Thursday, October 23, 2014

How to atone for academic scandal

It's disappointing and embarrassing. We are beyond shock now after years of embarrassing revelations about athletics scandals at the University of North Carolina.

Blame it on hubris. Blame it on ambition. Blame it on misplaced values. Wherever you place blame, it is deeply embarrassing to the university.

Easy classes with generous grading curves — what some have called "student-friendly classes" — have been around for generations and are present at virtually every university, college and high school. I heard about them when I was a student at UNC 45 years ago, and I was not above taking some courses because of their reputations for minimal work and favorable grading.

But what the Wainstein report revealed goes far, far beyond that universal appeal of classes students could "slide" through. Some members of the academic and support staff deliberately created classes that were designed to ensure athletes maintained their academic eligibility. Academic fraud was committed. The university's good name was trampled in the rush for athletic prowess. Some student athletes were denied a quality education, which many cared little about, in the effort to keep them on track for their true ambition to be stars in professional leagues.

UNC's misplaced values are painfully apparent in the push for more seats in the once-charming and bucolic football stadium. First came lights for night games that television favored. Then came the expansion of the stadium, enclosing the west end of the stadium to form a horseshoe with luxurious coaches' offices and fine training facilities and academic tutoring space. Even that was not enough, and the university raised money to tear down the landmark field house (which dated to the stadium's origins in the 1920s) at the east end of the stadium and build luxury booths, the "Blue Zone," behind the end zone.

UNC also expanded its recruiting in an effort to be a national football power. Enrollment standards had to be relaxed. Exceptions had to be made, and students who were not prepared for college-level work had to be tutored and assisted and remediated and academically coddled in order to stay on the field. Some believed, perhaps rightly, that these athletes couldn't make it without even greater efforts, such as classes that never met and grades that never fell below a B for even minimal effort or plagiarized papers.

How will UNC atone for this embarrassment? Chancellor Carol Folt seems to be on the right track with a new commitment to transparency, a pledge to fire or discipline those most involved in this scandal and an apology to students and alumni. But real atonement must come from a willingness to scale back the athletics empire. Strip athletics from its control of athletic tutoring. Put an end to admissions exceptions for athletes. Raise academic standards for admission. If necessary, drop out of the Atlantic Coast Conference, which has grown into monster with national ambitions and no standards. Fifty years ago, the eight-member ACC held athletes to high standards — an 800 minimum (out of 1600) on the SAT that exceeded NCAA standards. 

Standards: That's what Carolina needs again, and so do all colleges.

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