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The real disgrace at UNC Chapel Hill

By Jay M. Smith
Special to the Observer

After months of uncertainty, the accrediting agency Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) has informed UNC Chapel Hill that the university’s efforts to “make whole” degrees earned with fraudulent credit hours in the department of African and Afro-American studies will be monitored throughout 2013-14. Thankfully, accreditation is not in jeopardy, which is good news for UNC and for the entire state.

The implications of the SACS decision are nonetheless grave. What many suspected has now been confirmed. A small but significant subset of courses offered between 1997 and 2009 was fraudulent. As a result, hundreds of UNC degrees are tainted, their value officially disputed by an accrediting agency. That a “public ivy” could have allowed itself to grant degrees subject to such suspicions constitutes a black mark on its reputation that may never fade.

But as bad as the fake courses are, the greater disgrace has been the university’s public relations strategy for dealing with the exposed fakery. That strategy in a nutshell: to insist that two individuals were solely responsible for what was, in fact, a massive institutional failure.

Last fall the university hired a PR coach to help it mold public perception about its simmering scandal. The main pointer was to have UNC officials shout “it’s time to move on,” but the consultant’s expensive advice hardly seems to have been necessary. Administrators had already shown admirable discipline in repeating stock rhetoric about “thorough” reviews, “multiple” reforms, motives for fraud that “we may never know,” and especially, a situation that certainly was “not an athletics scandal.”

Traces of this year-long propaganda strategy are fully evident in Chancellor Holden Thorp’s reaction to the SACS announcement. Thorp last week repeated what UNC administrators have been claiming for more than a year, namely, that the issues that prompted the SACS inquiry had been caused by “the unprofessional and unethical actions of two former department employees.” He referred, of course, to former AFRI/AFAM department chair Julius Nyang’oro and his administrative assistant Deborah Crowder.

This basic institutional message was not able to save the university from the latest SACS embarrassment. But that was never really the point. By claiming that two academic officials masterminded the whole scheme, the university sought to protect what it evidently values more highly than truth, candor, or academic reputation: its athletics program. UNC was willing to craft a perception of “isolated” fraud if it could thereby avoid having to divulge and explain the morally ambiguous and frequently unethical practices that are part and parcel of its athletics operation.

The university has bent over backwards recently to proclaim the purity of all other members of the department of AFRI/AFAM – as well it should. But these pronouncements need to be understood for what they are: penitential acts to assuage guilt over the construction of a diversionary story about two mysteriously corrupt individuals. The rest of the university’s PR strategy – sit on public information requests for as long as possible, stonewall to avoid answering other critical questions, and deny, deny, deny that athletics had a thing to do with it – betrayed every principle of public accountability, often embarrassingly so. But it almost has the university home free.

Fortunately, university records contain the truth – the truth about admissions practices, the corners cut for the revenue sports, the insular world of “academic support” for athletes, counselors’ active search for “friendly faculty,” their construction of easy-but-laughably-incoherent programs of study for the under-prepared and the uninterested, the diffuse responsibility for UNC’s longtime gaming of the system, and the generic form of educational fraud that is perpetrated on some athletes every year.

Sure as the sun’s setting in the west, these records will put the lie to UNC’s official “two crazy rogues” narrative. And when they do, let us all hope that the university will seize the opportunity to write a final, redeeming chapter about athletics reform before it closes the book on one of the most unseemly episodes in the history of public higher education.

Jay M. Smith is a professor of history at UNC Chapel Hill.
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