Opinion: UNC Should Be Punished for Academic Scandal

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The Virginian - Pilot (Norfolk, VA.)


THE UNIVERSITY of North Carolina at Chapel Hill could learn this week what action the NCAA will take in response to the school's nearly 20-year academic scandal involving athletes.

The NCAA had announced plans to release the results of its investigation on Friday, but "scheduling problems" led the organization to postpone. UNC was scheduled to announce a multi-billion dollar fundraising campaign on Friday. Apparently, the NCAA didn't want to spoil the party.

And what are a few more days for an investigation that dates to 2011 and an academic scandal that can be traced to at least 1993?

The NCAA's response will reveal a lot about how it punishes schools that make a mockery of the organization's stated goal that college athletes should be considered students first.

UNC is the poster child for bad behavior. According to excellent reporting by the Raleigh News & Observer and a series of outside investigations, a large number of UNC's athletes from 1993 to 2011 received high grades for classes that never met and didn't include any tests or homework.

The only requirement for the classes was an end-of-semester assignment that was sometimes graded by a school secretary, who gave high marks for papers that she knew were plagiarized, unrelated to the class topic, recycled from other classes or written mostly by someone other than the student.

Those grades allowed the athletes to remain academically eligible. Even those who didn't need as much help with their grade-point averages found that the classes were easy opportunities to earn academic credits without having to study. That left them with more time to focus on other activities, especially sports.

A 2014 investigation by Kenneth Wainstein, a former U.S. Justice Department official, revealed that more than 3,100 UNC students took the fake classes. His report said 47 percent of the students who took the classes were athletes - a number the university disputed - though athletes made up only 4 percent of the student body. And most of the athletes taking the classes were members of the football team and men's basketball team.

According to Wainstein's report, employees of UNC's Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes once met with football coaches and described the courses as ones that: "met degree requirements in which (the football players) didn't go to class … didn't take notes (or) have to stay awake … didn't have to meet with professors (and) didn't have to pay attention or necessarily engage with the material." Instead, UNC employees - paid to serve as academic supporters - had discussions about how to continue the fake classes.

Anyone who cares about the academic mission of such an elite university as UNC would have reacted with embarrassment and disgust. University officials should have punished the teams and coaches that benefited from those actions - forfeiting wins and championships.

But school officials repeatedly tried to minimize the wrongdoing while pledging to make changes designed to prevent future problems. And the university loaded up with high-priced attorneys and public relations specialists to fight the NCAA and its critics.

UNC maintains that the NCAA has no authority to punish the school, because non-athletes took some of the classes and a university can determine its own curriculum. It's true that the NCAA can't insert itself into whether every course athletes take meets minimum academic standards. But UNC's efforts go way beyond letting athletes take easy courses.

The university that for so long had talked about the "Carolina Way" — which included competing in sports with honor and integrity — discovered it was, in large part, a self-serving myth.

With its reputation in tatters, the school should have acted swiftly and sternly to punish its sports teams and coaches. Its refusal to do so means the NCAA is the only remaining hope of making UNC pay the price for nearly 20 years of wrongdoing.

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October 9, 2017


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