I hadn’t realized when I came here this week that Sunday marked the first anniversary of Dean Smith’s death. But I was quickly reminded; the front page of the University of North Carolina student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, featured a photograph of Smith, the legendary former UNC men’s basketball coach, along with an article that was less about his 879 wins and two national championships than about “the lives he touched and the impact he left.”
I had come to Chapel Hill because I wanted to understand the effect of the terrible “paper class” scandal on the larger university community: the faculty, the alumni, the administration and others who care about what is undoubtedly one of the finest public universities in the country. What I wound up discovering is that there are two shadows hanging over UNC. One is the long shadow of the scandal. The other is the even longer shadow of Dean Smith.
If you follow college sports, you probably know about the paper class scandal, but, just in case, here’s a recap: In 2011, an academic counselor named Mary Willingham began telling Dan Kane, an investigative reporter with The News & Observer in Raleigh, that North Carolina athletes were being steered to sham independent studies classes that never met. Students were required only to turn in a paper that did not even have to be literate. The paper classes went back as far as the 1990s. The grades the athletes were given were always high enough to ensure they were eligible to play.
Incredibly, given that most of these athletes were black, the fraud was being run out of what is now called the Department of African, African-American and Diaspora Studies. The two people orchestrating the fake classes were Julius Nyang’oro, the department head, and Deborah Crowder, the longtime department administrator.
Although the university initially claimed that the scandal had nothing to do with athletics, that was untrue. Kenneth L. Wainstein, a prominent lawyer, issued an authoritative report in October 2014 that noted that nearly half the students in the paper classes were athletes, “even though student-athletes make up just over 4 percent” of the student body. When they were interviewed by Wainstein’s investigators, Nyang’oro and Crowder said that their motivation was to help struggling students, especially “that subset of student-athletes who came to campus without adequate academic preparation.”
Try as it might, the university has been unable to put the scandal behind it. In 2012, Willingham, who had been an unnamed source for Kane, went public, which resulted in her vilification in Chapel Hill by the university provost, James W. Dean Jr., and her departure from the university. (Willingham now works as an adjunct at a local community college, six years short of qualifying for a state pension.) The university was placed on probation by its accreditation board — a humiliating blow.
Carol Folt, a former Dartmouth provost, became the university chancellor in 2013 and launched a wholesale reform effort. The 70 reforms include severely restricting how many independent studies courses any one professor can teach and the creation of an “audit trail” if a professor changes a student’s grade. Recently, Folt announced that the university would hire a chief integrity officer.
Nyang’oro was briefly indicted. (It was dropped when he agreed to cooperate with Wainstein.) Others in the department lost their jobs, though mostly low-level employees who appear to be scapegoats. The academic counseling staff was overhauled. Jan Boxill, the faculty chair — and the director, believe it or not, of the Parr Center for Ethics — saw her reputation destroyed when her emails revealed that she had been an active participant in the scandal.
Michael Hausfeld, the lawyer who brought the O’Bannon case against the NCAA, filed a lawsuit against North Carolina (and the NCAA) charging that athletes had been deprived of the one thing they are promised in return for their labors: a real education.
Last fall, the university, responding to public records requests, released several hundred thousand pages of emails that had comprised some of the evidence for the Wainstein report. A Twitter user named Ted Tatos — his Twitter handle is @BlueDevilicious, and yes, he went to Duke — began poring though the emails, tweeting out the most egregious ones on practically a daily basis. He has recently been focusing on the improbably high number of diagnoses of learning disabilities among North Carolina athletes — allowing them to receive special accommodations. Hundreds of thousands of additional emails have yet to be released, meaning that the drip-drip-drip of embarrassing disclosures is far from over.
And then there’s the NCAA. Last summer, the association issued a lengthy notice of allegations, which included the dreaded “loss of institutional control.” Days before the deadline for North Carolina to respond, the university told the NCAA that it had found evidence of additional wrongdoing. The NCAA is said to be preparing a new set of allegations, which it has yet to deliver. Serious sanctions seem inevitable. Several members of the women’s basketball team have transferred, including its leading scorer, Allisha Gray.
“It has hurt recruiting,” acknowledged Bubba Cunningham, the athletic director, who took the post just before the paper class scandal broke, and has spent much of his tenure involved in the reform effort.
