By Scott Coffina and Ginene A. Lewis

An independent investigation of the African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill suggests that this prestigious institution placed player eligibility above academic integrity for nearly 20 years. The report concludes that multiple actors, including department chairpersons, academic counselors, tutors, and members of the athletic department, colluded to enroll students and student-athletes in “paper classes,” which were not supervised by a faculty member, entailed no class attendance and required only the submission of a single research paper. These classes were particularly attractive to UNC’s Academic Support Program for Student Athletes (ASPSA), a group funded by the university’s athletic department and charged with assisting student-athletes to attain the requisite GPA to maintain NCAA player eligibility. With the help of a non-faculty member of the AFAM Department who served as the course instructor, more than 3,100 students at the university — many of them athletes — received one or more semesters of deficient educational instruction and were awarded high grades that often had little relationship to the quality of their work.

While UNC now faces the specter of NCAA sanctions and grave reputational harm to both its academic and athletic programs, administrators at other institutions must be concerned with their own school’s adherence to academic standards and expectations. The incentives and organizational dynamics that allowed UNC’s academic improprieties to continue for nearly two decades are not unique to the Tar Heels’ campus and may very well plague other institutions. Indeed, the recent academic probe at the University of Notre Dame that resulted in the suspension — and in some instances, the ultimate dismissal — of several student-athletes on the football team further suggests that no institution is immune to academic dishonesty among students and faculty alike. The UNC report by outside counsel provides insight into how administrators can develop and/or assess the proper controls to detect and deter this type of academic wrongdoing.

1. Conduct Meaningful Oversight of Curriculum and Faculty.

An initial step toward detecting and deterring academic fraud is to utilize oversight mechanisms that assess curricula and faculty. Investigators attributed the longevity of UNC’s academic misconduct to a “woeful lack of oversight” of the AFAM Department. According to the report, an embedded culture that valued academic independence and, in addition, a hands-off management approach prevented the university from detecting the type of academic misconduct that existed in this particular department. Academic independence is a premium value at colleges and universities; rightly so. Nevertheless, schools must be willing to grapple with the issue to ensure course offerings have sufficient academic value. This may be done by conducting periodic assessments of courses, including identifying classes to which struggling students and student-athletes tend to gravitate, and evaluating the instructor’s course requirements and approach to teaching and grading. “Independent study” classes — a significant culprit in the UNC matter — should be carefully scrutinized for their academic value.

Meaningful oversight also demands a bit of self-awareness. Institutions with top-flight, revenue-producing athletic programs that have student-athletes who tend to struggle academically should be especially vigilant about the quality of their courses. Before ever reaching the “red flags” that UNC reportedly missed about academic misconduct in AFAM, a school should recognize its vulnerability to this problem, particularly with programs for which there is tremendous pressure to succeed on the field or on the court.

2. Reinforce the Independence of Academic Support Programs From Athletic Departments.

Colleges and universities must also ensure that academic support programs for student-athletes are able to operate independently of athletic departments. While a student-athlete’s success is often dependent upon the collaborative efforts of the academic and athletic departments, this synergy can be problematic where both components are not equally empowered to fulfill their designated roles. The UNC report found that, while ASPSA was structurally organized and managed by the Office of Undergraduate Education, this program was funded by and physically located within the athletic department. Further, the program had to obtain the athletic department’s approval for new staff, and coaches had power over academic counselors’ employment. This organizational structure places inherent pressure on academic support staff to prioritize athletic goals over academic objectives and to steer students into courses that would ensure player eligibility. Institutions may prevent this type of undue influence by ensuring that academic support staff report to an academic authority at the institution and are located outside of an athletic department facility. At the same time, schools should actively encourage collaboration between athletic departments and academic support programs to enhance the academic and athletic performance of student-athletes, perhaps with the participation of an academic faculty member unaffiliated with either program.

3. Fostering a Culture That Promotes Both Academic Opportunity and Athletic Excellence.

Fostering a culture that emphasizes academic integrity over player eligibility requires consistent reaffirmation of a school’s educational values and active engagement in the academic performance of student-athletes. Like many universities and colleges, UNC struggled with the tension between academic and athletic excellence, and what began as a well-intentioned desire to assist struggling students succeed in the classroom eventually morphed into the academic scandal UNC is dealing with today. One possibility for schools to enhance all aspects of the student-athlete college experience would be to establish working groups that involve representatives of the athletic department, the relevant academic department and the administration functioning as a “case management team” to identify and support at-risk student-athletes to ensure that they get the same opportunities to succeed in the classroom as they do on the field.

If you have any questions about the UNC report and its potential implications for your institution, please contact one of the authors listed above or any other member of Drinker Biddle’s White Collar Defense & Corporate Investigations Team or Education Team.

Source: Client Alert