For four years now, the controversy over paper classes at UNC has provided journalists with ample material for a dramatic narrative of athletics corruption. Ten investigations have no doubt yielded troubling findings, but the news media and anti-athletics crusaders have chosen to highlight only the findings that create the most sensationalized version of events.
The selective reading began when UNC professor Jay Smith and N&O executive editor John Drescher lambasted former Governor Jim Martin after one of the 15 critical findings from his investigation was retracted. Martin had claimed that an Athletics official had informed faculty about the paper classes, but faculty testimony later contradicted that claim. Both Smith and Drescher argued that if no one outside Athletics knew about the classes, then clearly Athletics was primarily, if not exclusively, to blame.
Yet the N&O and others clamoring about Athletics corruption at UNC seem to have forgotten that argument. Perhaps the most overlooked fact uncovered by the Wainstein investigation is that Senior Associate Dean Bobbie Owen admitted that an athletics official informed her about the paper classes and that her response was to assure him faculty members have the academic freedom to conduct their classes as such. Wainstein also discovered that the associate dean who directly supervised the head of the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes knew about the classes and even referred students to them. Moreover, I know from interviewing former staff members that that associate dean, like Bobbie Owen, assured them the classes were a matter of academic freedom.
In other words, Athletics and Academic Support officials did inform College administrators about the paper classes, and those administrators affirmed the classes’ legitimacy.
Furthermore, the Wainstein Report, though containing many facts that were previously unknown, also contains judgements that extend beyond what the facts support. For example, Wainstein alleges that several academic counselors knew about every aspect of the paper classes. Yet he provides no evidence demonstrating the counselors knew Deborah Crowder was managing the classes without department chair Julius Nyang’oro’s supervision. I have interviewed the counselors, and they believed Crowder was acting under Nyang’oro’s direction, and, remember, they were told by the deans that he had the academic freedom to determine the format of his classes. Wainstein’s allegation, therefore, is false.
Fortunately, the NCAA did not accept the Wainstein Report wholesale. Although the NCAA alleges lack of institutional control, the NCAA ascribes most of the blame to the College of Arts & Sciences.
To date, the most damning findings connecting Athletics to the paper-class scandal are that two academic counselors suggested some grades for athletes, and that one of those academic counselors also provided improper assistance on some papers. After 10 investigations, no coaches and no Athletics administrators were found colluding with Crowder and Nyang’oro, and only two academic counselors were found crossing a line on limited occasions.
The paper classes make for an embarrassing chapter in UNC’s history, but they do not make for an athletics-driven scandal. They were conducted by a misguided department chair and his secretary who tried in the wrong way to help struggling students, and the classes were allowed to persist by a negligent College administration. If the paper classes were the result of any systemic problem, it was the system that allows research universities to treat teaching quality as an afterthought.
However, a story about neglecting teaching quality would not sell as many newspapers or attract as many clicks as the sensationalized drama of athletics corruption.