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UNC scandal illuminates collegiate fumbles on student-athlete education

Report shows ‘shadow curriculum’ of fraudulent classes, grades for students on profitable football, basketball teams

The aftermath of an academic scandal at the University of North Carolina (UNC) involving thousands of student-athletes who took fraudulent courses that required no class attendance and resulted in artificially high grades is once again raising questions nationwide about the priorities of universities with prestigious and profitable athletic programs. 

detailed and revealing report released on Wednesday after an independent, eight-month investigation by former Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein showed that from 1993 to 2011, approximately 3,100 students took classes under a “shadow curriculum” within UNC’s department of African and Afro-American studies (AFAM). The scandal is just the latest incident in an arena filled with similar ones.

The classes were offered as independent study. Class attendance was not required. There was no faculty member involvement. The classes required only a single research paper that was “awarded high grades with little regard for the quality of a student’s work,” according to the report. Almost half of the 3,100 students enrolled in those courses over the 18 years of the curriculum’s existence were student-athletes. 

"This whole scheme ... was designed to keep the athletes eligible by boosting their GPA and ensuring that they were making progress towards a degree," Richard Southall, professor and director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of South Carolina, told Al Jazeera. 

UNC acknowledged as much in a press release following the report’s release, saying that academic counselors in its support program for student-athletes directed players to the classes yielding "artificially high grades" and saw them as the "key to helping some student-athletes remain eligible."

The majority of the student-athletes who took the questionable courses came from the revenue sports of football and men’s basketball, the report said. Over 50 percent of the student-athletes involved were football players, while another 12 percent were from the men’s basketball team, which won three national titles during the course of the scandal. Women’s basketball players and student-athletes from other sports at UNC also took part. 

‘It’s a joke’

Southall, though, was quick to point out that the scope of the student-athlete dilemma goes well beyond the revelations at UNC, which reported nearly $83 million in total revenue in 2013 from its sports programs, primarily from men's football and basketball.

“This is systemic. This is fundamentally about special admissions of under-prepared athletes who are brought to college campuses and ‘given an opportunity for an education,’ ” he said. “It’s a joke. The system has nothing to do with education, it has everything to do with money and entertainment.” 

The report focused on the actions of two now-retired individuals  — Dr. Julius Nyang’oro, who became chair of AFAM in 1992, and Deborah Crowder, who was hired 1979 as the student services manager for AFAM.

Crowder, a UNC ’75 alumna, was described in the report as feeling the university tended to focus its efforts on the “best and the brightest” students, but “failed to pay attention to students who needed more direction and support.”

Crowder “felt a strong affinity for students with academic or other challenges in their lives” and believed it her duty to help struggling students,” according to the report, particularly student-athletes “who came to campus without adequate academic preparation for Chapel Hill’s demanding curriculum.”

According to the report, Crowder, who cooperated with the investigation, said she “did not carefully review each paper, but would instead simply flip through it to ensure that it was of requisite length and included some amount of citation,” following which she would grade it. The grade was “nearly always some form of an A or B,” the report said. Some academic counselors for the student-athletes even suggested what grades Crowder should give their players.  

The university said that it was "terminating or commencing disciplinary action" against nine employees in connection with the scandal. 

Emmett Gill of the Student-Athlete's Human Rights Project told Al Jazeera the UNC scandal represented a “disservice to higher education, collegiate athletics and the ethics associated with both industries.”

Latest collegiate scandal

The UNC scandal, however, is the latest of many.

A 1988 NCAA study of college athletes found that despite ample learning resources, such as special tutors, football and basketball players had an average grade-point average of 2.46 on a 4-point scale. The average for other college athletes was 2.61, and it was 2.79 for students involved in other time-consuming extracurricular activities, such as drama, band or student government.

A 2008 study by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper (PDF) of 54 public universities found that nationwide, football players average 220 points lower on the SAT than their classmates —- and men’s basketball players average seven points less than football players. The study found the tougher the admissions standards for a school, the bigger the gap between students and athletes.

“The problem is there’s a huge world of Mickey Mouse courses and special curriculums that athletes are steered into,” Murray Sperber, a visiting professor in the University of California’s graduate school of education and the author of four books about college athletics and college life told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The problem is there are many athletes graduating from schools who are semiliterate.” 

In January of this year, CNN did a study that revealed many college athletes had reading problems. In it, Mary Willingham, a learning specialist at UNC, cited the reading levels of 183 UNC-Chapel Hill athletes who played football or basketball from 2004 to 2012 because she found that 60 percent read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels. Between eight percent and 10 percent read below a third-grade level. 

"So what are the classes they are going to take to get a degree here? You cannot come here with a third-, fourth- or fifth-grade education and get a degree here," she told CNN.

Despite the apparent motivation to help student-athletes stay academically eligible and continue their pursuits, the fact that the vast majority of college athletes do not become professional athletes is why the UNC case represents “an immoral, insane system,” according to Southall. 

“It is a lack of delivering on the ‘opportunity for an education.' When you’re in the moment, when you are playing, you think you are going pro. And so it’s only until 10 years later, that you realize [you’re not],” he said. “But they’re not brought there for an education, they’re brought there to fill a stadium.” 

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