Over nearly 20 years leading up to 2012, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill boasted a top 30 national ranking in US News and World Report, graduated nearly two dozen Rhodes scholars, and proudly wore the name of the state's flagship university.
The school also won multiple national championships in men's basketball, conference and individual championships across its 28 varsity sports, and continually finished near the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference in graduation rates and academic honors.
In the past five years, UNC has admitted that during that same period over 3,100 students, mostly athletes, were directed by advisers to take "paper classes", which never met and required only a single paper to pass. Chancellor Carol Folt told the trustees of the university the administration had failed students for years from their lack of oversight in the situation. The school was placed on academic probation by its accrediting body in 2014 while the NCAA gathered evidence to make claims against the university.
Today at 10:00 AM, the NCAA announced that it "could not conclude academic violations" after nearly five years of deliberation, testimony, rulings, and appeals. They found that since classes were open to more than student-athletes, no proof was available that classes had been administered solely for athletes, and therefore the NCAA had no power to punish UNC for its violations.
The above three paragraphs contain only facts, and now I intend to shift to my own personal opinions and experiences. They do not necessarily reflect those of the Blogger So Dear staff.
I lived in North Carolina for all but a couple years while this academic fraud was happening. I went to public elementary, middle, and high schools in Winston-Salem before attending Wake Forest and graduating in 2010. I remember the 2005 and 2009 UNC basketball championships vividly. One thing I always said, no matter how petty my personal, tribalistic hatred of UNC athletics was, UNC was an excellent school.
In fact, had I not been accepted at Wake, I certainly would have applied to attend UNC. Many high school friends, talented and bright individuals who could have gone to any number of excellent universities chose UNC for its mixture of academics, athletics, and life in North Carolina. I even know graduates of the African American studies program where the academic scandal centered, friends about whose integrity and abilities I have no doubt. And at a human level, athletes and students are assuredly not to blame for the fraud at UNC.
Fingers should be pointed in two distinct directions instead: one directly at the University of North Carolina, and another at the NCAA. After the university admitted its role in the academic scandal in 2014, it appealed findings challenging the grounds the NCAA had to punish it. Rather than self-imposing sanctions, and in the face of their own admissions of wrongdoing, UNC trekked on recruiting, fundraising, spending $18 million of taxpayer money litigating, and eventually winning another NCAA championship.
I was once proud North Carolina could boast so many excellent academic institutions in addition to its historical power in athletics. UNC has lost my respect and should lose the respect of her peers in the ACC and the taxpaying public.
As for the NCAA, it has its hands full around the clock policing academic and athletic scandals and handing down punishments. Those punishments have been handed out unevenly and unjustly since the NCAA was formed. They frequently punish students and athletes for the crimes perpetrated by the men and women charged with protecting their best interests. They often overlook or underpunish scandals at large universities that would damage their greater brand in favor of punishing smaller schools.
In this particular case, the NCAA uses its common terminology of "improper benefits" to describe the paper classes and the grades students received from them. These classes were not benefits to students that took them. UNC admitted it failed its students, admitted that academic advisers funneled athletes into fake classes, confirmed independent proof that a cover-up took place, and the NCAA still found no way to punish the school for its actions. It should come as no surprise, though. This is the logical conclusion of the perverse set of incentives the NCAA has set up for colleges and universities in an arms race for athletic success.
Athletic success begets money, which begets more athletic success. It does not, as this scandal shows, necessarily mean the best academic interests of students. Indeed that is the purpose of the university, to educate young people and prepare them for the world. Of the 3,100 athletes and students who took sham classes, less than 5% are employed professionally in sports today. That of itself is not a failure of the university, it's a necessary feature of professional sports. It is also why the charge of the NCAA is first and foremost to educate students and oversee the administration of college athletics second.
Today shows how far a school can go to chase that success without breaking any rules the NCAA can enforce. Choices remain for universities and fans alike. Many will see today as a tacit endorsement from a multi-billion dollar industry that cutting corners is acceptable.
I hope for as long as I live and support Wake Forest University that education remains the most important part of a student's time at school. I hope fans of other schools feel the same way. I hope fans of UNC do as well, as soon as they’re done celebrating today.