There have been statements made, numerous articles written, and intense and widespread speculation about this case during the past five years. The temptation to use public speculation and other unverified information is a very real part of this case. – UNC Response to NCAA Amended Notice of Allegations, August 1, 2016
After five years of sensationalized media coverage, a more accurate narrative about UNC’s paper-class scandal is finally beginning to circulate.
No one denies that what happened in UNC’s African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department makes for an embarrassing chapter in the history of the nation’s oldest public university. As I have consistently argued for the past two and half years, the paper-class scandal exposes a troubling reality of American research universities: the utter disregard for teaching quality at the undergraduate level. How else do we explain the failure of UNC deans to notice that the chair of the AFAM department essentially skipped class for more than a decade?
Yet because the paper classes came to light in the wake of an actual athletics scandal, reporters — no less susceptible to confirmation bias than the rest of us — were immediately convinced that athletics was behind this new scandal. Thus, the press framed the narrative as one of academic fraud perpetuated by athletics even before the facts came in, and that narrative became the filter through which the public interpreted emerging information about the case. Despite subsequently discovered facts to the contrary, commentators and rival fans remained certain the UNC scandal was driven by a corrupt athletics department.
As writer Walter Kirn once stated, “This is how it works now with the news: the story begins with a moral, then a narrative is fashioned to support it.”
The moral, of course, is justified: college athletics is long overdue for reform. However, reformers were overly eager for the definitive case study in athletics corruption, and they seized on the UNC case without acknowledging its nuances. Reformers believed they found a textbook case of academic fraud perpetuated by athletics, but their case was far more fictional than factual.
Nevertheless, with the passing of time — and despite the persistence of blowhards such as Kent Sterling — the public discourse on the UNC scandal is becoming more reasonable, and onlookers are beginning to realize that the scandal was not what the news media initially portrayed it as.
Following UNC’s response to the NCAA’s amended notice of allegations this week, I believe now is an appropriate time to clarify the issues further for those still trying to discern fact from fiction. Rather than develop my own set of questions for a Q&A, I’ve decided to counter N&O reporter Dan Kane’s Q&A from earlier this year. In so doing, I hope not only to add clarity to the discourse but also to illuminate the way Kane has misconstrued the facts to support the news media’s narrative.
Kane’s first question in his Q&A regards the legitimacy of the paper classes, and his answer is enough on its own to demonstrate his narrative-driven approach to reporting.
Q: Weren’t these legitimate, but easy classes?
A: No. Deborah Crowder, the former administrative manager in the African and Afro-American Studies department, was not a professor. She didn’t have a master’s degree, let alone a Ph.D. She created and graded the classes on her own, though at some point in the scheme department chairman Julius Nyang’oro became aware of them.
Although Kane’s answer is technically factual, he leaves out critical information that significantly affects the way we understand the situation: (1) the students taking the paper classes didn’t know Crowder was just an office manager without the authority to manage the classes on her own, and (2) no student received credit for the classes without completing the required work. In other words, from the students’ perspective, the paper classes were indeed legitimate (albeit easy). Therefore, referring to them as “fake,” as Kane consistently does, is misleading.
Q: Didn’t Crowder begin offering the fake classes to help all students?
A: This claim is pegged to a finding in the Wainstein Report that “Crowder and Nyang’oro were primarily motivated to offer these classes by a desire to help struggling students and student-athletes.”
But the report also says that Crowder began the fake classes in 1993 after counselors in the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes complained about athletes having to meet with Nyang’oro regularly and provide updates on their work as part of an independent study. These requirements are typical for an independent study.
Actually, the belief that Crowder was motivated to help all struggling students was originally based on an email Kane himself reported on several months prior to the Wainstein Report. In that email, Crowder explained to a campus advisor, “Some or all of our students come in for advising, or cause us problems, or are wonderful, or whatever, but sometimes I think the athletes get too much scrutiny in relation to the average student population. That being said, we try to accommodate their schedules, just as we do the single moms, or the students who have to work two jobs to stay in school.”
Crowder undoubtedly felt sympathy for athletes, but she felt equal sympathy for single moms and other struggling students.
Furthermore, to be frank, I am perplexed every time Kane cites the anecdote regarding the counselors’ complaints over Nyang’oro’s independent studies. Wainstein provided no verification for that anecdote. In fact, he didn’t even indicate who shared the anecdote with him, nor does he appear to have queried the accused counselors about it. The anecdote simply appears, unverified, in the Wainstein Report.
In the Martin Report two years prior to Wainstein, Kane discovered a similarly unverified anecdote, leading him and his N&O colleagues to dismiss the entire report. Yet Kane has repeatedly cited Wainstein’s unverified anecdote as the foundation of the N&O’s post-Wainstein narrative.
Of course, the N&O’s dismissal of the Martin Report over one unverified anecdote was ridiculous. And Kane’s continued use of Wainstein’s unverified anecdote is not only hypocritical but contrary to journalism as a discipline of verification. The N&O’s contradictory handling of these unverified anecdotes only reveals the doggedness with which they have endeavored to shape the narrative into one about academic fraud perpetuated by athletics.
