TOPICS > Education

Why did no one flag UNC’s bogus classes?

October 23, 2014 at 6:25 PM EDT
For more than 18 years, thousands of students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took credit courses that never met as a class with a professor; a disproportionate number of the students in those classes were athletes. Gwen Ifill talks to former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein about the investigation that unearthed the fraud and why it lasted so long.
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GWEN IFILL: For many years, the University of North Carolina has been a powerhouse in the world of college sports, enhanced by a reputation as an institution which cultivates student athletes.

But, yesterday, an independent investigator provided the most detailed look yet at academic fraud that lasted for nearly two decades and included bogus classes where students didn’t even need to show up.

Earlier this year, the HBO program Real Sports examined what was happening there.

Here’s an excerpt.

The correspondent is Bernard Goldberg.

BERNARD GOLDBERG, HBO Real Sports: At the University of North Carolina, learning specialist Mary Willingham was baffled by what she was seeing from the athletes arriving at one of America’s most prestigious schools.

MARY WILLINGHAM: They’re coming in with reading levels of fourth, fifth, sixth grade. There’s even some who are reading below a fourth grade level.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: You are saying that some kids who are admitted to the University of North Carolina, one of the best public colleges in America, with a fourth grade or even in some cases lower than a fourth grade reading level?

MARY WILLINGHAM: That’s correct. Makes it pretty hard to go to college, doesn’t it?

BERNARD GOLDBERG: You would think. And for many years, the NCAA had a rule to help ensure incoming athletes could handle college work, requiring them to score a certain level on standardized tests, like the SAT or the ACT.

But in 2003, that rule was revoked. Colleges could now put athletes on the football field or basketball court no matter how they did on the tests. And, soon, the term college education began to take on a whole new meaning.

MARY WILLINGHAM: I worked with letters and sounds with some basketball players and some football players.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: Give me a demonstration, letters and sounds.

MARY WILLINGHAM: So I start to just show you cards, like a deck of cards, and I hold up C, and I say to you, Bernie, what is this letter? And you say?

BERNARD GOLDBERG: C.

MARY WILLINGHAM: And I say, what sounds does the letter C make, and you say?

BERNARD GOLDBERG: Either kuh or suh.

MARY WILLINGHAM: And let’s move on.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: But the kid’s in college.

MARY WILLINGHAM: One particular player said to me, please teach me to read well enough, Mary, so that I can read about myself online.

How about this — this letter?

BERNARD GOLDBERG: Teaching phonics to college students may sound absurd, but at UNC and many other big-time sports schools, it was suddenly very important business, because the NCAA’s new policy that eliminated minimum SAT and ACT scores for athletes came with a catch. Roughly half the athletes on each team would have to graduate, or the schools wouldn’t be allowed to compete in the postseason, and would lose out on millions.

That’s one of the reasons, Mary Willingham says, big-time athletes at UNC were funneled into custom-made no-show classes they couldn’t possibly fail.

MARY WILLINGHAM: They would just have to turn in a paper at the end of the semester. There was no class.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: When you say no class, you mean no class?

MARY WILLINGHAM: No class.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: They didn’t ever go to class?

MARY WILLINGHAM: They never went to close.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: So, they never took a test.

MARY WILLINGHAM: They never took a test.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: They wrote a paper.

MARY WILLINGHAM: Not really wrote a paper, but maybe copy and pasted a paper from a book or from an Internet site.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: This is a bad joke, what you are describing.

MARY WILLINGHAM: It was a horrible joke. No learning took place.

MIKE MCADOO: I was like, hold up, you know, I got a class. I’m getting credited three hours, and I never have to go.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: That’s not all that surprised Mike McAdoo when he arrived at UNC to play football.

MIKE MCADOO: When I got there, they already had what we were going to major in.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: But you’re not suggesting, Michael, that somebody handed you a piece of paper and said, here are your classes?

MIKE MCADOO: That’s what happened.

GWEN IFILL: Former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein led the investigation that unearthed the new details. He’s a partner at the firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. I spoke with him from Chapel Hill earlier today.

Kenneth Wainstein, thanks for joining us.

Could you, first of all, start by describing the scope of the fraud in years, numbers of students and types of students involved?

KENNETH WAINSTEIN, Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft: Well, what we found in our investigation is this is a scheme that went back to 1993, from 1993 to 2011.

There were about 3,100 students that took the paper classes. And the paper classes were classes which, though many of them were designated as lecture classes, they never actually met for lectures. The students never met with a professor. There were no professors or faculty members involved.

And the class was completely managed by the office administrator, and the office administrator did the grading. Of the kids who took those classes, a little over 50 percent, about 51 percent of them were non-athlete students, so regular students. But a good 48, 49 percent of them were student athletes, which is striking, given that only 4 percent of the student body were student athletes.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s start by explaining just the student athlete piece of this. Was this designed to help them remain eligible to keep playing on Tar Heel teams?

