Luke DeCock

A decade later, UNC chancellor’s email has ironic twist

UNC Chancellor Emeritus and Professor James Moeser speaks during an emergency faculty meeting on Tuesday September 18, 2012 at the Fedex Global Education Center in Chapel Hill.
UNC Chancellor Emeritus and Professor James Moeser speaks during an emergency faculty meeting on Tuesday September 18, 2012 at the Fedex Global Education Center in Chapel Hill. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Among the exhibits supporting North Carolina’s amended Notice of Allegations from the NCAA is a July 2006 email from then-chancellor James Moeser to law professor Lissa Broome, who would later become the university’s faculty athletics representative.

The subject matter of the email was an independent-studies scandal at Auburn. Broome had forwarded Moeser an email from a national faculty group, the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, about potential NCAA responses.

“We have consistently said that the solution to these problems is internal vigilance, not NCAA regulation,” Moeser wrote in reply.

That statement is not merely ironic because what some have called the biggest academic scandal in college athletics was being perpetrated under North Carolina’s internal vigilance at the time. That’s been true for a while; Moeser on Thursday again expressed his regret that his inquiries then were not fruitful while reaffirming he stands by what he wrote, despite subsequent events at North Carolina.

“I do, I do,” Moeser said.

The subject matter of the email, which was also among the supplemental exhibits to the Wainstein Report, is newly ironic because Moeser’s statement sits at the crux of the NCAA’s inability to deal with North Carolina.

Because the university has assiduously avoided defining what took place in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies and elsewhere as “academic fraud” – preferring to use such saccharine terms as “anomalous classes” and “academic irregularities” – the NCAA cannot and will not prosecute it as such.

The NCAA’s leadership has made repeated statements defending its unwillingness to pass any judgment on what it calls “curriculum,” in large part because it is an organization composed of and run by university presidents who don’t want the NCAA’s dirty cleats to soil the carpet of the academic ivory tower. (Sarcasm aside, they’re almost certainly correct – the NCAA has enough trouble competently policing the areas it’s mandated to police.)

As long as North Carolina doesn’t call it academic fraud, the NCAA won’t, either – the precise separation of powers Moeser endorsed and still supports.

Julius Nyang’oro and Debby Crowder aren’t charged with unethical conduct under NCAA bylaw 10.1-(b), which covers “fraudulent academic credit.” They’re charged under 10.1-(a), which covers failure to cooperate with the NCAA.

Jan Boxill isn’t charged under 10.1-(b), either. She’s charged under 10.1-(c), which covers impermissible benefits, which is why so many of the exhibits are devoted to her direct intervention in athletes’ work. Notably, the other academic counselors who took equal advantage of Crowder’s machinations aren’t charged at all.

Bylaw 10.1-(b) would seem to apply to North Carolina, at least to laymen not familiar with the NCAA’s obsession with language – the same obsession that gave us “student-athlete” to dodge workers compensation laws, or “the collegiate model” to justify a system that makes billions of dollars off essentially unpaid labor.

The NCAA’s Committee on Infractions is still a long way from ruling on North Carolina, but the door is open at this point for particularly cynical universities to set up their own no-show curriculum. As long as they don’t call it academic fraud, it isn’t. Even the NCAA’s latest legislative attempt to close that loophole depends on universities to set their own guidelines.

It’s all semantics, but semantics are as important to the NCAA as they are to academics who don’t want the NCAA poking around on their turf.

Thursday, Moeser suggested accreditation agencies might be better equipped to intervene than the NCAA, but still maintained the ultimate responsibility must lie with the university, just as he did in 2006.

“I asked, I think, the right questions, but the problem is, we didn’t have processes in place or an ability to really dig deeply enough to discover what was there that we didn’t know about,” Moeser said. “That was the failure at that time.”

In the email, Moeser wrote of what happened at Auburn, “It is not a pretty story, but it describes a dysfunctional university.” One no more dysfunctional, as it turns out, than North Carolina at the time. It would take another five years before the grim truth started coming to light in Chapel Hill, and not because of the university’s inadequate internal vigilance.

It’s hard to look at that and believe universities can be counted upon to oversee their own academic integrity when it comes to athletics. Neither, apparently, can the NCAA.

Luke DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com

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