A lawsuit filed earlier this week by former University of North Carolina football player Michael McAdoo claims that UNC “systematically funneled its football student-athletes into a ‘shadow curriculum’ of bogus courses which never met and which were designed for the sole purpose of providing enrollees high grades.”
Indeed, a recently released 130-page independent investigation of the school reports that more than 3,100 students (both athletes and non-athletes) were taking “paper” courses in the formerly named African and Afro-American Studies department for 18 years ending in 2011. The courses didn’t meet and didn’t have any requirements.
While for years the university maintained that only the department chair of the African-American studies program, Julius Nyang’oro, understood what was going on, it is clear from this new report that coaches and athletic tutors were fully aware. After all they were funneling their students into the classes in order to boost their GPAs.
Administrators knew, too. According to the report, one administrator “became aware in 2005 or 2006 that Nyang’oro was routinely listed as the instructor-of-record for a number of independent studies — approximately 300 per year. Three-hundred? “That administrator’s response was just to ask Nyang’oro to reduce his independent studies numbers and then to let the matter drop.” As a result these completely fraudulent courses went on for another five years.
The initial motivation for this widespread fraud was to ensure the eligibility of UNC athletes — Nyang’oro’s assistant was a big UNC sports fan! But the problem was systemic. UNC was regularly admitting kids who could not do college-level work. According to one researcher, who looked at the reading abilities of 183 UNC-Chapel Hill basketball and football players, 60% read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels. Between 8% and 10% read below a third-grade level. Obviously these athletes could not be enrolled in regular college classes, so they were steered into particular departments — communications, exercise studies and African-American studies — that would offer an easier ride.
The temptation is to assume that the fake courses offered by the school are an athletic scandal. They’re not. What happened at UNC is an academic scandal through and through.
The reason these courses went unnoticed for so long is the result of a university culture that is dysfunctional and unserious about education. And that starts with the oversight of the faculty. As Jane Shaw points out, “There is a mantra that professors are in charge of their own courses because they have academic freedom.”
Shaw, who heads the North Carolina-based Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, says that academic freedom should not mean there is no quality control.
Moreover, Shaw wonders whether the fact that it was a minority studies department on a campus that is unusually focused on “multiculturalism” meant that it got a free pass. No one wants to be the politically incorrect professor calling attention to the problem.
Many of these administrators used to be faculty members themselves so they give professors undue deference too. And the administrators also face no oversight.
Anne Neal of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni points out that obviously the accreditors here proved particularly useless. How did they not notice what was going on for almost two decades?
Fundamentally, she suggests that what happened at UNC is a governance problem. Neal says trustees have been marginalized to the point where most don’t see it as their role to oversee the academic integrity of a school. UNC, she says, “is an example of an institution that has lost its way and really seems to put reputation and revenues ahead of academic mission.”
Neal compares it to the situation at Penn State a couple of years ago, but notes that the problem is far broader than just the way that athletics has corrupted higher education.
“There is a question of academic seriousness here. Students in large numbers are not showing significant cognitive gain in college. They are spending more time sleeping and socializing than studying.”
And the results are clear. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, the vast majority of four-year college graduates fell below the “proficient” level in prose, document, and quantitative literacy. To score proficiently, you need to do things like compare viewpoints in two editorials and compute the cost per ounce of food items. Tough stuff.
Imagine if all the college grads who took “bogus” courses “designed for the sole purpose of providing enrollees high grades” decided to sue. Now that would be a class action.