Correction: A previous version of this story inadvertently omitted the word “paper” from a quote about a Swahili class drawn from the Wainstein report. This version has been updated.
Much has been made of irregular “paper classes” at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which helped numerous student-athletes score high grades for little, if any, academic work.
But one aspect of the latest report on the scandal, this one from investigator Kenneth L. Wainstein, is worth a closer look: It wasn’t just about special favors for student-athletes.
The classes, which apparently offered no teaching and offered generous grading for term papers of dubious quality, persisted from 1993 to 2011. They provided more than 3,100 students with “one or more semesters of deficient instruction” within the African and Afro-American studies department, Wainstein reported.
Previous reports have illuminated the scandal, which started to emerge in 2011, but Wainstein’s is considered the most comprehensive. It was commissioned by UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol L. Folt, who took office in 2013.
How irregular were the courses? Wainstein reported that one “particularly popular class” was third-level Swahili, in which students who struggled at lower levels in the subject were able to satisfy a foreign language requirement “by writing a paper about Swahili culture in English rather [than] completing a regular Swahili 3 paper class in Swahili.”
The report raises questions about how athletes were steered into these courses. But many who took them were not athletes. The report found that student-athletes accounted for 47.6 percent of “paper class” enrollment from 1999 to 2011. That meant the majority were not athletes.
Who were they?
Some stumbled into the classes without knowing they were bogus. But many sought them out.
“As with any course that offers an easy path to a high grade, word of these classes got around,” the report says. Some academic advisers pointed students to them. The report recounts an incident in which a struggling student with an academic scholarship in a program known as Morehead-Cain scholars was referred to a “paper class” to bolster his grade-point average to avoid losing his grant.
Word of the classes also circulated widely within fraternities.
Two fraternity members told investigators that the classes were seen as “a ‘loophole’ in Chapel Hill’s otherwise demanding curriculum.” These members said that some of their non-athlete fraternity brothers took so many of the classes that they inadvertently wound up with minors in African and Afro-American studies.
This raises questions about how many administrators at one of the nation’s most prestigious public universities knew about the scandal before it broke — or should have known.
Wainstein concluded that it is fair to criticize the university for a failure of oversight. But he found “no evidence that the higher levels of the university tried in any way to obscure the facts or the magnitude of the situation.”