UNC Scandal was an Academic and Governance Failing

As a proud graduate of the University of North Carolina, I have watched the unfolding “paper class” scandal with a mixture of dismay, anger, and frustration. As a fan, I have watched the scandal frustrated with the media coverage and the oft-acknowledged failings of the NCAA enforcement process. In this way, I suspect I’m no different than many alumni. However, I am a little different in many alums in that I’m a scholar of higher education. Specifically, I study organizational and policy issues of colleges and universities. For this reason, as a researcher, I’ve felt that I have a special obligation when commenting on this scandal. Even with the prior investigations, it never seemed we had the full story and I didn’t want to comment on incomplete facts. With the release of the Wainstein investigation, I finally feel comfortable in the facts of what occurred to comment.

Photo credit: Flickr _zhang

Prior to discussing my views on what occurred, I want to disclose my background as it relates to this case.

As a student, graduate, and fan of the University of North Carolina:

1. I graduated from the University of North Carolina majoring in American History in 2001 (in the middle of the scandal).

2. I never knew or heard about the paper classes during my time at the university.

3. I don’t recall ever having discussions with anyone about the rigor of the AFAM department. But I had a perception (and I’m not sure the root of it) that the department was easier. I had a similar perceptions about Communications and Portuguese that I recall.

4. I had one class with Jan Boxill (the faculty member and women’s basketball advisor who knew about the scandal). I remember the class as an introductory philosophy class that was part of the general education requirement. I recall several men’s basketball players in the class. They came to class regularly. A starter on the team that year was in my recitation section. My recollection is that this player’s comments in class were considerably less informed that my other classmates. Yet, he attended regularly and participated in discussions.

5. I had at least two other courses that I specifically recall having student-athletes from the major sports in class. One was an introduction to acting class with a football player who played regularly but didn’t start. Another was an upper-level history course with a football player who started nearly every game. In both instances, I recall the players actively participating just like any other student.

6. I was a member of the marching band. As a result, much of my extra-curricular activities centered on athletics. I attended every home football game, many away games, almost every men’s basketball game, and many women’s basketball games. In addition, I travelled to the NCAA tournament with the women’s basketball team my junior year and the men’s team my senior year. Moreover, I attended many other Olympic sports and probably attended at least one game of every sport at some point during my four years in Chapel Hill. Most of my favorite memories from college have a band and athletic connection.

7. I’ve remained a UNC fan since graduation. I’ve returned for a few games in Chapel Hill since graduating (although far less than I would like). I’ve also gone to away games when they were close enough to do so. I travelled to St. Louis to see the basketball team win the national championship in 2005. One of the perks of my job is that I can often rearrange my schedule. I often do this so I can watch the full first two days of the NCAA tournament. My favorite sport is basketball and I celebrate a personal holiday ever year with the start of March Madness.

My background as a faculty member, scholar, and researcher:

1. After graduating from UNC, I got my doctorate in higher education administration.

2. For the past ten years, I’ve been a higher education faculty member at the University of Alabama and currently Southern Methodist University. I received tenure at UA and currently hold the rank of tenured associate professor at SMU. Starting in August, I also serve as the director of SMU’s Center for Teaching Excellence.

3. My scholarly and research interests are in public policy and the organization of public higher education.

4. I’ve published 22 articles, book chapters, and other manuscripts related to these issues in scholarly and practitioner-oriented publications. I’ve presented 32 times at various local, regional, national, and international higher education meetings.

5. Over the course of my career, I have most frequently taught courses on the history of higher education and faculty and academic governance. The latter is obviously particularly relevant in the case of the UNC scandal.

6. I’m a strong proponent of faculty governance. I’ve personally served on 21 university, school, or department committees during my time as a faculty member (most commonly on faculty search committees). Additionally, I am currently on the SMU Faculty Senate and also serve on the executive committee.

My apologies for the long preamble, but it is important to acknowledge one’s own biases to enable reader to better interpret the results. I also want to suggest that these aren’t the conclusion of a fan. I’m also not a faculty member against all athletics. The conclusions and comments below are based on my expertise as a scholar of higher education, yet I want to disclose my personal ties to the university to provide better context for the reader. My conclusions are based on my read of the investigative report (yes, I read the entire thing including the footnotes) and generally following the case the past several years. I won’t go into all the details of what occurred. I’d commend Libby Nelson’s story for Vox for anyone needing a primer.

