Last weekend, I had a great time catching up with some friends at the CAMWS-Southern Section conference in Fredericksburg, Virginia. While our hotel itself was located in a commercial urban sprawl hellscape, some of the sessions were held at Mary Washington College. The Georgian red-brick campus reminded all of us of our days at UNC, where we had been grad students twenty years ago. In fact, I had been back to Chapel Hill this summer, after a long time away, and while it too has gotten over-developed, still I walked down Franklin Street in a sentimental haze, even stopping off to pick up a Carolina sweatshirt and some gifts for the boys.
I have to say, I haven’t felt much like wearing any of this swag this week. The release of the long-awaited Wainstein Report confirms in devastating detail the operation of a long-standing academic fraud at UNC. To quote the report (p. 3), Between 1993 and 2011, [secretary Debby] Crowder and [department chair Julius] Nyang’oro developed and ran a“shadow curriculum” within the AFAM Department that provided students with academically flawed instruction through the offering of “paper classes.” There was no attendance, no teaching, no syllabus, nothing– just a paper, with a grade given by Ms. Crowder; over 18 years, over 3,100 such grades were given.
Among the people implicated in this appalling scandal is a woman named Jan Boxill. The News and Observer had a piece on Wednesday (Oct. 22, 2014) about how she was directly involved in sending players’ work for the classes, even going so far as to suggest what grades they should receive. In a you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up detail, the N&O notes, Boxill is a senior lecturer in the philosophy department and was chair of the faculty from 2011 to earlier this year. She directs the university’s Parr Center for Ethics. She has written books on race and gender and sports ethics…
I must say, I was surprised to come across this because I worked for Jan Boxill back in the mid-90s, when she was in charge of the athletic tutoring center at UNC. The building was connected to the football stadium, and it large foyer served as a reception area before games for wealthy donors, a sort of upscale tailgate party area. Every other day of the week, the center was used for tutoring, and grad students like myself worked there for pretty good pay under Jan’s gruff leadership. While the facilities were excellent, the feel of the place was never especially academic. I suppose she was used to dealing with feckless ABD’s like myself, but I always thought Jan seemed more like a restaurant manager than a person involved in education.
It must be said that many of the athletes displayed an admirable dedication and focus–one of my charges at the time was Eddie Pope, a kicker for UNC’s football team and a starter for soccer, who would go on to a great career. Eddie was ready, always, for our tutoring session, his concentration complete on whatever I would tell him. He was a very tightly scheduled young man, and at the end of our hour together at the tutoring center, he would get up and leave, sometimes without even saying goodbye. Eddie is now in the National Soccer Hall of Fame, by the way.
In some fundamental way, however, the tutoring center was not as good as the student-athletes it served. Because I was a Latin tutor, Jan paid me little attention. Who the hell takes Latin, anyway? But I remember an incident that took place with an English grad student who was a friend of mine. One night as she was helping a young woman with a paper, a football player behind them was having trouble loading a dot-matrix printer. Jan was passing by and interrupted my friend and her student to say, “Give him a hand. She’s non-revenue.” That about sums it up, doesn’t it? The tutoring center at UNC was never really about education; it was about eligibility, which is to say, about revenue. The athletes were investments, and tutors were there to make sure the appropriate hoops were jumped through so they could get to the lucrative business of hoops and such. It makes sense that, eventually, the people running this show would find more efficient ways to minimize their exposure by assigning grades directly.
All of it reminds me of a scene from Horse Feathers, the Marx Brothers’ classic movie about college athletics. Groucho, as Quincy Adams Wagstaff, the newly-appointed President of Huxley College, has the following exchange with some of his academic staff:
Wagstaff: Where would this college be without football? Have we got a stadium?
The Professors: Yes.
Wagstaff: Have we got a college?
The Professors: Yes.
Wagstaff: Well, we can’t support both. Tomorrow we start tearing down the college.
The Professors: But Professor. Where will the students sleep?
Wagstaff: Where they always sleep. In the classroom.
Horse Feathers came out in 1932, but was based on a revue called Fun in Hi Skule that premiered in 1910, just a few years after Teddy Roosevelt founded the NCAA to “encourage reforms” in college football. Corruption and disgrace have always been part of the game. I can’t imagine UNC is alone in the shockingly duplicitous behavior that was revealed this week, but still it’s disappointing. The motto of the state that Carolina represents is esse quam videri, “to be rather than to seem.” I would have been happy to translate those words for the people in the tutoring center.