UNC scandal raises new questions at grad level

UNC cornerback Michael Waddell listens to head coach John Bunting during a 2002 game.
UNC cornerback Michael Waddell listens to head coach John Bunting during a 2002 game. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

The academic-athletics scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is like the mythical multi-headed Hydra serpent battled by Hercules. Every time he cut off one of the Hydra’s heads, two more grew back.

So it has been at UNC-CH. After multiple swipes at getting to the bottom of the scandal, the extensive $3 million Wainstein report appeared to expose the full extent of academic fraud. It documented how athletes were kept eligible over a period of nearly 20 years through phony classes in the former African and African-American Studies Department. Now the scandal has moved from those undergraduate classes to graduate classes in the Exercise and Sports Science Department.

In a report Sunday, The News & Observer’s Dan Kane published charges by Cheryl Thomas, the graduate school’s admissions director from 2002 to 2010. She says athletic officials sought to keep players eligible by having them enrolled in graduate school. According to university correspondence, at least one of those athletes, former UNC football player Michael Waddell, ignored his academic responsibilities once he was enrolled in 2003. Waddell had gained admission under an arrangement worked out by then-senior associate athletic director John Blanchard, but Waddell didn’t show for classes or tests.

When the athletics department pressed to have Waddell admitted, Thomas objected to her superiors that Waddell had not applied in time and was not academically qualified.

“They know he has not applied and would not meet the minimum requirements for admission, yet (the Exercise and Sports Science Department) is willing to accept him as a non-degree seeking, one semester only, graduate student so his football eligibility will continue, if the (graduate school) will allow it,” Thomas wrote to Linda Dykstra, the graduate school dean.

After Waddell was kicked out of grad school after receiving four Fs, Kevin Guskiewicz, a professor and director of Exercise and Sports Science’s graduate studies program, sent a letter to Blanchard saying his program had been abused.

“We were willing to accept Michael Waddell and his very marginal undergraduate GPA because we believed that helping a student, and a group of colleagues in the Athletic Department, was the right thing to do at the time,” Guskiewicz wrote. “Four months later, we now look foolish.”

The Waddell case is significant beyond the incidence of one athlete given special academic cover to stay eligible. The Guskiewicz letter and Thomas’ statements show that a senior athletics department official pushed for special deals with the academic side to keep athletes eligible. That raises fresh doubts about his claims that Blanchard was unaware of the extent of fraud in the African studies classes. And if someone at Blanchard’s level was willing to cut corners, how many other top athletic department officials and coaches were aware?

This is hardly only a case of athletics officials trying to bend the rules. Academic officials also failed to block such abuse even when alerted by the director of admissions. Now there are new questions about how far the abuses spread on the academic side and how high up there was knowledge of such abuses. It now seems a very long time ago that UNC officials were trying to say this scandal was confined to an inattentive professor and a misguided office administrator in the African studies department.

These revelations are enough, but there is also evidence of neglect, incompetence or worse when Thomas tried to bring the abuse to light. Shortly after the Wainstein report came out in October, she sent the correspondence regarding Waddell to Wainstein, the NCAA and the commission that accredits UNC. She said all acknowledged receiving the correspondence. After nearly three months of waiting for an official response, Thomas turned her material over to The News & Observer in January.