Troubling News from North Carolina

I’ve written previously about the scandal at the University of North Carolina, where for several years, students (who were disproportionately members of UNC athletics teams) took no-show courses in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. UNC has, not altogether convincingly, maintained that the scandal is solely an academic scandal and is solely confined to the department’s former chairperson and an administrator.

However, the scandal has now expanded. The Raleigh News & Observer reported that Michael McAdoo, a former UNC football player, charged that academic counselors from outside the Afro-American Studies Department had urged football players like him to take courses in the department. Then, a university researcher named Mary Willingham went public with allegations that more than half of a sample of 183 UNC student-athletes couldn’t read at above an 8th-grade level.

The university furiously responded to the Willingham allegations. University administrators–including the UNC chancellor and provost–demanded Willingham ‘s data set, and then challenged her findings publicly and in a meeting of the faculty. And then they suspended Willingham , claiming that she had violated Institutional Review Board (IRB) protocols by revealing confidential data about UNC students.

This story deserves attention for three reasons. First, as I’ve noted before, it speaks volumes about the relationship between some “diversity” departments and the schools that have created them. What does it say about the culture of the Afro-American Studies Department that these sorts of no-show courses ever could have been slotted? (Imagine a Chemistry Department giving dozens of no-show students A grades.) And why did the university not respond to the scandal with a more thorough investigation of the department’s hiring and curricular practices? It’s hard to imagine that if this scandal had affected a “traditional” department, the department could have been as unaffected as the Afro-American Studies department appears to have been at UNC.

Second, Willingham’s fate raises some troubling questions about the power of IRB’s over humanities and social science research projects. IRB’s originally were created to help prevent exploitative or even harmful research with human subjects, mostly in the hard sciences, but have tremendously expanded their scope in recent years. My Brooklyn College colleague, Mitchell Langbert, has cautioned about the threats IRB’s pose to research that challenges conventional wisdom–that is, IRB’s can provide a mechanism for colleges and universities to exercise editorial control, even censorship, over research whose conclusions administrators don’t like. We still don’t know the full story at UNC, but it seems at least possible that Willingham was suspended not for violating IRB protocols but because the university wanted to silence her, and the IRB route was the easiest strategy.

Finally, the continued press coverage almost has to create doubts about the credibility of UNC’s leadership. Since this story first broke, the university has consistently maintained that the Afro-American Studies affair was an academic, not an athletic, scandal; and that even though UNC considers itself an elite academic institution, it sees no problem with simultaneously running an elite athletics program, even though many elite athletics recruits don’t have good academic backgrounds. That version of events is becoming harder to maintain with each new revelation from Chapel Hill. At what point will the trustees step in and demand some accountability?

As things stand now, the university has become a laughing-stock.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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