Leaders of a national commission on college athletics called for reforms Monday in the wake of the NCAA infraction committee’s decision sparing UNC-Chapel Hill sanctions in the long-running academic scandal.
“We are calling on the NCAA to change a rule that now effectively allows an institution under investigation to make its own determination — let me repeat that, its own determination — about the academic legitimacy of its courses,” said Arne Duncan, a former U.S. education secretary who now co-leads the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.
“The NCAA should not be handcuffed in its authority to consider independent assessments of academic fraud,” he said.
His announcement came after a Knight Commission meeting that featured an appearance by NCAA President Mark Emmert, who said that “only a very small portion of Americans” believe that the Committee on Infractions held UNC accountable for 16 years of classes that were created and graded by a secretary and had no instruction.
The NCAA’s infractions committee ruled on Oct. 13 that it could not sanction UNC over the classes in large part because the university claimed them to be legitimate, though below its standards. The committee said an NCAA rule from 2014 gives member schools the authority to define whether courses are fraudulent.
The decision and UNC’s position on the classes have drawn criticism across the country. Emmert said he thought the infractions committee felt “hamstrung” by the academic fraud rule, and saw it as an opportunity for reform.
The question he posed is who should take that up. Should the NCAA have more latitude over academic matters, or should accrediting commissions develop better tools to punish schools that commit academic fraud.
He noted that accrediting commissions can punish schools for fraudulent classes, but their options are limited to probation or pulling accreditation. He called the latter option a “nuclear bomb” because it cuts off federal funding.
UNC’s accreditor put it on probation for a year.
Emmert defended the committee’s decision, saying it had to abide by the 2014 rule. He also said that he supports the member schools’ right to define what is academic fraud within their institutions.
“As a former university professor and president you don’t want or need anybody telling you what academic fraud is,” Emmert said to reporters after his remarks to the commission. “That’s something that you have to decide for yourself.”
He said if the member schools want to change the rule, it would be a significant shift from where the association “has always been historically.”
UNC’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, found that the university had violated standards for academic integrity and control of college athletics.
When that was pointed out to Emmert, he cited UNC’s defense to the infractions committee that the classes were legitimate. He declined to say how he might have handled a similar scandal at the universities he led before becoming NCAA president, dismissing that question as a hypothetical.
Emmert told the commission the public has a deep distrust of the integrity of college sports. He said an internal survey, which the NCAA did not release, showed that 79 percent of the respondents think big universities put money ahead of their student-athletes and nearly 70 percent think those schools are part of the problem.
He said 51 percent of the respondents said they didn’t trust the NCAA, either.
“Those are numbers that should cause us a lot of anxiety,” he said.
Duncan and Carol Cartwright, the two co-chairs of the commission, said the UNC scandal and the federal investigation into an alleged payoff scheme by a major shoe manufacturer and a former financial adviser to funnel money to assistant coaches and athletes show that the NCAA model is broken and it will be replaced if no one fixes it.
“Let me be very clear, the system that’s in place today was designed for a bygone era,” Duncan said.
Among the suggestions he and Cartwright, the president emeritus of Kent State University, suggested is giving subpoena power to the NCAA to investigate rules violations. Duncan said the NCAA also has to revisit its bylaws regarding impermissible benefits, which also figured into the UNC case.
The NCAA’s enforcement staff included that allegation against UNC, but it didn’t stick with the infractions committee, which found that nonathletes had the same access to the classes. They accounted for more than slightly half of the enrollees. Athletes made up the rest, particularly those in the revenue sports of football and men’s basketball, but they account for four percent of the student body.
Cartwright was on the infractions committee panel that heard the UNC case. She said the committee was bound by the academic fraud rule, even when UNC officials had said in correspondence to its accreditor that the classes were academic fraud.
“They pivoted dramatically (in the infractions hearing),” she said. “They said that was a typo, it wasn’t correct, that they believed the courses were legitimate.”
She said the infractions committee “had to go to the core principle of who has the right to judge academic integrity, and the current NCAA rules clearly say that is the institution’s business.”
The federal investigation prompted the NCAA to launch a special commission to examine college basketball, and Cartwright said Knight Commission staff would include in their suggestions to the new commission to “modernize” the academic fraud rule. Condoleezza Rice, a former U.S. secretary of state, is leading the special commission.
The most comprehensive investigation into the UNC scandal, led by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein, found more than 3,100 students enrolled in one or more of the bogus classes. The majority of them were created by Deborah Crowder, a former office assistant in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies.
She gave high grades if a paper was turned in and admitted she didn’t read them in full.
After she retired in 2009, her boss, former department chairman Julius Nyang’oro, created several more bogus classes. The classes lasted until 2011, when The News & Observer obtained a football player’s transcript that showed he had received a B plus in an upper-level AFAM class while he was a freshman.