As former Gov. Jim Martin investigates academic fraud accusations at North Carolina’s flagship university, he has more reason than ever to look not only at how athletes took troublesome shortcuts to passing grades, but why such fraud was almost inevitable.
A (Raleigh) News & Observer report Monday detailed accusations from a UNC Chapel Hill reading specialist about how the school and its academic support system tolerated and participated in cheating to keep athletes eligible to compete. The specialist, Mary Willingham, said numerous people in the academic support program looked the other way at plagiarism and knew of the school’s no-show classes that were billed as lecture classes but never met. Those classes were frequently a favorite of athletes.
Willingham provided no documentation to back up her assertions, but previous reporting from the News & Observer corroborates a culture of fraud at UNC that included athletes attending dozens of these “paper classes” – and other questionable classes that seemed designed to generate an easy pass.
Even more troubling: Some athletes told Willingham they had never read a book or written a paragraph.
That detail illustrates the shift we hope the Martin investigation will take. Martin, who was appointed last month by departing chancellor Holden Thorp, is tasked with examining the depth and details of UNC’s academic fraud. He also should examine the true cause of the problem: a school that recruited athletes ill-equipped for college learning before failing them further by helping them cheat to get on the field.
All of which surely happens at dozens, if not hundreds, of NCAA schools that choose to trade integrity for the glory and dollars their sports teams can bring. But this is a University of North Carolina investigation, and school leaders and alumni must ask themselves some difficult questions about the athletes they cheer for so passionately.
Here’s a start: It’s true that college can give them an academic opportunity they couldn’t find elsewhere. But if a school like UNC admits athletes clearly incapable of succeeding academically, then emphasizes playing time over learning, who benefits besides the school and its sports fans?
University presidents and conference commissioners have begun to take measures to address that question, including banning some teams from postseason play for poor academic progress and agreeing to include academic performance as part of the calculation for distributing football revenue. UNC is belatedly doing some of the right things on this issue, too, including separating the academic support program from the athletic department last month.
Martin and UNC leaders have an opportunity to do something even better – explore guidelines for admitting athletes and ensuring they get a real education. Idyllic as it might sound, a school’s mission should be to help athletes learn first, not play.
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