Smith: Martin’s retraction and why it matters

Jan. 28, 2013 @ 11:38 PM

For a solid month Jim Martin’s report on UNC’s “academic anomalies” has caused much hand-wringing among UNC faculty. 

When the former governor asserted that the Faculty Athletics Committee (FAC) had soft-pedaled concerns raised by athletics officials in 2002 and 2006, he effectively laid the blame for the UNC athletic-academic scandal at the feet of the faculty.  Out of a misguided desire to protect academic freedom, he claimed, representatives of the faculty had defended the right of instructors to offer courses in any conceivable format — even including the no-show and little-work format.

Worried athletics officials, we were told, acted responsibly on this guidance from an elected faculty committee: They had informed the staff of the academic support center for student athletes (ASPSA) that any course offered by a UNC faculty member was above reproach, and that UNC teaching practices should never be questioned.  

Yet now we learn the evidence for Martin’s assertions is non-existent.  Faculty who actually served on the FAC in 2002 and 2006 had already disputed the Martin narrative and were formalizing an explicit dissent from his report; they had cited meeting minutes that reflected no discussion whatsoever of teaching tactics or unorthodox course formats. 

At a meeting of a BOG subcommittee last week, Raina Rose Tagle, a representative of the accounting firm that assisted Martin, belatedly “clarified” Martin’s claims by noting that athletics officials had broached the topic of unorthodox teaching only by asking “a question...sort of offline”—that is, somewhere beyond the purview of the FAC.  Tagle acknowledged that Martin’s central finding about FAC negligence — a finding so central that it is discussed four times in his text — should be “removed from the report.”

Some will be inclined to skip right over this seemingly minor and off-hand “correction” to the Martin report — including BOG member Louis Bissette, who has denied that the change disqualifies the report “in any way.”  But the importance of this event cannot be overstated.  The validity of Martin’s interpretation of UNC’s troubles as “not an athletics scandal” hinged on the anecdote about the FAC; the discrediting of that anecdote undermines the interpretive thrust of the entire report.

The leaders of ASPSA made the claims they made to Martin for one basic reason: they hoped to deflect critical attention away from the support program itself.  Academic counselors had the authority, until very recently, to register athletes for their semester course schedules.  Those counselors, Martin acknowledges, directed athletes to take the courses offered through the good graces of Julius Nyang’oro and Deborah Crowder.  Those counselors, we have every reason to believe, struggled to find courses that under-prepared or under-motivated athletes could pass without too much difficulty.  Crowder and Nyang’oro, it is well established, had close ties to personnel in the ASPSA.

Now, with the retraction of the claim about the FAC, we also know this: The only officials on the UNC campus who were clearly in the know about the “paper course” scam, other than Crowder and Nyang’oro themselves, were staff and administrators in the athletics complex.  And far from raising any “red flags,” far from approaching the suspect courses with caution, the personnel from ASPSA eagerly exploited the availability of free credits and GPA-boosting courses. 

Like bees to honey, athletes swarmed to these courses in such numbers that they accounted for 45 percent of the enrollments — even though athletes make up only about 4 percent of UNC’s undergraduates and no more than 16 percent of total enrollments in the department of African and Afro-American studies.  The fact that athletes also happened to cluster at high rates in other courses, which Martin and Tagle seem to want to interpret as a sign of the sheer randomness of the athletes’ presence in the fully bogus courses, is beside the point.  

How many of the 45 percent were revenue-sport athletes?  How many used paper courses as a lifeline to eligibility?  We may never know, since Martin and Tagle oddly decided that such questions were irrelevant to their information gathering. 

But one critical data point no longer needs to be teased out of the blizzard of quantitative evidence they have provided: the UNC officials whose students most benefited from the paper course scam labored hard to sell Jim Martin a false and misleading story about faculty negligence.  ASPSA complicity in academic fraud can no longer be plausibly denied.  “Not an athletics scandal” indeed.

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