Q: Crowder provided them “paper classes” that gave athletes a high grade, and more time to spend on their sport. Didn’t athletes make up slightly less than half of the enrollments in the classes?
A: Yes. But those enrollment numbers reinforce the prominent role that athletes played in the scandal. First, athletes make up less than 5 percent of the student body, but they made up roughly half of the students in the classes, with football and men’s basketball players the heaviest users. More than 1,500 athletes took at least one fake class.
Second, athletes accounted for half of the 30 students who enrolled in four or more of those fake classes that were identified as independent studies. Of the 154 students who took five or more fake classes that were falsely labeled as lecture classes, more than two-thirds were athletes.
Kane and others in the news media frequently make this point that athletes were disproportionately enrolled in the paper classes (representing less than 5% of the student body yet nearly 50% of paper-class enrollments). However, those reporters and commentators fail to take into account the high rates of African Americans among football and basketball players. While UNC’s student body is consistently around 10% African American, the football and basketball teams are at times more than 50% African American. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised that football and basketball players enrolled in AFAM classes at higher rates than the general student body.
In response to Kane’s cherrypicked enrollment statistics, consider these other numbers:
- If Crowder had devised the paper-class”scheme” specifically for athletes, we’d likely see significantly more athletes than non-athletes in those first few classes. Instead, we see the opposite: the first four paper classes had only 11 athletes enrolled (two men’s basketball players, four football players, and five women’s basketball players), compared to 46 non-athletes.
- Overall, there were more paper classes with exclusively non-athletes enrolled (20) than there were paper classes with exclusively athletes enrolled (18). Again, if Crowder had devised the classes specifically to benefit athletes, we likely wouldn’t see so many classes with exclusively non-athletes enrolled.
As much as Kane has tried to present statistics that support the narrative of academic fraud perpetuated by athletics, the numbers just don’t add up.
Kane’s Missing Question
While Kane’s misleading answers to his own questions make his agenda obvious, his failure to ask the following question is even more telling: Did any academic administrators know about the paper classes?
Wainstein provided evidence that at least four deans knew the paper classes didn’t require attendance. Moreover, one of those deans even told an athletics official that faculty have the autonomy to conduct their classes as such. Another of those deans was the administrator who supervised the director of academic support for student-athletes and even referred students to the paper classes himself. Word traveled from the deans to the academic counselors that the paper classes were a matter of academic freedom, and the counselors thus saw no reason to question the classes’ legitimacy. (Wainstein did allege that five counselors also knew Crowder graded the papers, but he later contradicted his evidence in a letter to Butch Davis.)
The deans’ knowledge and validation of the paper classes bring us full circle to Kane’s first question, “Weren’t these legitimate, but easy classes?” If Crowder was indeed managing the classes and grading the papers without Nyang’oro’s involvement, then one can reasonably argue the classes weren’t “legitimate.” However, one must acknowledge that the rest the story complicates the matter. Because students completed work for the classes, and because academic counselors believed the classes to be approved by the deans, one can also reasonably argue the classes were actually “legitimate.”
Regardless of whether we label the paper classes “legitimate,” a more fundamental question remains: Did the paper classes constitute academic fraud perpetuated by athletics?
To that, we can assert an unequivocal and resounding no.
The paper classes were the misguided effort of an office administrator trying to help struggling students, and the classes persisted because the deans were negligent in monitoring teaching quality. No matter how sincere one may be in their belief, those who continue to propagate the athletics corruption narrative do so with little regard for the facts.
When CBS commentator Jon Solomon refers to the paper-class scandal as “the worst academic fraud case in college sports history,” he reveals himself to be one of those people who have little regard for the facts. Corporate media outlets like CBS will continue to peddle sensationalism through commentators (or do they call themselves reporters?) like Solomon, and there’s little that reasonable people can do about it other than refrain from clicking.
Yet over the past few months I have seen the public discourse on the paper-class scandal evolve to become less sensationalized and more tempered, and I feel optimistic that a more accurate narrative will soon eclipse the news media’s distorted narrative.
UNC sociologist Andrew Perrin made that very point when I interviewed him for my documentary Unverified. “At some point, and I actually think that point is pretty soon, the kind of vocal critics out there are going to be reduced to the people who are fans of competing institutions,” Perrin averred. He went on to explain that amidst any controversy “everybody gets their stuff out there and sort of competes for truth and accuracy and convincingness in a public sphere that’s racked fundamentally by conflict.” Yet citizens of a democracy eventually work through that conflict, and Perrin believes that “ultimately people in the world prefer reasoned and thoughtful and careful claims over hysterical ones.”
Reasoned. Thoughtful. Careful. The public discourse on the UNC scandal isn’t there yet, but I’ve felt a shift in that direction. We’ll gradually get there, and I’m grateful to have contributed to the change.
Bradley Bethel is the writer and director of the award-winning documentary Unverified: The Untold Story Behind the UNC Scandal, now available on Vimeo On Demand and soon available on DVD.