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Opinion: NCAA gave UNC 'Get Out of Jail Free' card in cheating scandal

Last month, a controversial decision came down from the National Collegiate Athletic Association on the fake independent study classes offered by the University of North Carolina for two decades. There were no instructors in the classes and barely any work. The courses, which any student could take, appear to have begun as way to help UNC-Chapel Hill athletes maintain eligibility.

Although the scandal was considered one of the worst ever in college sports, no one will be sanctioned by the NCAA.

As Inside Higher Ed reported:

After a three-and-half-year investigation, and despite the institution even agreeing that it had engaged in academic fraud, the NCAA said it couldn’t definitively conclude that the “paper courses” in the department of African and Afro-American studies had been designed and offered as an effort to benefit athletes alone. Thus, according to the NCAA's Committee on Infractions, which adjudicates allegations of wrongdoing, the courses did not violate the group's rules.

The university aggressively fought the NCAA's efforts to assert its authority in this case, spending roughly $18 million on legal and other fees. The NCAA's enforcement division, which essentially acts as the prosecutor in infractions cases, had charged North Carolina with "lack of institutional control" and "failure to monitor" its athletes' academic courses, among the most serious charges in the associations' rule book. But the infractions committee said it could not reach those findings because it did not have evidence to prove the underlying charges of awarding "extra benefits" to athletes.

Here is the reaction of Rick DIguette, a local writer who has been a college instructor.

By Rick Diguette

A couple of weeks ago the NCAA’s Division I Committee on Infractions gave the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill the ultimate “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

The principal allegation in the case against UNC-Chapel Hill was that to maintain athletic eligibility, student athletes enrolled in fraudulent classes, aka “paper courses,” requiring them to do virtually nothing to earn academic credit. The NCAA’s Division I Committee on Infractions justified its ruling, however, by finding that because non-athletes comprised 52.4 percent of these students, the wrongdoing clearly fell outside its jurisdiction and therefore the athletic program could not be sanctioned.

In other words, “Poof!”

The ruling surprised almost everyone following this case, including everyone now teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill; every UNC-Chapel Hill administrator, student, and staff member, including the guys who cut the grass, trim hedges, and spend endless hours noisily blowing things around; every resident of Chapel Hill; every resident of North Carolina; and almost every resident of every other state in the country with any interest in college athletics.

The only people not surprised by the ruling were members of the NCAA’s Division I Committee on Infractions and its management --  Joel McGormley (Managing Director), Ship Cooper (Director), Jim Ellsworth, Matt Mikrut, Heather McVeigh and Ken Kleppe (Associate Directors), and Evelyn Gross and Cindy McKinney (Assistant Coordinators). If you, like me, find this ruling difficult to fathom and/or stomach, feel free to contact the NCAA leadership.

Carol Folt, Chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill, called the ruling a “correct—and fair—outcome.” Feel free to contact her as well.

It is safe to assume the non-athletes enrolled in these fraudulent classes learned about their existence from (1) student athletes, (2) friends of student athletes, (3) friends of friends of student athletes, (4) friends of friends of friends of student athletes, (5) unscrupulous academic advisors, (6) unscrupulous professors, (7) unscrupulous academic department secretaries, (8) other unscrupulous people on the payroll at UNC-Chapel Hill, or (9), the guy dressed from head to toe in Carolina blue who walks around the UNC-Chapel Hill campus advertising fraudulent classes with a bullhorn.

The fact that only about 3,100 students at UNC-Chapel Hill signed up for these fraudulent classes over the past 20 years is either something of a miracle or, as I would prefer to think, a testament to the character of the UNC-Chapel Hill student body. When given an opportunity to cheat, to get something for nothing, they declined the offer and soldiered on.

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe the existence of these classes was kept so quiet, so on the down low, that only students who look to cheat 24/7 found out about them.

In any event, what is likely to happen now that the NCAA’s Division I Committee on Infractions has effectively whitewashed 20 years of academic fraud at UNC-Chapel Hill?  How will other Division I schools react?

I’m betting the memo has already been circulated at every one of those schools and what it says, in so many words, is that fraudulent classes are OK just as long as 50.1 percent of the students enrolled in those classes are non-athletes.

Or in other words, “Game, set, match.”




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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.