What does Dean Smith have to do with any of this? Nothing — and everything. Although Smith retired in 1997, four years after the paper classes began, rare is the person in North Carolina who thinks he knew about them, or that he would have looked the other way if he had. Smith was widely admired for his integrity and for the way he cared about his players, taking an interest in them as human beings, not just as basketball players, and pushing them to graduate and better their lives. Smith coined the phrase “The Carolina Way.” It stood for the idea that the University of North Carolina was a place where athletic excellence and academic excellence could exist side by side — and where the former did not necessarily corrupt the latter.
The paper class scandal has shattered that illusion. On the one hand, younger alumni and current students view the scandal as “more an irritant than a source of shame,” Dylan Howlett, a former sports writer for The Daily Tar Heel, told me. It also wasn’t all that big a shock. “Our generation grew up in a celebrity-oriented sports culture where winning trumps all,” he said.
There is also a substantial percentage of the faculty that believes the problems revealed by Willingham’s whistle-blowing — which they deeply resent — have been adequately dealt with by the Folt administration. They just want the whole thing to go away.
But there is another, smaller group of faculty members, along with a large number of older alumni, people who were around during the Dean Smith era, who harbor a tremendous feeling of betrayal, a deep hurt that Smith’s Carolina Way devolved into a fraud. Let’s be honest: There are many big-time sports colleges where athletes are given a pass academically — and nobody cares. But Tar Heels fans always believed that North Carolina was better than that. Discovering that it wasn’t has hit them hard.
“Dean Smith was a great man,” said Jonathan Yardley, the longtime book critic for The Washington Post. A 1961 graduate, Yardley received a distinguished alumni award in 1989. (He retired from The Post at the end of 2015.) “It’s pretty obvious now that he was an anomaly.”
Yardley continued: “Chapel Hill always basked in a reputation for being a place where big-time athletics was more or less in its proper place.” Decrying the school’s huge athletic complex — it is planning to build an indoor practice facility for the football team that is likely to cost around $25 million — he said, “It’s not the place I knew.” He now roots for the Tar Heels to lose.
Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld, the chair of the anthropology department, also a Carolina graduate, told me that the sense of personal loss many people feel is so profound that they have difficulty even talking about it. He cited several instances in which alumni or professors, speaking in a public forum, veered into the scandal — and then just stopped talking, unable to articulate what they felt.
“It’s as if there is no place to take the conversation,” he said.
Some professors come to him now, wondering what they are supposed to do when athletes miss classes because of their travel requirements. How do they accommodate athletes while maintaining appropriate academic standards?
“I have concerns for the welfare of the athletes,” Colloredo-Mansfeld said — that is, finding a way to ensure they get a real education despite the demands on their time, and the fact that more than a few are unprepared for college-level work.
“Sports are the lifeblood of our relationships,” he added. “Our family relationships and our relationships on our campus. By harming sports, it is not as much fun to talk to your father about the football team.”
Colloredo-Mansfeld told me that for all the reforms instituted by the administration, it has been unwilling to address the larger, tougher questions surrounding the relationship between academics and athletics. And he’s hardly the only one who feels that way.
“We entice these players to entertain the public and enrich their coaches by performing a vast amount of arduous, dangerous and unpaid work, with the opportunity for free education and the distant chance to ‘go pro’ as their only compensation,” Harry Watson, a history professor, has written. “Then we set up conditions which make the ‘education’ either meaningless or nearly unattainable. To me, this situation is fundamentally immoral.”
Jay M. Smith, who teaches European history — and last year wrote “Cheated,” a book about the scandal, with Willingham — has led a small group of faculty members seeking reforms that would address these larger issues. Every resolution he and his group have proposed has been shot down by the faculty council. He, too, has been dismayed that the paper class scandal has not led to a national conversation about how the needs of athletic departments corrupt academics — and how athletes can be better served by the institutions of higher learning they attend.
“I naively believed that if enough attention were paid to the corruption, it would lead people to call for a change to the system,” he said. Instead, the system is treating the paper class scandal at North Carolina as a one-off. As it always does.
“I knew Dean Smith quite well,” Kenneth S. Broun, a retired dean of the law school, told me in an email. “Dean would carefully advise his players who had an interest in professional or graduate school. He would frequently refer them to me (and to other friends around campus) for counseling as to what they needed to do to be able to make it outside the world of basketball.” He added, “Dean was an unusual guy, but it can be done.”
Starting that national conversation might be the best way to honor Dean Smith’s legacy.