Week 5: Academic Fraud and Collegiate Sports

The following post is written in response to the following articles:

Jeremy Bauer-Wolf: Inside Higher Ed: NCAA: No Academic Violations at UNC

 New York Times: N.C.A.A.: North Carolina Will Not Be Punished for Academic Scandal

There was an interesting decision announced by the NCAA last month to not impose any punishments against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) for the academic fraud that was committed in a decades long practice of offering courses that were not commensurate with the academic standards of university coursework. These  courses were known as “paper classes” and the courses had no attendance stipulations and,  “required only a single research paper, which she [Deborah Crowder] graded without much regard to their quality” (Bauer-Wolf). This clearly is not the academic standards that are expected from a well known and accredited university. I felt like this example was a demonstration of why not only having, but also enforcing an honor system is crucial. Clearly there was a breakdown in the system in terms of having some verification/validation of courses, assuming that the university administration was not involved in the scandal directly.

The NCAA became involved in the scandal because there were claims that the courses were specifically marketed to athletes to boost their GPAs and help them maintain NCAA eligibility. The following quote from the article by Bauer-Wolf summarizes the NCAA concerns:

At its core, the NCAA was examining whether UNC had violated the association’s restrictions on “extra benefits,” which refers to certain advantages, such as financial payments or academic assistance, that are offered to athletes but not the wider student body.

A law firm’s 2014 report commissioned by the university did find that nonathletes also benefited from the classes. That report, which cited a “woeful lack of oversight” and a culture that confused academic freedom with lack of accountability, concluded that more than 3,100 UNC students enrolled in the courses. About half of those in the 188 faux classes were athletes. Investigators concluded that university employees were aware of the fraud and actively steered athletes and other struggling students to those courses.

Jeremy Bauer-Wolf: Inside Higher Ed: NCAA: No Academic Violations at UNC

It is clear that the university violated standards of academic integrity. What is less clear is how the university should be punished for these violations. The decision by the NCAA, however, seems to show that they do not think they are the organization that should be creating or enforcing the punishments. I think that it is certainly an issue that is much broader than just the NCAA, but I think in this case they should have stepped up and punished UNC for their obvious violations. It seems clear to me that the systems were created to intentionally assist students in satisfing the NCAA eligibility rules.

I think that it is important to consider how universities should be punished for these violations. The first thing that comes to my mind is the university accreditation. This is relevant in this case as reported in Inside Higher Ed:

Instead, the NCAA will forward its decision to the university’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges [SACSCOC], which can address academic inconsistencies. Previously, the body had placed the university on a yearlong probation in 2015, ending in 2016, for violating seven accreditation standards, one of them being academic integrity. It was the strongest punishment the accreditor could deliver besides revoking accreditation entirely.

Jeremy Bauer-Wolf: Inside Higher Ed: NCAA: No Academic Violations at UNC

I do agree that involving SACSCOC is important in this case, however it brings up some complex issues. Accreditation is university wide and affects students from the undergraduate level all the way up through full professors. I’m not arguing that SACSCOC should not be involved, however, should all of the students have to face consequences and a diminished reputation because of the behavior of those who contributed to this scandal? I think this is where the NCAA was in a unique position, they could have really punished the university and helped promote a change in the culture surrounding collegiate athletics without punishing the entire university population.

I believe that the NCAA failed to act in a case that was obvious and egregious. This point is made very clearly by Dr. Gerald Gurney in a quote featured in the New York Times article referenced above.

“If ever there was a case of academic fraud, North Carolina would have to be the poster child — the longevity and the outrageous behavior to keep athletes eligible through systematic fraud,” said Gerald Gurney, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and past president of the Drake Group, which seeks to reform college athletics. “And it leads one to the absolute conclusion that this finding sanctions academic fraud among our institutions for the purpose of keeping athletes eligible.”

New York Times: N.C.A.A.: North Carolina Will Not Be Punished for Academic Scandal

I am really unsure of how this issue is going to be resolved and how other institutions are going to react to this scandal. I am reminded of the interactive movie The Lab in which various members of a research team are faced with investigating and confronting academic misconduct in their own lab. The exercise shows how being aware of misconduct and ignoring the issues instead of reporting or addressing them makes those involved liable for consequences that result. I think that in the case of the UNC incident, there had to be many students and faculty that were at least somewhat aware of the “paper classes” that were being taught, or not taught in this case. Now that UNC has been exposed they are all in danger of suffering from the consequences of these actions, even though they were not directly participating. I think the lesson here is that we are all responsible for creating and maintaining integrity in our lives and in the institutions with which we associate.

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