Everyone should agree: UNC faculty lost institutional control

The NCAA has issued the formal Notice of Allegations (NOA) against the University of North Carolina related to the ongoing academic scandal at the institution. The allegations contain no major bombshells or smoking guns. Rather, the facts related to the case have been fairly well known for a while now. However, there is a point that has been lost in much of the blame, finger pointing, public relations maneuvering, and the thousands of words written about this issue. This point was clear in the NOA and must be acknowledged by all parties: UNC faculty lost institutional control of the academic integrity of the university.

Photo credit: UNC News

I have written before about my belief that the scandal was the substantially a governance failing.  I’ve also said that I don’t care about athletics or athletic penalties- I want to repair and restore the academic integrity of the university.

From that perspective, one section of the NOA stands out to me:

“It is alleged that the scope and nature of the violations . . . demonstrate that the institution violated the NCAA principles of institutional control and rules when it failed to monitor the activities of Jan Boxill . . .

Further, the institution exhibited a lack of institutional control in regard to the special arrangements constituting impermissible benefits athletics academic counselors and staff within African and Afro-American Studies (AFRI/AFAM) department provided to student-athletes.

Specifically, individuals in the academic administration on campus, particularly in the college of arts and sciences, did not sufficiently monitor the AFRI/AFAM and ASPSA departments or provide appropriate supervision for these academic units and their staffs.”

There may be different interpretations of the causes of this lack of oversight. Critics of the university and the NCAA generally such as UNC professor Jay Smith would argue that athletics has a corrupting influence on the academic enterprise.

This may be true.

Others would argue that the scandal was largely the result of a few rogue individuals and that the university has taken steps to correct the policy and procedures that allowed the scandal to occur.

This may also be true.

Yet, there is one inescapable fact.

The faculty of the University of North Carolina are responsible for the academic integrity of the institution.

Period.  Full stop.

The faculty failed the university on this point.  Maybe this was because of the corrupting influence of athletics or concern for struggling students or out of excessive deference to colleagues.

The point is that the faculty did not protect the academic integrity of the university.

As an officer of the university, one of the first (and perhaps primary) responsibilities of a faculty member is protecting the academic integrity of the department, school, and university.

There has been a great deal of discussion about academic freedom and tenure related to the UNC case. Yet, much of it misses the point. Academic freedom does give a faculty member freedom to teach and study as their expertise suggests.

However, the freedom also exists substantially to protect the academic decisions of faculty. In my experience, academic freedom has been more important in protecting me from administrative decisions: in hiring, admissions decisions, or determining appropriate rigor in the curriculum. Many of these areas can and do intersect with athletics.

As with any right, academic freedom comes with responsibility. Clearly, Julius Nyang’oro and Jan Boxill violated the trust the university placed in them by appointing them as faculty of the university.

I would also argue that colleagues that knew about the irregularities and did not speak up are also at fault.

For certain, members of the academic administration, as noted in the NOA, knew or should have known about problems in the AFAM department. To protect the integrity of the university, they should have stepped in, investigated, and put a stop to what was happening.

In many ways, the faculty failed the university most.

We can reasonably expect students to seek an easy (or easier) path.  We also can expect athletics counselors to similarly seek out friendly faculty that provide accommodations for student-athletes in light of the demands on this population.

However, as faculty, we are the ones that have to hold the line here.

As a faculty member, I have made numerous exceptions over the years.

I have given someone a better grade than they deserved to recognize that they worked hard and to encourage them to continue trying their best.

I have allowed a student who had a kid with cancer to take numerous independent studies to be able to continue their studies.

I have allowed a student to use independent study to retake a class that they weren’t allowed by policy to retake, but felt like they needed to better learn the course material.

As faculty, we make these kinds of decisions and exceptions all of the time.

However, I would not make an exception that violates the academic integrity of my degree program or the university. And if I ever tried, my colleagues and the academic administration should stop me.

In nearly any work environment, you give deference to your colleagues.  You may say to yourself, “I wouldn’t do it that way” but in the end you respect them enough to let them do it their own way.

However, there are times when you simply can’t stand idly by and allow something that is wrong to happen.

Many of UNC’s faculty stood by and did not stop what was a clear violation of the academic integrity of the university.

We can (and should) debate the cause of this failing.  Is it the result of athletics? Too much collegiality? Some other cause?

I often teach my students that faculty are the core of the university.  The university exists to teach, research, and engage in public service.  Who does this work?  The faculty.

What makes me most sad about the UNC case is that there was something rotting at the core.

I learned so much from the university’s faculty. I have enormous respect for individuals on the faculty and the institution as a whole.

I have come to believe the biggest problem in the academic scandal was at the core of the university:  the faculty.

Despite this, I still have faith that the faculty will emerge stronger from this incident.

And if the faculty are stronger, the university will be stronger.