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What Should we Conclude about the ‘Paper-Class’ Scandal at UNC

‘Tar heel-Gate Raises Many Ethical Issues about the Behavior of UNC Officials

If you’re a sports fan, by now you have probably heard about that paper-class scandal that I call “Tar heel-Gate” where 3,100 student-athletes at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill were essentially allowed to take classes without attending classes and given grades good enough to keep them eligible to play men’s football and basketball.

For 18 years, these students at UNC took fake "paper classes," and advisers funneled athletes into the program to keep them eligible, according to a scathing independent report released last week.

"These counselors saw the paper classes and the artificially high grades they yielded as key to helping some student-athletes remain eligible," Kenneth Wainstein wrote in his report that was commissioned by UNC to independently investigate the academic fraud brought to light in recent years.

The violations of ethics by UNC raise many important questions. How could such a reputable college sports program get away with the behavior for 18 years? Who was responsible for keeping a watchful eye out for violations of NCAA rules? Where were the managers of the affected sport programs; what did they know; when did they know it; what actions, if any, did they take?

Tar Heel Gate reminds me of the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State University. The motivating factor in staying silent in that case was the desire to deflect any criticism away from the football program as a result of the sexual abuse by assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Protecting the reputation of Penn State was more important than admitting to the cover-up and recognizing how the abuse affected the abused kids thereby delaying the healing process.

At UNC, the goal was to keep student athletes eligible so that the sports programs would be winners and lead to a great deal of notoriety to UNC, not to mention lots of advertising money and memorabilia sales. The disclosure of wrongdoing early one would have led to an investigation by the NCAA and severe sanctions. Ironically, that is exactly what will happen now and you can bet the punishment will be much greater than if UNC had admitted the mistake right away.

UNC suffered from ‘ethical blindness.’ It failed to see the ethical violations of its actions in establishing a route for student-athletes to remain academically eligible. It acted in its own self-interest (egoism) regardless of the effects of its behavior on the affected parties.

Let’s look at this issue from a cost-benefit (utilitarian analysis). The main beneficiaries are the sports program and UNC in general, as well as the student-athletes who could play and, perhaps, one day be drafted by the NFL or the NBA. The ultimate harms to UNC upon being caught were ignored because if they had been considered, it is likely that someone at UNC would have spoken up about the fraud and increased the likelihood it would have been stopped a lot sooner. In the end the reputation of UNC and players’ images are tarnished and they will have to carry the shame for the rest of their lives.

Should we blame the players or just the coaches and administrators? I blame both groups. The administrators violated the basic foundation of academe – academic integrity. However, no one put a gun to the students’ head and forced them to go through with the charade. They should have questioned what was happening simply because they knew they were being given something no other student was and,as a result, the basic principle of fairness was violated – the level playing field for student-athletes and non-student-athletes no longer existed. The irony of the situation is that the failure to question harmful actions from an independent-thought-point-of-view by the student-athletes smacks at the very basic role of a university education. What was lacking was an open and honest discourse about the issue that would have led to ethical behavior and not behavior motivated by blind self-interest.

Back to the investigation. For the first time since the scandal first came to light five years ago, UNC admitted that the wrongdoing went further than academics and involved its athletic programs. Four employees have been fired and five more disciplined because of their roles.

For five years, UNC has insisted the paper classes were the doing of one rogue professor: the department chair of the African-American studies program, Julius Nyang'oro. Wainstein's report spread the blame much further.

Wainstein discovered that five counselors actively used paper classes, calling them "GPA boosters," and that at least two counselors, one in football, suggested to Crowder the grade an athlete needed to receive to be able to continue to play.

Many of the academic-athletic staff who were named and implicated by Wainstein were also named by university learning specialist Mary Willingham, who went public with detailed allegations about paper classes and who, after an assault on her credibility by the university, has since filed a whistleblower suit.

Willingham said that she had worked with dozens of athletes who came to UNC and were unable to read at an acceptable level, with some of them reading on par with elementary schoolchildren. She also said there were many members of the athletic staff who knew about the paper classes, and her revelations contradicted what UNC had claimed for years -- that Nyang'oro acted alone in providing the paper classes.

Willinghan has said she felt university officials unfairly attacked her character after she revealed research on a selection of athletes who were reading at elementary school levels. She blew the whistle on the academic scandal at UNC and sued the university on July 1, saying she was retaliated against after speaking out.

In an unusual twist to the story, the director of UNC's Parr Center for Ethics, Jeanette M. Boxill, is accused of steering athletes into fake classes to help them maintain their eligibity with the NCAA. Moreover, she appeared to cover-up her actions after the fact. If the allegations are true, it indicates a systemic failure at UNC that is just as bad as the cheating scandal itself.

The UNC affair should prompt a wide-ranging investigation by the NCAA. I’m convinced what happened at UNC happens elsewhere. Much as the NFL is now coming down heavily on football players who abuse others, the NCAA has an ethical responsibility to the public to leave no stone unturned in its investigation and give out harsh punishment to offending schools and their sports programs for violating the Association's ethical standards and basic societal ethical values of honesty, integrity, trustworthiness, responsibility and accountability.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 28, 2104. Professor Mintz teaches in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at:

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