An academic-fraud scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took root under a departmental secretary and die-hard Tar Heel fan, who was egged on by athletics advisers to create no-show classes that would keep underprepared and unmotivated players eligible. Over nearly two decades, professors, coaches, and administrators either participated in the scheme or overlooked it, undercutting the core values of one of the nation’s premier public universities.
Story length: 2,432 words; Access the story here.
Joann Keyton (North Carolina State University) suggests some key “Takeaways” on the story:
Across many months, in both the general and sports news, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has now become infamous for its paper classes. These classes were designed primarily for athletes. Only a paper was required to pass the class with an A or B grade. Student athletes were not required to attend class or lectures, read articles or books, or interact with other students or the instructor in anyway.
How did such a prestigious university allow these fake classes to exist in the African and Afro-American Studies department for 18 years? Given the thousands of students who took these classes and received grades, these were not isolated incidents. The interesting twist to this revelation is that paper class scam was perpetrated by an administrative assistant in the academic department. Kenneth Wainstein’s 131-page public report describes what happened. But why could such a widespread academic abuse occur for so long?
The answer lies with groupthink, a theory pioneered by Irving Janis in the early ‘70s. The theory posits that several characteristics must exist for groupthink to occur. In a capsule, a strong charismatic leader promotes cohesiveness and loyalty within a small group of people. As a result, dysfunctional decision making is the outcome. Other historical examples of groupthink include the lack of a military response that led to devastating losses at Pearl Harbor in WWII, and President John F. Kennedy’s build-up of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1961.
Although introduced as a psychological phenomenon, groupthink also has communicative features. In the case of the UNC paper class scandal, the department head of the academic department capitulated control of these classes to an administrative assistant, who eventually became widely known as “Professor Debby.” Not wanting to disrupt the harmony or cohesiveness of the group process, the department head handed over control to an assistant. Other people who knew about and supported the scandal (coaching staff and administrators) continued to support the decision that it was appropriate to have classes for which athletes or other struggling students could get good grades and maintain an acceptable GPA.
Those who knew about the scandal maintained their insularity, minimized their conflict about the paper classes, and continued to express loyalty toward those most central to the scandal (the administrative assistant and the department head). In this way, the dysfunctional group dynamics were stronger than any one individual’s questions or concerns about the paper classes. Since everyone in the group was benefitting in some way, it became impossible for any one person to raise a red flag. Finally, the university’s pro-athletics culture provided implicit support for this group’s decision and their actions.