Wednesday, October 22, 2014

tarred heels

Our game with UNC is this Saturday, and conveniently enough, a full investigative report was released today on the academic fraud that's been taking place there.  It's been known for a while that UNC had been plagued by "irregularities" in the African-American Studies department (AFAM, as the school calls it.)  The head of that department, Julius Nyang'oro, already got himself fired for running sham classes, but as it turns out, this really wasn't Nyang'oro's baby, and it wasn't just a couple years' worth of phoniness nor was it limited to the football team - as you might have assumed by the fact that UNC vacated the '08 and '09 football seasons.

No, the truth is that the University of North Carolina essentially ran a diploma mill for almost two decades.

The report is awfully damn comprehensive.  The cliffnotes:

-- A staffer - not a professor or a tutor or a TA or indeed a teacher of any kind - took it upon herself to build a small fiefdom of "paper classes", for which she would assign grades based entirely on the fact that a single paper was turned in with a student's name attached.

-- She developed for herself the power to sign the department head's name to any form necessary, such as grade change forms.

-- The academic support staffs for the various Tar Heel teams knew all about it, steered players to the classes, and explicitly warned their coaches when the grade-point inflator was going to retire and that they'd have to find some other way to keep their players eligible.  Specific teams mentioned are football, both basketball teams, Carolina's vaunted women's soccer team, and the baseball team.

-- Tutors, in several cases, did the actual paper-writing.

-- Once the general student population got wind of this, and learned they could sign up for these classes too, some of them took so many of these phony classes that they accidentally earned an AFAM minor.

-- This went on for 18 years, long enough to cover the basketball reigns of Dean Smith, Matt Doherty, and Roy Williams, not to mention John Swofford's tenure as UNC AD.

The report is full of illustrative details and example - here's one particularly interesting one:
In Spring 2006, Professor Bereket Selassie taught a lecture class on North-East Africa, AFRI 124, with 25 enrolled students.  At the end of the semester, Professor Selassie recorded a grade of AB (an incomplete grade that technically means "absent from the exam") for a football player who never attended the lectures or the exam.  When we asked Professor Selassie about this student, he was flabbergasted to see that the AB for that football player had been changed to an A- through a grade change form.
We then interviewed both Crowder and the football player and learned that he was one of Crowder's add-on students.  She had placed the football player on Selassie's class roll, given him a paper topic, and graded the paper.**  Crowder changed the grade from an AB to an A- using a grade change form and signed Nyang'oro's name as instructor.
**The player told us that he had interacted only with Crowder and did not even know who Professor Selassie was.  From his perspective, the football player saw this process as typical and consistent with the 19 other AFAM paper classes he took during his Chapel Hill career.
Crowder - Debby Crowder - is the abovementioned fiefdom-building staffer who decided academic standards were for her to poop on.

So let's recap: A player is enrolled in a class by an office staffer, who tells the player nothing about the class itself or who teaches it or where it meets, but instead assigns him a paper.  He turns one in (and may or may not have written it himself.)  She grades it, using the ingenious process she devised herself (described elsewhere in the report as checking to see whether it had enough pages), then gives the player full credit for the class using a forged signature.  The professor doesn't even know what happened until eight years later.

This is not just a one-time thing, it's standard operating procedure for 18 years and essentially is how this player plus many of UNC's other athletes received a degree.  Nobody in the administration checks up on this and the athletic support staff uses this as more or less their only method of keeping anyone eligible.  Diploma mill, wrought of fraud on a truly staggering scale.  Carolina fans these days resemble defense lawyers with an obviously guilty client; the prosecution brings every gun to bear and you just try and poke holes anywhere you can, such as by insisting that anything said by Mary Willingham and Rashad McCants should be ignored.


If you're like me, you have two questions: one, is there any punishment coming down the pipeline?  And two, we all know the world of keeping athletes eligible is a shady one - is this happening at UVA?

