Academic shortcuts not just a Kentucky thing

I always thought I would write this column about Kentucky.

You know the storyline: College basketball and football players, many with questionable academic abilities to start, are steered into low- or no-effort courses to maintain eligibility.

As Hoosiers, we love to think that our rivals in Lexington invented the correspondence course and that textbooks are used in the athletic department solely to prop up championship trophies.

It is a convenient rationalization, fueled by a generous amount of jealously, with enough truth to keep it fresh.

The real truth, though, is that academic integrity is an issue far beyond the borders of the Bluegrass State.

Revelations of rampant “dumbing down” of courses at the University of North Carolina for two decades is another reminder that academic rules bend often for students with basketballs and footballs in their hands.

This is hardly earth-shattering. The surprise isn’t that it happened, but that Carolina got caught.

Today, as the school’s regional accreditation body meets in Nashville, Tennessee, we will learn if the consequences are felt more broadly. A loss of accreditation, however unlikely, would be devastating.

The university is essentially on academic probation at this point as it attempts to clean up a scandal that threatens to void championships and tarnish the image of late basketball coaching icon, Dean Smith.

According to the university’s own investigation, for two decades up until 2011, students took credit courses in the Afro-American Studies department that were little more than a formality in terms of academic rigor.

The courses required no class attendance or exams, only an end-of-semester paper that was “graded” by a department secretary. More than 3,000 students received credit for this phantom class, half of whom were athletes.

The accreditation agency’s core requirements for accrediting a degree-granting university include clear control over “all aspects of its educational program,” including athletics. And the issue of institutional control could affect an ongoing NCAA probe, raise questions about what coaches knew, and ultimately lead to possible wins and championships being vacated.

The university has taken significant steps in the wake of the probe. The department head and secretary directly responsible are gone. Tighter institutional controls are in place.

Still, the issue has taken unusual twists.

Former UNC standout linebacker Michael McAdoo filed a lawsuit in October seeking class-action status on behalf of other ex-UNC athletes. It alleges that coaches guaranteed him a quality education during the recruiting process, but once he arrived on campus in 2008, officials “systematically funneled” him and other football players “into a ‘shadow curriculum’ of bogus courses which never met and which were designed for the sole purpose of providing enrollees high grades.”

Whatever happens to Carolina, let’s not be so glib as to think it can’t happen to whatever alma mater and favorite team we throw our support behind.

Two facts of college life ensure that this is a continual matter of concern. First, some college kids cheat. Second, there is enormous pressure to keep athletes eligible.

If there was ever an illusion that this was not pervasive, that was shattered three years ago by a massive cheating scandal at Harvard (including non-athletes, as well) that decimated the basketball program, especially.

Florida State (2007) and Minnesota (1999) were rocked by cheating that involved tutors writing papers or supplying test answers to athletes. Even the U.S. Naval Academy (1994) has felt the sting.

Of course, our friends in Lexington have their share of academic misdeeds, including providing “assistance” with a recruit’s SAT exam and an assistant coach who falsified his resume to claim a degree that he never earned.

One of the interesting “finds” in my research was a column from Kentucky Sports Radio advising fans how to debunk these arguments from opposing fans. Sensitive, aren’t we?

The North Carolina scandal also underscores a bigger problem with academia. “Paper only” courses are common on some college campuses and a favorite of some athletes.

Eighteen members of the 2004 Auburn football team, which went undefeated and finished No. 2 in the nation, took a combined 97 hours of such courses during their careers. The problem came to light when three top sociology professors observed a football player/sociology major honored for his academic performance. None recalled ever seeing the student.

Auburn’s lack of institutional control resulted in probation from the same academic body that will judge North Carolina this week, but not the NCAA.

The Auburn example may well be a precursor of North Carolina’s fate. The “penalty” may lie in reputation and public perception more than athletic sanctions.

However, there is an opportunity for the NCAA to step up its enforcement actions and its adherence to academic standards.

One academic compliance expert calls the UNC case “the largest and the most egregious case of academic fraud by far in NCAA history.”

Could that result in penalties, including forfeiture of the Tar Heels 2005 and 2009 basketball titles? That may depend on whether investigators can tie the classes directly to placement advice from the athletic department.

As for now, today’s action by the accreditation body may be the next step in discrediting a long-respected athletic powerhouse.

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Bob Johnson is a sports correspondent for the Daily Journal.