Academic misconduct in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill doesn’t just expose how an elite institution with a pristine reputation can give way to greed and put athletic success above the educational needs of student athletes. At the core of this scandal is the failure of liberal compassion in which struggling students are treated with disrespect under the guise of sympathy by giving them academic freebies instead of challenging them to succeed on their own merit.
According to a comprehensive report by independent investigator Kenneth Wainstein, AFAM Department Chair Julius Nyang’oro and his administrative assistant, Deborah Crowder, ran a “shadow curriculum” between 1993 and 2011 that provided thousands of students and student athletes with “academically flawed instruction” through illegitimate “paper classes.”
Of the approximately 3,100 students who participated in the classes, 53.6 percent were non-athletes. Of the remaining student-athlete enrollments, 50.9 percent were football players, 12.2 percent were men’s basketball players, 6.1 percent were women’s basketball players, and 30.6 percent were Olympic and other sport athletes.
One of student-athletes, former football player Michael McAdoo (not to be confused with former UNC basketball player James Michael McAdoo, who graduated in 2014 and is not involved in the case) has filed a class suit against the university, claiming that he didn’t receive the quality education he was promised when he was recruited and that he was pressured to take the paper classes.
The irregular classes evolved out of traditional independent study programs, but students never met with a professor or a faculty member, and they weren’t required to attend class or do any course work other than a single research paper that Crowder, a non-faculty member, graded very loosely. Students who turned in papers got mostly As and Bs. These elevated grades kept athletes eligible to play and helped other students improve grade point averages, keep scholarships, and, for some, get a diploma.
Nyang’oro and Crowder offered these irregular classes primarily because they had “compassion” for struggling students, the report says—not just student-athletes, but all students (most of the students who benefited from the program were not athletes, though the number of athletes involved were certainly disproportionate since they make up only 4 percent of the Chapel Hill student body).
Crowder and Nyang’oro didn’t do it for money or to elevate the position of AFAM on campus, the report says. They didn’t really do it because they were sports fans, although they did love UNC athletics and had a particular concern for student athletes who found the curriculum at Chapel Hill difficult. They didn’t even do it because they were “pressured” by the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes (ASPSA)—as some have assumed. While ASPSA counselors, who were charged with overseeing players’ eligibility, certainly steered student-athletes to AFAM and the paper classes once they knew about them, both Crowder and Nyang’oro emphasized to investigators that the pressure from the ASPSA counselors “would not have persuaded them to offer paper classes unless they were already disposed to bend the rules on behalf of struggling student-athletes.”
They did it because they wanted to do something to help students who weren’t “the best and the brightest.” They did it because they cared.
New Information in the Wainstein Report
These irregular classes first came to light by media reports that raised questions about AFAM in 2011, and investigations both inside and outside the university ensued. Due to lack of access to certain information and key players, however, such as Nyang’oro and Crowder (who were under a criminal investigation at the time), the investigations could not provide a definitive account of how the classes developed and who exactly was involved.
In February 2014, UNC Chancellor Carol Folt selected Wainstein of the law firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham, and Taft to begin an independent review. With criminal investigations over, Nyang’oro and Crowder participated in Wainstein’s review and provided much-needed information previous inquiries did not elicit. The conclusions from the extensive eight-month investigation were published in the Wainstein Report on October 16.
Wainstein discovered that the scheme to provide struggling students with an easy way to make high grades was the brainchild of Crowder, a known “do-gooder” and graduate of UNC Chapel Hill who had been an AFAM secretary for 30 years. As soon as Crowder began working at UNC, she thought about ways to help students with “watered-down academic requirements,” the report says. “Though tempted to bend the rules for the first 13 years of her AFAM service, that impulse was kept in check by strong leadership that was focused on the rigor of the curriculum.”
That changed when Nyang’oro became department chair in 1992. He had a hands-off approach to management and was willing to give Crowder decision-making authority. He also shared Crowder’s sympathy for struggling students. “According to Nyang’oro, he had taught two student-athletes early in his career who were later forced to leave the school because they had become academically ineligible. One was murdered shortly after returning to his rural hometown; the other soon got in legal trouble and wound up in jail. When he learned about their fates, Nyang’oro committed himself to preventing such tragedies in the future and to helping other struggling student-athletes to stay in school.”
The report called Crowder’s compassionate outreach to students the “overriding passion” in her life—a passion she kept alive until she retired in 2009. Nyang’oro shared that passion, something that is reflected in an email he sent to Crowder, complaining that some AFAM faculty members “bitch as if there’s no tomorrow . . . when you ask them to . . . help out a sinking kid.”
When ‘Compassion’ Means Dishonesty
At the center of this scandal are two people who thought compassion meant using dishonest methods to make it easier for “sinking kids” to succeed. It wasn’t started by alumni interested in the success of sports teams, coaches, assistant coaches, trainers, or anyone in the athletics department. While it is true that some ASPSA counselors, advisors, and coaches took advantage of the scheme to ensure eligibility of borderline players, they were not the ones who developed the plan or implemented it. This doesn’t remove their culpability—if anything, it reveals the corrupting effect of liberal compassion gone awry: Open the door by bending the rules, and corruption will flow. What later became corruption for the sake of bolstering GPAs for athletes began and was sustained by “sympathetic people” who thought cheating and giving grade hand-outs were real solutions for troubled students.
It seems that the road to hell that is paved with good intentions runs straight through Chapel Hill. According to the Wainstein report, Crowder’s liberal compassionate impulses began when she was a student at Chapel Hill in the 1970s. After earning a degree in English and working for a few years at a department store, she returned to Chapel Hill in 1979 as a student services manager. She remained in that non-faculty position for 30 years.
