from certain schools such as Duke and the University of Virginia. The plan failed to take hold and college sports continued to get bigger.

One of Graham’s proteges, Friday, took up the cause. Responding to a point-shaving scandal in 1961, Friday moved to limit big-time college basketball: temporarily limiting each UNC team to only two out-of state scholarships, restricting the 1961-62 basketball season to 14 games, and ending the hugely popular Dixie Classic basketball tournament in Raleigh.

In 1982, Friday joined forces with Harvard President Derek Bok and American Council on Education president Jack Peltason to lobby the NCAA for reforms in intercollegiate athletics. Out of that effort, Proposition 48 was adopted, which established minimum SAT scores for entering student-athletes. A year later, the reform movement culminated with the NCAA’s enactment of the so-called “death penalty” for rogue institutions, according to Friday’s biographer, Bill Link.

After retiring as UNC president, Friday (along with the Notre Dame president, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh), co-chaired the Knight Commission in 1989, whose report led to more control of sports shifting from athletic directors to college presidents.

During the betting scandals of the early 1960s, a university trustee asked N.C. State Chancellor John Caldwell whether it was necessary to cut back the highly popular basketball programs.

Caldwell replied that the university’s good name was its “most precious possession.”

It will take a while for UNC to earn back its good name.

N&O investigation reveals why it took so long to get to the bottom of the UNC academic scandal.