For the first question, there are really only two governing bodies that matter: the NCAA and the SACS.  SACS is the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools - the accreditation body for thousands of colleges in the 11 states under its jurisdiction.  SACS is who put UVA on notice for the whole Dragas Affair.  If SACS says you're not a real school, you're not a real school, and it's natural to wonder if UNC's whole accreditation could be in jeopardy.  And naturally, SACS has already looked at this and.... done nothing.

Then you have the NCAA, which has already dropped some punishment on UNC's head - a bowl ban a couple years ago plus UNC's voluntary vacation of wins and a scholarship limit which expires after this year comprises the extent of it.  Could they open this up again?  They tend to signal an unwillingness to be a governing body over the academic rigor of a school's programs, which makes sense on one level and on another level is sort of like saying they won't punish anyone for feeding their players steroids because they're not a chemistry lab.  You ask me, I think that if vacating wins is actually considered a real penalty, then everything the whole athletic program ever did between 1993 and 2011 should go down the memory hole.  That sort of illustrates the silliness of that as a penalty, though; among other things, the women's soccer record books would be totally obliterated, considering that UNC won 11 titles in that time frame.  No, I don't think the fraudsters should get to claim them, but then, I also think that sanctions should be a deterrent, which crossing out entries in a book and forcing the removal of trophies to a dusty closet does not do.

The NCAA also tends to wash their hands of things if the student body in general is involved.  They're happy to allow a loophole in their rules, for example, that ostensibly forbid schools build palaces to house their athletes.  Kansas, following the lead of others, is building "dorms" for basketball players that cost $17.5 million and are permissible under the NCAA's rules because, while you can't build stuff for athletes, you can reserve space in student housing for them.  And this is "student housing" because 51% of the space is non-athlete.  By the same token, it's easy to envision the NCAA just washing their hands of this and calling it a school issue.  So the very-possible worst-case is that a few people get fired, and the school's leadership can wring their hands and talk about being embarrassed, and there's really nothing to prevent anyone else from doing this.

If I had to venture a guess, I'd say the NCAA will do something, just not anything that anyone considers sufficiently far-reaching.  They may not be able or willing to regulate the content of a class, but they won't be able to ignore the athletes' academic support pushing classes that were obviously phony and using them to keep athletes eligible.

But is this the sort of thing that "happens everywhere"?  Or specifically, at our beloved UVA?  I could speak anecdotally: I had a couple classes - real ones in a real major - with Groh-era receiver Michael McGrew, who not only wrote but presented his own papers - next to impossible if they'd been written by a tutor.  Another player who did his own work, easily observable because it was a studio class in which faking it would've been next to impossible?  Roger Mason.  (Though, his attendance was something less than perfect, and noticeable because he wasn't the only basketball player in the class, but he missed a good deal more of it.  I have no idea what grade he got, and he was off to the NBA draft that summer.)

As well, in this case our somewhat adversarial admissions department is an easy shield from any criticism.  The academic side of the school is notoriously prickly about not giving any special treatment to athletes, as Jameel Sewell, Jeffrey Fitzgerald, and Chris Brathwaite can attest to.  A school that won't scam its way to eligibility for its own starting quarterback is pretty emphatically not in danger of being accused of shenanigans.

That's what oversight looks like, irksome as it may be to those who wish they'd ease up just a little.  No oversight at all is what put Carolina into this mess.  Faced now with the full extent of the fakery, today might possibly be the worst day since the founding of the school to have a UNC degree.


Anonymous said...

I had a Ukrainian Folklore class with probably 10 football players in it- notably Matt Schaub and Brian Barthelmes. Not the most challenging class, but their attendence was probably better than mine.

BostonHoo said...

I think we all learned there were certain professors who required no heavy lifting and were generous with their grades. But, really, UNC has pushed this concept way over the edge. I hope the NCAA drops the hammer on this one. If they do not, then there is really no hope for the integrity of the college game and the mission of any university engaged in big dollar, big time athletics.