Investigation and Report

I found the investigation and subsequent report thorough and complete. This report should be the final word on what occurred as part of the scandal. Although there were a few individuals that did not cooperate, the two central figures did provide information (AFAM staff member Deborah Crowder and department chair Julius Nyang’oro). The report clearly lays out what the investigators found, what they suspect, and what there was no evidence to support. As the report notes, while it is possible more on campus knew about the paper class system, there is insufficient evidence to implicate anyone beyond those named.

The now cooperating witnesses provide new information to the Wainstein report. Yet, I find it disappointing that the university was unable or unwilling to do a full investigation of records and documents that also provide a fuller picture of events. For example, many of the most damning findings relate to university emails that should have been available in earlier investigations. My suspicion is that earlier inquiries had insufficient manpower, time, resources, or expertise to conduct their investigations as completely as Wainstein. This is lamentable but does provide credence to the notion that this investigation discovered as complete a picture of events as possible.

Academic Failure

First and foremost, the blatant academic fraud that occurred in this case was clearly an academic failure. The only word I can think to use is appalling. Although the general facts of what occurred have been known for some time, I was stunned to see the outright deception and sheer number of students involved. This is clearly one of the worst cases of academic fraud in the history of American higher education.

The report places much of the blame on Deborah Crowder, a long-time staffer in the African-American studies department. The deception used by Crowder and the lack of regard for academic integrity was unbelievable. Putting fake days and times into the class system shows me that there was a clear attempt to hide this from others in the university. In addition, there is no excuse or defense of idea that she was “grading” assignments and creating classes for students. The report describes her as motivated by a desire to help students outside of the “best and the brightest.” I think this is a kind characterization. My read of the report is that Crowder was someone who knowingly and willfully committed academic fraud because she felt her judgement was superior to that of the collective university and its faculty.

However, this isn’t the main problem. What should have happened is that the minute Crowder tried to create this scheme, she should have been summarily fired.

In fact, I think it is critical to note that the scheme only began once Nyang’oro became chair. I believe one of the most difficult jobs in higher education is that of department chair. You are expected to manage a department full of faculty with their own priorities, you are to represent the department’s interests, you are to serve the dean and their agenda, and maintain your own faculty career. Nyang’oro balanced all of these demands by giving much of his administrative authority to Crowder as the department’s manager. There is a reason why we don’t hire administrative managers as department chairs. This case highlights nearly every one of them.

As a faculty member, my first and most important job is in protecting the academic integrity of my classes, my department, my university, and my discipline. I am the one with the knowledge and experience to determine what should be taught, how it should be taught, and how to assess the learning of my students. As much as people want to trash the institution of tenure, this is precisely why tenure exists. I have tenure which means the university can’t fire me for expressing my sound academic judgement. Tenure also means I have an obligation to speak up when I see unsound academic decisions being made. For example, tenure protects me if I’m serving on a curriculum committee evaluating a new degree program. Tenure protects me if the basketball coach wants me to change the grade of a student. Tenure protects me if the university president calls me wanting me to change the grade of a famous donor. As George W. Bush would say, I am the decider.

The protections of tenure and responsibility of faculty also means speaking up when something wrong is occurring. One of the most disappointing aspects of the report is that other faculty members knew something inappropriate was happening, but didn’t try to investigate or stop it. If I heard that something like this was going on in my department, I would have approached the chair. If I didn’t get a sufficient answer there, I would have gone to the associate dean or dean of the college. This isn’t a case as a faculty member where you don’t need to know. You are responsible for the academic integrity of your department not just your own classes.

If the department chair and faculty of the AFAM department placed a higher priority on the academic integrity of their department, this scandal would not have occurred.

Yes, there are broader implications both within the governance of the department and with the athletics department (which I will discuss in a moment).

However, the faculty are responsible for the academic functioning of the university. The chair and faculty of the AFAM department failed the university.

