I have read that airplane crashes rarely have a simple cause, but are usually the product of a series of malfunctions and/or errors.  For example, in the case of Air France 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, ice crystals apparently produced a faulty airspeed reading. That caused the autopilot to disconnect, and the flight crew, all of whom had gotten little to no sleep the previous night, proceeded to make a series of bad decisions, leading to a stall that resulted in the plane plunging into the Atlantic.

I was reminded of that story when I read the recently released Wainstein report into the academic fraud at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  The report, officially titled “Investigation of Irregular Classes in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,” is the most recent and thorough investigation into the scandal where over an 18-year period more than 3000 students, nearly half of them athletes, took “paper” classes that never met, required only a paper, and were supervised and graded by a department secretary.  Compared with a previous investigation headed by former North Carolina Governor James Martin, the independent team led by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein had access to more than one million e-mails and cooperation from both the secretary and department chair at the center of the fraud.

Just like airplane crashes, the scandal did not have a simple cause.  Debby Crowder, the secretary in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies who set up and oversaw the phony classes, was a UNC graduate who is described in the report as a caring, compassionate advocate for struggling students.  That compassion, combined with a love for Carolina athletics, led her to cut corners to help struggling student-athletes make grades that would keep them eligible and allow them to earn degrees.  That was enabled by the hands-off leadership of department chair Julius Nyang’oro. 

Beyond the department, a combination of factors allowed the fraud to occur unchecked.  The tradition of academic autonomy within higher education meant that professors from other departments would not question or criticize practices within a different department. Academic administrators ignored evidence of the fraud, such as the fact that Professor Nyang’oro was supposedly teaching 300 independent study courses at one time.  And the biggest factor was an abiding but naïve faith throughout the university community that an academic scandal of such proportions simply couldn’t happen at a place as good as UNC-Chapel Hill.

Of course the elephant in the report is the role that big-time intercollegiate athletics plays at places like UNC-Chapel Hill.  There is at best a tension, and more commonly a chasm, between the educational purpose of a university and the reality of Division One athletic programs. The Wainstein report makes clear that the primary purpose of the paper courses at UNC was not to help athletes make progress toward a degree or receive any semblance of an education, but rather to keep them eligible to play.

That disconnect between education and athletics is not new, but has existed since the earliest days of colleges entering the sports entertainment business.  I recently read Dave Revsine’s book, The Opening Kickoff, about the early years of college football, and it is clear that there was never a time when college sports and higher education weren’t at odds.  From the very beginning college football was the “Wild West,” with abuses far beyond anything found today.  One of the biggest culprits in the early part of the twentieth century was the University of Chicago and its legendary coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg.

Given that the purview of this blog is college admissions rather than college athletics, I read the Wainstein report to see if and how admissions issues were mentioned within the report.  Steve Farmer, the Vice Provost for Enrollment and Undergraduate Admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill (who is both a friend and someone I respect greatly) is listed as one of those interviewed as part of the investigation, and there is a short discussion on pages 46-47 of the report related to admission of athletes.

“Academically elite universities like Chapel Hill often feel a tension between their high academic standards and the effort to build a strong athletic program.  One symptom of this tension is that academically selective schools often feel it necessary to admit academically under-prepared athletes in order to field competitive teams…This is a perfectly legitimate and laudable approach to admissions, and it has resulted in countless success stories where such student-athletes have excelled both on the field and in the classroom.  At the same time, the admission of under-prepared student-athletes presents universities with difficult challenges, as many require intensive academic support and remedial instruction.”

The report states that assessing the viability of admissions standards for athletes at UNC is beyond the scope of the investigation.  It also points out that UNC’s practices with regard to admission of under-prepared athletes fall within the mainstream, but clearly a contributing factor to the scandal was admission of students not capable of doing the work at UNC.  Former UNC academic advisor Mary Willingham has reported that she was aware of athletes at UNC who were reading at an elementary school level.

There is nothing inherently wrong with admitting students who are academic risks, as long as you have a program in place that will give them a chance to be successful.  Obviously giving grades for courses that never meet doesn’t meet that standard.

During my days as an independent school admissions director I was in a situation where I had to take some risks.  I learned from experience that half of them would work out and half not, but I couldn’t predict which ones would fall in which category.  (I also learned that kids I admitted with behavior concerns would invariably be hanging out with each other by the end of the first day of school.)  I learned that I was more likely to make mistakes with my heart rather than my head.  I admitted a young African-American male with a single mother and low test scores because I wanted him to be successful, and felt guilty when it predictably didn’t turn out.  Thankfully I ran into him a number of years later and learned that he is a successful graphic designer.

The UNC scandal is partly a mistake of the heart, because Debby Crowder’s fraud originated in compassion for struggling students, but the end doesn’t justify the means.  More troubling is the loss of vision, failure to see that while wins and national championships are nice and revenue-producing, the purpose of a university is first and foremost to provide young people with an education.  UNC is one of the finest public universities in America, but in this case deserves an F.