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Karen Hitchcock: Big-Time College Sports - Does our Current Student-Athlete Model Work?

 Just last week, an eight month- long investigation of academic fraud involving student- athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of our nation’s most prestigious public universities, was released. This investigation, led by Kenneth L. Wainstein, a longtime official at the U.S. Justice Department, revealed a well-orchestrated, long-standing and widespread corruption of the academic program at Chapel Hill. In brief, the Wainstein Report described a “shadow curriculum” that had been developed by  the departmental manager and the chair of the African and Afro-American Studies department to ensure the academic success of “at risk” student – athletes.

During the investigation, Wainstein’s team uncovered a Power Point presented by Athletic Department Academic counselors to a group of football coaches expressing their deep concern at the impending retirement of the department manager who had created these sham “paper courses.” In this Power Point, the courses were described as requiring no class attendance. They stated that students didn’t have to take notes, meet with professors, pay attention or “necessarily engage with the material” or even stay awake.  The grade in the course was based on the submission of a 20-25 page paper which, if it simply met this length – not quality, but length – requirement, would usually receive an “A” or a “B”, whether or not the paper contained plagiarized material. Indeed, athletic department academic advisors often requested particular grades which would ensure the student-athletes’ eligibility. One of the most ironic – indeed, egregious -  examples of this is a faculty member serving as an academic counselor for women’s basketball who stated in an email to the African and Afro-American Studies department manager that, quote, “ Yes, a D will be fine; that’s all she needs.” She goes on to say: “I didn’t look at the paper but figured it was a recycled one as well, but I couldn’t figure from where!” The irony? This faculty member, Jeanette Boxill, is a former chair of the faculty and former Director of Chapel Hill’s Parr Center for Ethics. You couldn’t make this up!

Across the country, faculty and administrators at our institutions of higher education are asking how this could happen at a prestigious institution like Chapel Hill;  let alone how it could have gone on for over 15 years without detection. And, it must be pointed out that these “paper courses” were open to athletes and non-athletes alike, though athletes were disproportionately represented in the classes. As the Wainstein investigation reveals, many members of the Chapel Hill community – faculty, administrators, athletic department members -  were aware of this ongoing academic fraud. As stated in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, “[The] academic- fraud scandal at [Chapel Hill] took root under a departmental secretary and die-hard Tar Heels fan, who was egged on by athletic advisors to create no-show classes that would keep underprepared and unmotivated players eligible for play. Over nearly two decades, professors, coaches, and administrators either participated in the scheme or overlooked it, undercutting the core values of one of the nation’s premier public universities.”

This is certainly not the first instance of academic fraud surrounding big-time athletics; nor do I think it will be the last, given the reluctance of many of our higher education leaders to truly engage the underlying issues. I was saddened to read that one of our most respected academic leaders, Hunter R. Rawlings, III, president of the Association of American Universities, had opined that the reason that such “scandals keep coming … is that it’s so tempting to build a great athletic program, and sometimes corners are cut.”  “Corners are cut.” Certainly the sacrifice of an educational institution’s academic integrity and the long-term damages such practices do to the students involved deserve a description more fitting than “… sometimes corners are cut.” As reported in the Chronicle, Mr. Rawlings went on to say that “If there is a concrete lesson that the Chapel Hill case provides, it is that universities need to be far more proactive in monitoring classes where large numbers of athletes cluster.” “This seems to me,” he went on, “to be a no-brainer.”

I would respectfully submit that Mr. Rawlings is asking higher education leaders to treat the symptoms, not the disease. Unless we get at the root cause of the many instances of academic fraud related to big-time sports, such scandals will, indeed “keep coming.” I feel strongly that we need to address the fundamental question of whether the current student-athlete model, especially for football and basketball, can work without negatively affecting the integrity of our core academic mission. As opposed to the “farm team” model used in baseball, with few exceptions, talented young athletes who wish to play football or basketball professionally, must first enroll at a university, whether or not they are qualified for admission. As long as this model prevails, we risk the integrity of both our admissions process and our academic mission. Other models are possible and need to be seriously examined – hybrid models which can accommodate both qualified, enrolled student-athletes, as well as young people engaged solely for their athletic abilities. We need, I would submit, to consider changing the paradigm if we are to preserve the integrity of both our academic and athletic programs. It can be done, but it will demand that we stop addressing every new athletics-related scandal as an unfortunate, isolated instance; that we stop treating the “symptoms” and begin a serious, in depth analysis of the very model itself.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.


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