Crowder was known throughout campus as a ‘do-gooder’ who was always willing to help out a student who was struggling. This compassionate approach derived from her firm belief that Chapel Hill should be a school that welcomes and supports students of all types – and ‘not just the best and the brightest’ – and also from her own experience of feeling left adrift as a Chapel Hill student without any support or guidance from the Chapel Hill faculty or staff. Crowder was passionate about helping struggling students of all kinds, and often adopted ‘special cases,’ who were students she saw as particularly deserving of her assistance – from sexual assault victims to students with mental health issues to under-prepared student-athletes from difficult backgrounds.
Students began to call her “Professor Debby” because she was the one who graded the papers and recorded the grades. Often students would simply write an introduction to a paper, fill in the rest with plagiarized material, and then write a brief conclusion. They knew Professor Debby only skimmed the papers and that, as long as they turned one in, they’d get an A or B.
The ‘Good Old Girls Network’
The paper classes seemed to be common knowledge on campus, spread by word-of-mouth even by academic advisors.
Over her 30-year tenure, Crowder became a part of what was affectionately called ‘the good old girls network,’ which was a network of like-minded women in various roles on campus who took it upon themselves to support those students who were struggling with school. Some of these women were Steele Building academic advisors. These advisors knew about the paper classes; they knew that Crowder controlled enrollment; and they often referred academically-challenged students to Crowder for placement in those classes.
Like Crowder, these women resented a focus on the “best and the brightest” at Chapel Hill, and they wanted to do what they could to even the playing field.
Because of Crowder’s personal experience of not getting the attention that smarter more successful students got while at Chapel Hill, she “felt a strong affinity for students with academic or other challenges in their lives.” She believed it was “her duty” to help these students, and in particular the student-athletes “who came to campus without adequate academic preparation for Chapel Hill’s demanding curriculum.”
One couldn’t ask for a better example of the failures of liberal compassion. Motivated by her own sense of personal injustice, Crowder wanted to make it right for troubled students, not by believing in them and in their ability to achieve, nor by elevating them through legitimate classes and pushing them to work hard, but by enabling them through academic handouts (which had obviously others had done “for” students before some even came to college) and shackling them with dependence and shame.
If Crowder had really wanted to help these students, she would have questioned how low-performing students were admitted to a quality institution like Chapel Hill in the first place. Maybe she would have played a role in fixing an obviously broken system that allowed students who were unable to compete to be admitted to a university that boasts of training the “best and the brightest.” Or she would have gone to the professors and advisors and devised a system in which these students were actually educated and legitimately helped so they could learn the material and enjoy a satisfying sense of accomplishment—as well as honestly earned grades.
Instead, she developed a scheme that stroked her own ego, exalted her “good intentions,” kept students coming back for more, and bolstered her own self-esteem—all fueled by her resentment toward those who were successful. The truth is that the person Crowder cared about the most was herself, not the students she pretended to help through handouts and dishonesty.
Hiding Egotism Within a Cloud of ‘Compassion’
Here we have a self-deluded woman who is a poster child of liberal compassion: A person fueled by bitterness and resentment and bent on seeing herself as better than she actually is because she is the “compassionate one.”
People who think this way are not really compassionate. They are cruel and heartless, perpetuating failure and fraud for the sake of their own egos. They delude themselves into thinking that because they are “doing” something, they are actually “accomplishing” something. But they’re not accomplishing anything. They’re not building up anything or anyone. In fact, they’re doing the opposite—they’re tearing down lives.
Crowder did nothing to help these students. In fact, in the long run she has hurt not only them, but other students as well. Now all AFAM students are angry, and racial tensions are inflamed—we see this from protests going on at UNC last week. They’re upset that the entire AFAM has been unfairly maligned, and they claim that the Wainstein Report is racist because it has cast a shadow over a department that has struggled for years to become respected and established.
They’re wrong. The Wainstein Report isn’t racist. It’s not the fault of those who exposed the scheme or that the misconduct centered on AFAM (no other departments were implicated in Wainstein’s report). The fault lies at the feet of the failure of bleeding-heart liberalism and faux compassion that cause more harm than good. If anyone has been racist, it’s the compassionate ones who think African-American students don’t have the ability to work hard and overcome obstacles they face in life.
The harm caused by such people has infected not only the lives of individual students, AFAM, and the sports programs, but the university as a whole. Students and alumni who take pride in their university are grieving over the shame some have cast upon it. The pride they once had for their beloved Chapel Hill doesn’t shine as brightly—all because of a do-gooder woman who thought compassion could thrive in the midst of lies and fraud.
Respect Minority Students, Don’t Enable Their Failure
What these students needed was not compassion. They needed respect. Did Crowder show them respect when she assumed that they were incapable of succeeding? Did she make them better people when she gave them free grades for little or no work? Did she bring honor to the institution that she says she loves? Did she bestow dignity on each of those 3,100 students who became victims of her liberal do-gooder schemes?
No, she did none of those things, and for that she should be ashamed. She and anyone else who put hope in the lies and deception of liberal compassion should feel a deep and abiding guilt for robbing people of their dignity, disrespecting them by not believing in their ability to succeed, enslaving them to the lying schemes of sympathetic benefactors, and for stealing their self-respect in order to bolster others’ pathetic egos.
This scandal will be discussed and debated in many forums as people focus on the future of college athletics. But the real lesson of this tragedy will be lost if the primary cause is ignored. An institution has lost its reputation and many students live with this shadow hanging over them primarily because of one thing: The failure of liberal compassion. To ignore this fact will ensure that such tragedies will continue, not only in our colleges but in every corner of our society.