Governance Failure

There is an important concept from organizational studies that one must understand when looking at a university: loosely coupled. As described by Karl Weick, educational organizations are a collection of area/units with limited coordination and connection with one another. A university may appear at first glance to be a highly rational, complex organization. Yet, the reality is that the level of internal coordination and control is quite lacking. The university is a loose coupling of actors, processes, and rewards that attempt to balance their environments and survive amid uncertainty.

While the lack of control appears problematic certainly in light of the academic scandal, loosely coupled organizations have many advantages.

They allow the university to respond to environmental changes more nimbly, provide opportunities for creative solutions, and let individual actors and units chart their own course (useful for supporting innovative teaching and research functions).

As a result, there are not tight linkages between units within a university. In many ways, this is a good thing and leads to the success American higher education has enjoyed for over a hundred years.

However, as the UNC academic fraud scandal shows, the system is open to abuse. Without sacrificing the governance structure vital to the success of research universities, I’m not sure you could fully prevent the willful fraud perpetrated by Crowder and Nyang’oro.

The failure of governance is in not more quickly and decisively discovering the fraud that was occurring.

Colleges of Arts and Sciences are the most complex school on any campus. They are typically the largest and most diverse in terms of the number of disciplines involved. The autonomy given to the AFAM department and the lack of knowledge of senior academic administrators of what was occurring would likely not happen in any other type of school. By their nature, Arts and Sciences are a beast to organize and manage. What occurs instead of substantial coordination and management is loose coupling. The school is made up of departments that each face different challenges and opportunities. Rather than trying to institute a “one size fits all” approach, each department is left to chart their own course.

I don’t fault the leadership of the UNC College of Arts and Sciences from preventing the fraud from starting. I do find fault in two specific areas that could have dramatically limited the scope of the scandal.

First, there was such concern about the veracity of the official paperwork coming from the AFAM department that the Dean’s office asked for a copy of Nyang’oro’s signature to compare with paperwork coming out of the department. This is unconscionable. If you do not trust the official documents coming from a department to the point that you are verifying signatures on forms, it is time for a change of leadership. Immediately. Whether knowledge about the academic fraud existed, there was an obvious loss of faith in Nyang’oro’s ability to lead the department. At that point, he should have been immediately relieved of his chair duties. Such an action wouldn’t have stopped the fraud from starting, but may have stopped it at that point.

Second, the review for reappointing Nyang’oro as chair was too cursory. It is understandable not to have him go through post-tenure review as chair. But, this is even more reason why a little more rigorous reappointment review was needed. If such a review had even explored his teaching load, significant red flags should have been spotted. In addition, interviews with departmental faculty did not sufficiently probe the state of affairs in the department.

Fundamentally, the African-American studies department was completely dysfunctional.

Even absent the fraud, the significant abdication of chair duties to Crowder, the fear among faculty to speak up, and the lack of internal governance all should have been identified during the chair review. Again, this doesn’t stop the fraud from starting, but would have probably ended it far sooner.

Jan Boxill

Frankly, I may hold the most disdain for Jan Boxill as anyone in the entire affair. Boxill is a lecturer in the philosophy department specializing in part of sports ethics. The irony of this is too much even for Hollywood. Boxill was the academic advisor for the women’s basketball team. She also served a term as Faculty Chair (president of the Faculty Senate).

The Wainstein report clearly shows Boxill fully knew about the nature of the paper class system. The report also includes emails from Boxill asking for specific grades for students. As a faculty member, Boxill clearly should have known better and was as much a party to the system as anyone in Chapel Hill.

Moreover, there is reason to suggest that after allegations came out, she suggested edits to a faculty report on the affair to paint the athletics department in a better light. Disdain may be the kindest word I can use to describe Boxill’s actions. At a time when an independent and academic review of the paper class system was needed most, Boxill was in no position to lead the faculty. She knew far more about what was occurring and could have been a real whistleblower. Instead, she continued to protect the system. In the least, she should have stayed out of things or simply recused herself based on her prior relationships with the athletics department.

Truly, the fox was guarding the henhouse.

This is an Athletics Problem Too.

