I haven’t written much about the academic scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill, even though I got my master’s degree there, for one simple reason: I haven’t had a chance to read the Wainstein report, let alone the 900-page supplement, in which some of the worst dirt is said to be found. But what I have gleaned from media reports is bad enough: a rogue academic program of which a rogue athletic program took full advantage. There was an utter lack of institutional control — a lack that should lead to serious repercussions, and not only from the NCAA (as if).
What went on at UNC, involving roughly 3,100 students during an 18-year period, dwarfs what happened at Southern Methodist University, whose football program actually got the NCAA’s death penalty almost 30 years ago for paying 21 football players a total of $61,000. (That remains the only case in the modern era of the penalty’s being imposed on a Division I revenue-sport program.) If this doesn’t merit the NCAA’s death penalty, what does?
But I also think that this situation calls for God’s own proctological exam from the college’s accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. SACSCOC could, at the extreme, withdraw accreditation from UNC. Without accreditation, the university’s students no longer would be eligible for financial aid. And without that eligibility, much of the university would collapse from lack of cash. Large state universities are not as overwhelmingly dependent upon tuition revenue as are small, private colleges, but loss of accreditation would be an existential threat to UNC-Chapel Hill. And, frankly, I’m not sure it isn’t deserved.
I don’t say that lightly. I’m all too aware that the long knives already are out for the university at the hands of the state’s Republicans. And I acknowledge right up front that any such punishment would fall overwhelmingly on the heads of students, faculty, and staff who had nothing to do with the fraud and would suffer unjustly as a result. But I still think it needs to be said, needs to be talked about, because I’m not sure what else will get it through people’s heads, at Carolina and throughout college revenue sports, that if we’re going to have rules, we must abide by them. (Whether the rules we have are actually the rules we need is a separate discussion, albeit one I’m willing to enter with a very open mind.)
At UNC, although fewer than half the students involved were athletes, a disproportionate number of basketball players took advantage of sham classes in the African and Afro-American Studies department to remain academically eligible to play, including members of the 2005 national-championship team. And we’re being asked to believe that Coach Roy Williams and his predecessors — Matt Doherty, Bill Guthridge, even the sainted Dean Smith — didn’t know about it.
My friend and former colleague Ed Hardin says in today’s News & Record (column not online) that he believes Williams didn’t know, although he argues that Williams should have known. I don’t disagree with Ed lightly on matters athletic because he knows a hell of a lot more about them than I do. But I know deception as well as anyone. And what Williams says is too clever by half.
See, if he really didn’t know anything, then why would he admit that, as Ed puts it, “his only concern was that too many of his players were in the AFAM classes and that he never met with [whistleblower] Mary Willingham”? If he truly knew nothing, why even bring up those classes? If he truly were concerned with honesty, why not meet with Willingham?
No, I think Roy screwed up here in trying to make it look like he wasn’t completely an idiot. Unfortunately, complete idiocy is the only condition congruent with a claim that he knew nothing about the academic fraud. Otherwise, what he did amounts to willful ignorance, which, for a man in his position as head coach of a nationally ranked revenue-sport program, is complicity, full stop. Perhaps he might not have known all the details, but he had to know that his program was dirty and had been for years.
And as far as the bigger picture goes, we’ve basically been asked to believe that one rogue academic counselor and one rogue professor were the masterminds of a program through which 3,100 students over 18 years defrauded the university and were themselves defrauded in return. To put it politely, that hypothesis beggars belief. I think Roy knew, and Doherty, and Guthridge, and Smith. I think athletic director Bubba Cunningham knew, and John Swofford before him.
And I think the NCAA’s death penalty ought to be the least of UNC’s worries.