Cheaters Never Win?

Students cheat. Surveys for the past 50 years have been disappointingly consistent: about 75% of all college students admit to cheating at least once. There is no shock or head scratching when we learn of plagiarized papers or purloined exams. What happened at the University of North Carolina, however, was different. UNC was home to institutionally supported cheating at a scale and duration that raises questions about the very integrity of the academic enterprise. The greatest academic fraud in the history of the NCAA, UNC was home to a perfect storm for cheating: a powerful athletics program, weak institutional controls, a racially charged history, poor leadership, and a culture that emphasized success at any cost.

CheatedThanks to multiple investigations from the university, the NCAA, and external news organizations, the broad outlines of the fraud are well-known. For many years football players and basketball players received credit for no-show and no-work courses from the Department of African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM). Athletes – often African-Americans – were shuttled to the department, usually with the support of support personnel and tutors, to bolster grade point averages, meet eligibility requirements, and to improve graduate rates. Increased enrollment aided the department and faculty who offered independent classes were paid special stipends. The athletics department meet its NCAA requirements and built winning teams. A cursory review of students’ transcripts or registration patterns would have raised red flags, but no one looked. Of if they did look, they were not willing to follow up. When eventually brought to light – and there were many inquiries and reports – the failure was as much collective as the actions of a renegade few. Consequences included sanctions against UNC, reforms at the university, and a significant loss of reputation.

Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports by UNC history prof Jay Smith and Mary Willingham, the academic support specialist who blew the whistle on the scandal, explains this and much more. The book has all the strengths and weaknesses of a complicated story told by insiders. Smith and Willingham were participants in bringing the problem to light and calling for change. They have a tremendous amount of knowledge, great institutional history, and a clear sense of how things work at UNC. Their book is very much crafted like a legal brief. They want it to be the definitive word on the scandal, and as such, it suffers somewhat from too much detail – no matter how accurate.

The book is long on what administrators, staff and faculty did and did not do. Cheated explains the forces leading to the creation of AFAM. Many UNC stakeholders believed that AFAM would elevate race as a site of meaningful academic inquiry, providing courses and meaningful programming. Regardless of its legitimate successes, AFAM leadership was incentivized to generate numbers. Because of its history and its planned role, AFAM was also treated differently than other departments. AFAM never had a formal review and its leadership was chosen and reappointed without rigorous inquiry.

On the athletics side, UNC has long been a powerhouse in basketball. It sought greater national reputation by building up its football program as well. Success led to greater expectations, and the pressure on athletics coaches, support staff and players was high. Missing were countervailing pressures to insure academic quality. Cheated notes that the leading faculty committee involved with athletics attracted fans of UNC sports. Finally and most importantly, university leadership consistently treated the issue as a problem that could be resolved without deep and significant examination. Top administrators acted as though the problem could be managed. It is a tall order for an institutional failing with many causes. Institutions cannot problem solve to integrity.

The authors stress that the real victims of the scandal were the students. While there are no valid excuses for the university’s failing, student-athletes were willing participants. Capturing the student perspective would have gone far in aiding the book’s attempts at addressing big picture questions.

Education is a strange business. Students, who are sometimes thought of as consumers, often react positively to being asked to do less. No additional writing assignment? Excellent! Yet asking students to do less means less learning and less knowledge. It shortchanges the learner. In what other market do consumers pay the same and seek to receive less? Successful academic culture reinforces to students, teachers, and support staff that real and lasting value comes from high expectations and honest work.

Athletics at a community college like mine is a pleasant activity, a sign of school spirit and an opportunity for a small number of students to practice and play. We have a few sports. Our matches are lightly attended and varsity athletics competes for attention with other co-curricular activities. Our mission is focused on access and student learning. It is a completely different world than at a big-time Division 1 university, where sports such as football or basketball can define the institution.

What values animate an institution of higher education is the underlying question at UNC and in Cheated. It is more than what we say we care about, what Latin phrase is on our seal, and what pledge first year students recite. It is about how we act, how we deal with violations to our values, and how we measure success.

David Potash

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