Up until now, I’ve solely focused on the academic and governance problems that caused the scandal and facilitated its continuation. I do firmly believe this was first and foremost an academic failing. That does not mean that athletics does not deserve significant blame here. Not only did the athletics department benefit from the paper class system, but athletics advisors encouraged Nyang’oro to resume the system after Crowder’s retirement.

As evidenced by the PowerPoint presentation included in the Wainstein report, athletic advisors were fully aware of the system and used it to help keep student-athletes eligible.

Clearly, there is reason to believe or at least suspect many others in the athletics department knew something was wrong with the classes, yet they continued taking advantage of them.

Among the fan base, I suspect much will be made of the fact that a significant number of non-athletes took the paper classes, specifically a large number of fraternity members. This supports my argument that this is first and foremost an academic problem. However, there is a significant difference between the fraternity members and the student-athletes. The Office of Greek Life wasn’t in on the scam. The advisor for fraternities wasn’t begging the AFAM department to put on the classes or suggesting grades.

There was a systematic use of these classes by the athletic department. No, the system wasn’t just for athletes, but because of the special requirements placed on athletes they benefitted far more than most students. Again, there were others on campus that preyed on the system such as scholarship students that needed to maintain a certain G.P.A. Given their unique requirements and broader number of underprepared students, athletes received the most benefits of the system.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Certainly, UNC is going to continue to take a public relations hit. The NCAA may well decide to impose more sanctions. Frankly, I don’t much care about either of those. I have one concern.

How do we keep this from occurring again at UNC or any other institution?

I suspect that few Division I institutions that thoroughly looked at their academic and athletics operations wouldn’t find serious problems. That in no way dismisses the problems that occurred at UNC. Rather, I mean to suggest that all of us are fooling ourselves if we think our institutions are immune from these problems. In many ways, that naiveté was part of the problem in Chapel Hill.

I suggest we need to look seriously at four reforms.

1) Every institution should conduct a review of their academic and athletic operations. I know I will be emailing the chair of our Faculty Senate athletics committee to suggest we start such a review. I think every institution should do the same.

2) We need to shield athletic advisors from undue influence from coaches and athletics department staff. I will be the first to admit I’m not sure how to do this. Until we find a way to make these advisors more neutral, the pressure to help students from altruistic or eligibility reasons is too much to put on this group.

3) Every institution needs to review their policy on special admits and the overall acceptance of underprepared students. Clearly, one of the problems among the athletes, fraternities, and other groups is that the university was admitting students who weren’t prepared to do the level of work required at UNC. Thus, the need for “G.P.A. Boosters.”

4) Because of the unique challenges presented with managing Arts & Science colleges, universities should consider whether broader organizational and administrative changes might help keep academic administrators better informed about departmental operations.

These are clearly only the beginning of the list. I hope many more reforms come out of this scandal. If we in higher education don’t learn from this fraud, we’re no better than those students that were turning in a paper and getting an easy A.

We can and must do better.

Question: I welcome your comments and thoughts on my review of the scandal. My hope is we start a dialogue about we can avoid these problems in the future. To read more of my blog posts, sign up to receive them via email in the box at the top of the page. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

2 thoughts on “UNC Scandal was an Academic and Governance Failing

  1. As an alumnus of UNC and an ardent fan, I have been apalled at this from the very beginning. I certainly did not want to believe the earlier stories that were unfolding. I suspect that some of the lack of scrutiny from those higher up in the university administration stemmed from a naive and perhaps arrogant belief that “this simply couldn’t happen here”. I believe that a weak and ineffective athletic director and an inexperienced, though wellmeaning, chancellor allowed this scandal to get more of a foothold among the national media by appearing to withold certain information early in the process. I do feel that Chancellor Folt and President Ross have taken numerous steps to prevent another such episoden not the least of which is monitoring the admissions of marginal students on athletic scholarships.

  2. “athletics advisors encouraged…….” The Athletics advisors are hired and presumably controlled by Arts and Sciences. This was an academic failure – not so much athletic – in spite of so many trying their best to frame it in such a way!

    Kirk Wilson
    UNC-CH ’72

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