Last Wednesday, the University of North Carolina was rocked by the revelations found in the Wainstein Report, which found that over eighteen years, 3,100 students in the African and Afro-American studies department (AFAM) took “paper classes,” where they received A’s and B’s for classes that never met. The details of the report have spread through campus by now, and everyone is expected to have an opinion on what aspect of the report they find most heinous. For some, it has been the administrative manager of the department, Debby Crowder’s, sympathy for student athletes, who, like herself as a Carolina student, were not “the best and the brightest” and did not receive adequate attention from professors. Others are rightly shocked by the lack of departmental oversight that led to the continuation of the system. And others are disgusted by the degree to which students were steered towards these paper classes.
On campus, there seems to be a general consensus that the administration has done the best possible job it could, that Chancellor Folt has taken a strong stand against the nine offenders, and that UNC can now move on. That is fluff and deceit. Since Wednesday, I have grown more disgusted and shocked by the rhetoric that the university administration is using to talk about the report than the report itself. The revelations are revolting enough without the administration using the horrors contained within as a shield that allows them to avoid answering the difficult questions and holding accountable all parties involved. Instead, the administration has begun to business of creating a compelling narrative that places blame with two people “who thought they knew better than everybody else,” instead of refusing to look where it might hurt the most. I would like to delineate where I think the administration is whitewahing the report to the detriment of students, alumni, and the university’s reputation.
1) The report has repeatedly been called the closing of a chapter. The headline of the Daily Tar Heel on Thursday summed up what the administration hopes the Wainstein report will become–the final word on the academic fraud. But it should instead be the starting point for other third-party reviews (where we’ll get the money for yet another investigation is a great question), who with an understanding of UNC’s athletic and academic history and a desire to do right by all present and former students would not conceal the “higher levels of the university” by stating that they had “insufficient appreciation of the scale of the problem.” While Chancellor Folt would undoubtedly welcome closing the academic fraud book, it isn’t time yet and to state otherwise is erroneous and underhanded. The UNC system President, Tom Ross, stated on Wednesday that “Because of the thoroughness and the breadth of the investigation, I believe we now know all that we are able to know about what happened and how it happened.” But I think there is more to discover. The Wainstein report was not thorough enough and not broad enough. I suspect, as do others, that UNC is unwilling to know the scale of the problem because of, you guessed it, money. It is in our best interest to linger in this chapter a while longer and continue to ask questions that Wainstein either couldn’t or wouldn’t ask.
2) Chancellor Folt has mentioned in a number of venues that by allowing these classes to continue, we have failed our students. The students enrolled in these classes, whether they are from the 47% of athletes, those from the “frat circuit,” or that one lowly Morehead-Cain scholar, have been portrayed as victims in a scheme masterminded by Debby Crowder and Julius Nyang’oro. But characterizing students as cogs in a manipulative scheme is just as dangerous as allowing the classes to continue. Students, whether or not they read at a fourth grade reading level, are adults, and should be aware than enrolling in paper classes to receive equal credit for classes that meet three times a week, have readings, assignments, and accountability, is morally reprehensible. To assume students are passive Babbitts who did not know that these classes were suspicious in some way is derogatory towards all students, devaluing our capabilities and skills. It is disgraceful that students who enrolled in paper classes will face no disciplinary action instead of being held accountable for their decisions.
3) While Debby Crowder and Julius Nyang’oro have been been given the (dis)honorable role of scapegoat, the report points to a lack of departmental oversight as the real enemy of accountability. This I think it largely true, though just what kind of oversight needs some expounding. Chancellor Folt and Provost Dean have pointed out that Nyang’oro, as departmental head, was never reviewed by his colleagues, who were “beneath” him in administrative ranking. Crowder, too, as administrative head, was only overseen by Nyang’oro, who became implicit in her system. Of the nine personnel implicated for disciplinary action, several were “beneath” Nyang’oro, employed as adjuncts or lecturers. I think this speaks to a larger problem in higher education, where those with tenure are allowed to work unchecked while those without job security, like Tim McMillan and Alphonse Mutima (my partner’s Swahili teacher, and I hear, a fairly good one!), cannot act as whistle-blowers without fear of retribution. Until adjuncts are able to hold the same power through the administrative system as a tenured professor, I doubt “departmental oversight” will ever operate at the levels it needs to to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again.
4) The administration has been careful not to comment on whether there is an overall problem in higher education of valuing athletics over academics. I live squarely in academics, and only tread over to the athletic side of our campus world to go to spin class, so here, I feel least qualified to suggest any reforms. But it does seem to me that UNC is capable of creating a system where athletics and academics can coexist, but where academics always comes first. Chancellor Folt has continually stated that this is a system we already have, but when the university admits students who read on anything less than a high-school level, I think we live in a system where athletic skill is valued over academic potential. This scandal seems an ideal time for UNC to reevaluate whether we want to strive for just a student-athlete or a scholar-athlete, focusing particularly on how we recruit athletes. The common defense that I’ve heard from instructors up and down the tenure line is, “Oh, I had ‘insert-famous-athlete-here’ in my class, and he was fabulous! Just a really great student, one of the best!” And that is great. But it shouldn’t be greater than any other student doing well in your class. And that defense should accompany the understanding that not every student excels in your class like they might in another and that the surprise that accompanies a student-athlete doing well is also not without its faults. University admissions should demand exceptional students who are also exceptional athletes, turning to (gasp!) Duke as a model for how to do that.
5) There has not been enough discussion about how to (do I dare?) rebrand the African, African-American, and Diaspora studies department as well as independent studies, so that students are willing to not let this scandal mitigate their academic interests. I have enormous sympathy (though this will never be enough) for students who majored in AFAM, who took the rigorous and demanding classes that such a major requires, and who are on the other side of college with a degree devalued by the actions of their peers and administrators. In job interviews for the rest of their lives, students with degrees from AFAM will have to worry that they might not get the job because their interviewer will see AFAM and UNC and wonder if their degree was rightly earned. Independent studies, which I would argue can be the single-most valuable class a student can take, are devalued to a lesser degree by the stigma now associated with them. Reforms have been made to ensure that independent studies are under greater scrutiny, but if students don’t take them out of the fear associated with them, where are we then? Provost Dean, in a town hall talk Wednesday, joked off the issue, saying that he didn’t know if we need a PR campaign for independent studies or not. But when students are too fearful to explore deeper into topics they are inspired and challenged by for fear of what might show up on their transcript, we’re not in a funny place.
6) Maybe most troubling to me is the assertion that the scandal is not on the radar of many people (including current students), so we should keep in mind that we shouldn’t cause too big of a stir over this. Perhaps since Wednesday night, when I heard Chancellor Folt say this, the press the report has received from the Chronicle, the New York Times, and Forbes, among many others, has changed this sentiment. This problem will live to haunt this university, not as a chapter we hardly remember like the 1936 cheating ring, but as a serious and widespread indication of our university’s values and standards. People outside the University and North Carolina are watching us, and I’m not just referring to SACS, but the hundreds of thousands of employers who hire our students, see UNC on their resumes and wonder if their degrees are worthy. The administration would be wise to consider this problem as seriously as they say they vow to do.
I think UNC could be poised to be a leader in the reform movement that is taking place across universities, public and private, and the NCAA. But when we refuse to ask the tough questions, I doubt UNC can lead itself out of the quagmire of the athletic/academic divide, let alone guide others out by example. Only when UNC is willing to dig deep, hurt itself in the process of healing, and hold every actor in this scandal accountable, will the University emerge as the leader of public higher education it can be.
It should always go without saying, but maybe it’s necessary this time: Go Heels, Go America.