Right up until Wednesday, it was still possible for the University of North Carolina faithful to believe that the worst accusations against their school were little better than insinuation. The critics were just connecting dots, they’d tell themselves, even as it became abundantly clear to the disinterested observer that there was precious little space between those multitudinous dots. Now denial is no longer possible: all the lines have been penciled in, and the picture that has emerged is of the biggest scandal in college athletics history.
Over the last two decades, some 3,100 students, half of them athletes, have been taking phony classes in the African and Afro-American Studies department at UNC. There have been uglier scandals elsewhere involving drugs, violence, or money, but none that has so thoroughly undermined both the university’s purpose and the ideal of the student-athlete.
Inexplicably—though I shall try to explick—there have been ten other inquiries into this scandal, which produced some troubling numbers, but not much in the way of people to fire or sports programs to suspend. Investigation number eleven was different, though. It had more smoking guns than a Tarantino remake of Peckinpah.
One was a slide from a PowerPoint presentation that made it clear that UNC football coaches and high-ranking officials in the athletics department were aware that hundreds of their players were taking the phony classes in order to stay eligible. These were classes that never met because they had no professor, and they required nothing more than a term paper, which was sure to get an A or a B, even though many were cut-and-paste jobs. For sports fans, that PowerPoint slide, the smoking gun, matters because it is sure to bring doom from the National Collegiate Athletics Association. It proves the athletics program’s complicity in the corruption of the school’s academic integrity.
To the rest of us, the corruption of the university’s mission should matter more than whatever penalties the NCAA might hand out. Still, the corruption at UNC is localized fungus: the shadow that permits those spores to germinate is cast by the Family Educational Rights Privacy Act, a badly outdated federal law that cloaks university affairs in pointless secrecy. The Supreme Court has set some sensible limits, but federal bureaucrats continue to tell schools that the law has a vast reach. School officials in turn use it to ward off outsiders, journalists in particular. But as the UNC case demonstrates, FERPA so clogs up the flow of information that even well-meaning administrators can’t locate the truth. For all the inquiries it took to get an answer here, you’d think the question was who gave the stand down order in Benghazi.
One reason it took so many investigations is that the co-author of one of the earlier, largely exculpatory reports turns out to have been deeply involved in the scandal herself, according to the new inquiry. Jan Boxill, the chairwoman of the faculty committee, was tasked with reporting on the scandal’s threat to the school’s academic integrity. A suspicious person might have noticed that Boxill was a longtime advisor to the women’s basketball team and wondered whether she might have a conflict. She did. Boxill is one of two school employees blamed in the latest report for rampant grade manipulation. Investigators found troves of emails she sent to administrators in the African-American studies department requesting specific grades for players. For example, the former chairman of the department, himself complicit, told investigators that he “recalled one particular situation when he gave a women’s basketball player a B+ even though he felt her paper was ‘terrible’ and was a ‘clear F.’ He assigned that grade because Boxill had suggested that he do so.”
A copy of one of those students’ papers that was tweeted by a whistleblower attracted widespread mockery earlier this year, as it was just one paragraph about Rosa Parks. For some of these “independent studies” classes, Boxill would assign, with cruel irony, the works of W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois, of course, was devoted to the idea of college as a way of “developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.”
Still, Boxill contaminated just one of the earlier reviews. Yet the others managed to fall so short of the truth that it was still possible, on the morning of this latest report’s release, for the defensive to slam the investigative reporter responsible for many of the disclosures, Dan Kane of the News & Observer. Kane was just “pounding on a narrative no matter how much that narrative has been disproved and discredited,” wrote a reporter for a popular sports blog. “Kane and Co. are heavily invested in the theory that AFAM (the African-American studies department) functioned as a massive eligibility scheme for UNC athletes and there was collusion between athletics and AFAM to make that happen. Anything short of the report determining that means Kane will keep digging. The report will be dismissed as not having done the job because it didn’t produce the expected result.” The final report, produced by a former Justice Department official named Kenneth Wainstein, proved just that.