KENNETH WAINSTEIN: Yes, it’s an interesting question. This is one thing we have looked very carefully at. Why did these classes get established and why were they maintained?

We found that really they were established by the office administrator in the African Studies Department. She did it because she — frankly, she had had a tough experience as a student here in Chapel Hill, felt that she wasn’t supported, and felt that she wanted to do something to help kids who had troubles, who were having difficulty getting through their curriculum.

So she is the one who set up these classes, made them available to students and student athletes and non-student athletes. And then you had a number of counselors who were the counselors for the student athletes who saw these classes, and saw them as an opportunity to boost the GPAs of their players and maintain their eligibility to play NCAA sports.

GWEN IFILL: Describe what you mean by paper classes, bogus classes. We keep hearing the term shadow curriculum. How did that work specifically?

KENNETH WAINSTEIN: Yes, another important part of our investigation was to find out what these classes really were.

And what we determined is that these were classes where the office administrator in the African Studies Department would sign kids up for a class, sometimes designated as a lecture class, but the class would never meet. The student wouldn’t have any work that he or she would have to do, other than a single paper that would have to be turned in at the end of the year. That paper would get turned in, but it wouldn’t get graded by a faculty member.

It would get graded by the office administrator, really the secretary of the African Studies Department. And she would basically give an A or a B-plus to any paper that got turned in, no matter how good it was. And we saw some which were very strong papers, kids did a lot of work, others which were terribly subpar and really were just filled with copied material, which meant that a kid got a high grade for a three-hour class for doing nothing more than just turning in a paper that had a bunch of copied material in it.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Wainstein, we have been hearing about this scandal at UNC for some years now. But it’s kind of shocking how long it went on. How was it allowed to go on for so long?

KENNETH WAINSTEIN: Well, that’s another part of our investigation I think that has really caught people’s attention, which is, here you have a university which really is one of the finest universities, always has been and is now one of the finest universities in the country, and is one that is completely committed to the highest ideals and standards of academia.

And the question is, how in the world could this go on for so long, about 19 years, in a school like that? And what we found is that there just simply wasn’t the oversight that was needed. You had a university that I think was populated by people who were high-caliber academicians and administrators who trusted each other to be — to do the right thing by the students. And the vast majority of people did.

And, you know, they — so they didn’t think that they really needed to look. There was a bit of a blind spot there. And in addition, I think you saw this attitude that if we have too much micromanagement, maybe that’s going to undercut the independence and the creativity of the professors and of the academics.

And so, because of both those reasons, they just didn’t have a tradition of having strict oversight. And, as a result, you had a department and this office administrator and her department chairmen who were able to carry this on for all those years. And it just wasn’t detected at the higher levels of the administration.

And I can tell you that that has been changed over the last few years. The university has put those oversight mechanisms in place, so this can’t happen again.

GWEN IFILL: You mention a bit of a blind spot. Along the way, did any of the sports coaches or any of the professors object? Did they raise the red flag?

KENNETH WAINSTEIN: Well, you had limited knowledge around the university of exactly what these classes were.

You had a lot of people who knew that these were easy classes, that you didn’t actually have to show up to class. They were being taught as an independent study. But you had only a limited number of people who really knew that these classes, you know, didn’t involve a professor at all. So you had no faculty member, and that they were absolutely being run and the papers were being graded by an office administrator.

But of those people who did know about that, a number of them were counselors over in the athletics — in the program that provides academic advising to athletes. And they didn’t raise their hand. They didn’t say that these problems existed. And, in fact, they took advantage of them.

GWEN IFILL: And, finally, UNC is not alone in this. A lot of universities have been implicated in these kinds of questionable activities.

And it makes you wonder if the term student athlete is a little bit backyard at this point.

KENNETH WAINSTEIN: Well, there have been other schools that have had some problems. And those have been reported, and the NCAA has dealt with some of them over the years.

And I think if there is one positive outcome to this whole episode, and I think there will be several, but one of them is, I think any university around the country that reads this is probably going to step back and think, boy, we better go look and see whether there is something like this here.

That look-back didn’t happen with UNC. And they regret that greatly, because had they looked back, looked in their own — on their own campus to see whether this kind of problem existed, they would have found it and hopefully would have prevented a bunch of kids getting deficient educations for a number of years.

GWEN IFILL: Kenneth Wainstein, thank you for your investigation and your report.

KENNETH WAINSTEIN: Thank you very much. Good to talk to you.

GWEN IFILL: University administrators say they have already started taking several steps to make sure similar abuses don’t happen again. That includes spot checks to make sure classes are indeed taking place, real reviews of an athlete’s eligibility, and the creation of confidential channels, so employees can report potential problems.

Nine employees have been fired or disciplined so far.

This story and PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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