Jim Jenkins

UNC-CH ends a class its leaders should take – the history of big-time college sports

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.

If ever there was a college campus where a history course in college athletics – “big-time” athletics – was more appropriate, or more needed, it’s the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But it’s clear after a report from The News & Observer’s Jane Stancill on the cancellation of such a course that administrators at the university don’t agree. They continue to have the same attitude about the scandal regarding “paper” courses and their alleged popularity with athletes almost since the beginning: Ignore it and it will go away. Or, this is a public relations problem. Or, the media is out to get us. Or, it’s not really that bad.

This is a disgraceful response from people who are supposed to stand for academic freedom, for college campuses as places for open and free and sometimes unpopular dialogue, for the university as a marketplace of ideas and fearless discussion.

The scenario: Professor Jay Smith of the Department of History taught a course called “Big-Time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes, 1956 to the present.” Smith’s been one of the university’s internal critics regarding the long-running UNC scandal, still in the process of review by the NCAA. He co-wrote a book about it, “Cheated.”

Jay Smith
Jay Smith, UNC-CH professor of history Harry Lynch hlynch@newsobserver.com

The university has a process for reviewing whether courses work with students, and by all measures, Smith’s did. An overwhelming majority of students, 77 percent, said the course was excellent. But now the course is off the books, and various communications among personnel really come down to one reason why: History 383 may be liked by students, but it’s intensely unpopular with administrators, who have left the explanation for its disappearance to others.

This shows, of course, an unflattering fear of criticism from those at the top. Their reluctance to get everything about the scandal out in the open has only prolonged the controversy and made it worse.

Congratulations, professor Smith. You’re the latest victim of a Speaker Ban.

Yes, that was the law passed by the General Assembly in the early 1960s banning communists and other folks judged to be subversives from speaking on public university campuses. It was a disgrace, and thanks to the late UNC President William Friday and some staunch allies and good lawyers, it went away. The cruel irony here, of course, is that fear of free speech comes from within, not without the university.

UNC-Chapel Hill has spent millions and millions of dollars on this scandal: trying to massage it with the press through public relations, commissioning a $3 million-plus report from a Washington lawyer who found and reported problems (previously reported by The N&O’s Dan Kane), having its own lawyers engage in endless back-and-forth with the NCAA.

The cancellation of Smith’s course is but the latest embarrassment. You have to give him this: His course and its suppression has mustered comment and contemplation from everyone from Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham, who initially declined to let Smith’s class tour an academic center for athletes and then relented, to … let’s see … a dean, a department chair, as associate department chair – sounds like UNC-CH has more administrators than the Pentagon.

All this, over one clearly popular history course at a campus where free speech has always been not just valued, but treasured.

To their credit, some of Smith’s colleagues have banded together to support him and let their objections to what’s happened be known. That’s no small feat on their part: They’re going against administrators who want all of this to go away and don’t appreciate those who want to continue to speak out about it.

Many North Carolinians who knew and revered Friday wonder: What would he have done? I have no doubt that he would have instructed administrators to sign up for professor Smith’s course, from the chancellor to all the chairs and deans and associate chairs and deans and assistant chairs and deans. His order to Smith would have been simple: Take attendance, and don’t grade on curve. Make them earn it.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkiins@newsobserver.com