By Paul M. Barrett January 02, 2014
The recent criminal indictment of an African American studies scholar at the University of North Carolina sheds dismaying light on how big-time college sports corrupt academics. This scandal, unfolding since 2011, has the potential to destroy a vaunted football program at a prestigious public university.
North Carolina is a modestly above average football program, having gone to a bowl game six times in the last ten years. (The Tar Heels have traditionally been a famous basketball program instead -- Michael Jordan, for example, was a Tarheel.) What do you think happens at really good football colleges?
The impact could be—and ought to be—far broader than that of the Penn State child-rape debacle.
Don't bet on it. Mr. Barrett should review his Journalism 101 notes on the distinction between Man-Bites-Dog and Dog-Bites-Man stories.
That’s because the deceit in Chapel Hill points to more systemic weaknesses than the failure in University Park to stop one monster coach who preyed on little boys. And the Tar Heels fiasco adds race to the toxic mixture of athletics and rank hypocrisy.
Last month a grand jury in Orange County, N.C., indicted Julius Nyang’oro for defrauding UNC by accepting payment for teaching a no-show course on “blacks in North Carolina.” The 19 students in AFAM 280 were current or former members of the Tar Heels football team, allegedly steered to the phantom class by academic advisers who sought to help elite athletes maintain high enough grades to remain eligible for competition. AFAM 280 was one of dozens of courses offered by North Carolina’s African & Afro-American Studies Department, formerly chaired by Nyang’oro, that never actually met, according to investigators. Known for rigorous academics, North Carolina allegedly operated a Potemkin department since the late 1990s. ...
Back when Rice U. was mediocre at football despite being the smallest Division I school, it had a Commerce department whose courses were restricted to scholarship athletes. Then, the the school got rid of the mysterious football players' department and the team got really bad, winning just 7 games during my 4 years at Rice.
The scope of the apparent wrongdoing defies belief.
One investigation by a former governor of North Carolina, James Martin, found that as many as 560 unauthorized grade changes were made, often with forged faculty signatures. Nyang’oro, a native of Tanzania who ran the Afro-American department for 20 years, even though he frequently spent extended periods of time overseas, has refused so far to explain himself publicly. His criminal defense lawyer says the disgraced professor didn’t violate the law and is being used as a scapegoat.
The notion that Nyang’oro was defrauding the university for the last 20 years by doing things like not holding classes for some of the most talked about (and largest) individuals on campus sounds funny enough to make the "scapegoat" charge highly plausible.
... The university’s provost, James Dean Jr., told the Times that UNC couldn’t have anticipated or detected Nyang’oro’s 14-year-long reign of fraud. “Universities for a very long time have been based on trust,” the provost said. “One of the ramifications of this is that now we can no longer operate on trust.”
That’s laughable. I predict that further investigation will reveal that the fraud reached deep into the Tar Heel athletic hierarchy and that senior academic officials will also turn out to have been at least aware of improprieties. Now that he’s been indicted, Nyang’oro has an incentive to tell prosecutors who knew what he was doing and who encouraged him to do it. ...
• Implicit racism colors this entire episode. One of the most horrifying aspects of the exploitation of high-level college athletes, especially football and basketball players, is the vastly disproportionate impact on African American “students.” Too many black athletes with unrealistic dreams of NBA or NFL stardom arrive on campus unprepared academically and are allowed to depart with little meaningful classroom education.
Walter Byers, the first executive director of the NCAA and now a critic of its practices, has described the “plantation mentality resurrected and blessed by today’s campus executives”—painful words, carefully chosen. Would UNC have tolerated the thorough undermining of an entire academic department other than Afro-American studies? Hard to picture. Could Nyang’oro and those who presumably aided and abetted him have come up with course titles any more likely to please skeptics of black-oriented scholarship?
The first three classes confirmed to have been fraudulent, according to the News & Observer, pretended to offer students training in the Swahili language. An old-time Carolina Klan member couldn’t have conjured that detail in his most virulent daydream.
I knew a black kid who was an amazingly bad high school student. He couldn't sit still in class -- he'd be up on top of his desk dancing. But as a cornerback, when the opposing team was marching down the field for the winning touchdown and the defense was crumbling into chaos, he'd become the calmest individual on the field, locked in on the quarterback's eyes and stepping in for game-saving interceptions. He got a "scholarship" to some HBC like Alabama A&M, which seemed nice.
But Alabama A&M doesn't have a lot of rich alumni desperate for cornerbacks, so larger versions of this kid are constantly being recruited to state flagship universities.