Previous investigations fell short partly because the collusion here is hard to prove. The only reason the UNC operation was exposed is because it was so brazen, and even then it took 11 tries. But imagine if the classes had a professor, and required two papers instead of one. Maybe they met once or twice. Maybe athletes were only 20 percent of the enrollees, instead of half. With a few slight changes, you get the semblance of classwork, the athletics department could certainly insist on its good faith, and the case falls apart. This sort of thing has happened elsewhere — at the universities of Auburn and Michigan — but as long as the perpetrators are going through the motions of teaching, nobody can stand up and call them out.
FERPA is the only reason that’s true. If grades or even just coursework at public universities were public record, the phony classes would be easy to expose. If course rosters were public record, athlete clusters would pop out. Fans from rival universities would scrutinize these lists, serving as voluntary ombudsmen (that’s sort of how this scandal kicked off). If grades were public, it would be a trivial matter to identify the sham courses handing out A’s to students who got D’s in everything else.
Kane’s newspaper sued for access to enrollment records for basketball players — with names blacked out — and was denied because the judge said he “determined that yes, he could identify one of the athletes, and there was a one-in-four chance of identifying another.” So the scandal and the uproar linger on for years, for what? So that nobody finds out John Q. Smith took COMM 201? When nobody knows the names, then everyone is responsible and yet no one is. Should UNC’s legendary coach, Roy Williams, shoulder some blame, or was he part of the solution? The doubts linger, and nobody can crosscheck the work of the assigned investigators. Kane thinks they were producing whitewashes; Wainstein generally credits their good faith.
Whichever the case, the problem is that nobody wants to believe the worst about his alma mater. As Wainstein put it, to “the extent there were times of delay or equivocation in (the administration’s) response to this controversy, we largely attribute that to insufficient appreciation of the scale of the problem, an understandable lack of experience with this sort of institutional crisis and some lingering disbelief that such misconduct could have occurred at Chapel Hill.”
It’s much easier for the faithful to believe that journalists are simply malicious. As former Chancellor James Moeser told Chapel Hill Magazine: “I think they target people, and they take pleasure in bringing people down. I think their real goal here was to remove banners from the Smith Center.” Whatever their goals, these journalists had the one prerequisite for investigative success: motivation. And that’s the one thing that administrators lack when they don’t believe the theory in the first place.
When we don’t have the facts, we rely on shortcuts, on availability heuristics, which in UNC’s case had a name: Mary Willingham. She was a counselor who was appalled at the poor literacy of many of UNC’s athletes, who became Kane’s key source in the early going. Later, she went public with her whistleblowing. Then she made the bizarre decision to abandon her firsthand anecdotal evidence of illiteracy and produce instead a formal study quantifying it with records from her day job. In January, CNN was the first to report her sensational findings that out of 183 athletes who’d been screened for disabilities, “60% read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels. Between 8% and 10% read below a third-grade level.”
Only it wasn’t true. Three separate studies commissioned by the provost found that she’d overstated her claims tenfold. The flaw was humiliating: she had apparently taken some results from a reading test scored on a scale of 0 to 20 and assumed the numbers stood for grade level. As one of the academics drolly put it, “Standard scores for the SATA, which range from 1 to 20, do not represent grade level any more than SAT scores, which range from 200-800, represent grade level.”
Later, Willingham was exposed over her apparently plagiarized master’s thesis. So it was easy, even sensible, for the Tarheel faithful to dismiss her claims, to insist that Kane’s reporting had somehow been discredited.
Now, I know we’ve gotten used to thinking of educational records as private, but I don’t see any compelling reason for the federal government to require it. If a prestigious public law school, for example, required a minimum score of 160 on the Law School Admissions Test, why not post the scores of everyone who got in, as a safeguard against cronyism? States could set their own policies for their university systems. Private schools would respond to the demands of the market. Most would favor privacy, but at least when they really had to get to the bottom of something, federal law wouldn’t be in their way.
I know there’s little demand for this sort of policy change now. But when the higher education bubble finally bursts, we’re going to have some questions about what we’ve been paying for.