The Ethicist Who Crossed the Line

Travis Long, The News & Observer

Jeanette M. Boxill is a former faculty chair and a senior lecturer in ethics at Chapel Hill who was complicit in steering athletes into fake classes, according to an investigation.
October 24, 2014

She was everywhere, and seemingly everyone’s friend, a compassionate do-gooder who worked long hours with underprepared students while balancing several jobs, including directing a center on ethics.

On Wednesday the world learned something else about Jeanette M. Boxill: Her own ethics were malleable.

Most of the blame fell on Julius E. Nyang’oro, a former department chair at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and his longtime assistant, Deborah Crowder, after they were identified as the chief architects of a widespread academic scandal there.

But the person everyone’s talking about is Ms. Boxill, a senior philosophy lecturer and former academic counselor for athletes. According to an independent report released on Wednesday, she played a key role in steering athletes into fake classes to help them maintain their eligibility with the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

While many people were implicated in the breakdown, which involved more than 3,000 students over 18 years, Ms. Boxill was unique because of her background: Although she did not have tenure, she was a faculty leader, administrator, and athletics insider, lending her a credibility that few people on the campus enjoyed. That status made her precipitous fall all the more puzzling. (A university official would not comment on Ms. Boxill's employment, but on Wednesday the university said that nine employees were being terminated or were under disciplinary review. And Ms. Boxill did not return a call from The Chronicle.)

Her reputation as an honest broker—she directed the university’s Parr Center for Ethics—made her an unlikely villain. Several colleagues describe her as someone who often set aside her own needs for people who had little to give in return. She took orders from chancellors, but she still talked to the groundskeepers.

She grew up poor herself and had an affinity for underprivileged students. And, like several other colleagues who made questionable choices, she bled Carolina blue.

As faculty and staff members step back from this week’s storm, many are still conflicted about the role Ms. Boxill played. But some have harsh words for their colleague.

“I don’t think she’s evil, but she violated standards of academic integrity and did it knowingly,” said Jay M. Smith, a history professor and founder of an athletics-reform group on the campus.

But her greater sin, Mr. Smith said, is that she appeared to cover it up.

“She has been knowingly dishonest about her role in this scam the last three years,” he said. “She has obstructed those of us who wanted to get to the bottom of things.”

A Respected Leader

Ms. Boxill was raised on a farm in upstate New York with no indoor plumbing, and she lost her parents at a young age, according to an online biography. She grew up playing football with her 11 siblings and wanted to play sports in high school. Back then, though, girls had few opportunities.

At 18 she joined the military, and she used the GI Bill to help pay her way through the University of California at Los Angeles.

She arrived at UNC in the mid-1980s and has never risen above the adjunct rank. But by all accounts, she has been among the campus’s most respected leaders.

In 2011 she was elected chair of the faculty, a position that had never before been held by a fixed-term instructor. Her term ended in June. Last year she worked closely with several faculty members on a report about academic fraud.

“I’ve done more than anybody could think to address the problem,” Ms. Boxill said in an interview last year with The Daily Tar Heel, a student newspaper.

Colleagues and friends describe her as soft-spoken and not prone to self-promotion. They say she is kind. “I’ve never heard her say a negative thing about another person,” said one associate.

After long days of teaching and counseling, she often shows up at lectures and dance performances, and she has been spotted on athletics fields and courts at all hours. For 20 years she was the public-address announcer for women’s basketball. She has also done radio commentary on games.

Over a more-than-40-year academic career, she has written and spoken extensively about social justice, and she has given numerous presentations on such topics as ethical decision-making and the moral significance of sports, according to her online CV.

But this week’s revelations have led many people to question the accuracy of her own moral compass. According to a 136-page report produced by Kenneth L. Wainstein, a longtime official of the U.S. Department of Justice, Ms. Boxill was one of several academic counselors who worked closely with Ms. Crowder, the longtime assistant in the department of African and Afro-American studies, to give players easy grades for little or no work.

One email exchange between the two women was particularly damning, suggesting that the two had colluded to fix a player’s grade. In the email, Ms. Crowder asked Ms. Boxill, then an academic counselor for women’s basketball, if “a D will do.”

"I’m only asking," Ms. Crowder wrote, "because 1. No sources, 2, it has absolutely nothing to do with the assignments for the class and 3. It seems to be a recycled paper."

"Yes," Ms. Boxill replied, "a D will be fine; that’s all she needs."

Other emails suggested that Ms. Boxill had helped players write papers, which the report characterized as "stepping across that line" of permissible behavior for a tutor.

Dubious Ethics

It’s not the first time that Ms. Boxill has been accused of dubious ethics. Last year emails obtained by the News & Observer, a North Carolina newspaper, suggested that she had watered down a report on academic fraud to stave off NCAA investigators.

Ms. Boxill denied the accusation, saying the changes she had made did not alter the essence of the document.

In an article published last fall on, the website of a local radio station, she said that the newspaper had taken her comment out of context and that, as an eductor, she had always strived to teach students about the importance of taking a broader view.

“Every issue we deal with is complex, whether it’s affirmative action, whether it’s abortion, whether it’s the voters’ rights,” she told WCHL. “It’s easy to criticize one aspect, but if you look at the overarching, then you see there’s a lot more strands than just the single issue.”

In the same article, she lamented that information gleaned from emails often did not contain the whole story.

“Emails are not the best way to communicate,” she said, “because you read them as you want to read them, not as perhaps they were intended.”

The 'Ethics of Care'

Damning emails don’t tell the whole story here either. But they certainly raise an important question: What led a beloved professor to apparently go against the ethical framework on which her own scholarship was based?

The answer, like a lot of things in the study of ethics, is complex, said Richard M. Southall, an associate professor of sport management at the University of South Carolina at Columbia. Several years ago, he collaborated with Ms. Boxill on a book chapter about ethics in sports.

In the chapter, Mr. Southall said, he outlined three ethical frameworks: deontology, consequentialism, and existentialism. Ms. Boxill, he said, offered a fourth: the "ethics of care," which involves treating and caring for people.

In a nutshell, Mr. Southall said, the ethics of care puts the needs of an individual foremost, looking out for what’s in his or her best interests.

The tutors and counselors named in the report released this week said they mostly followed the rules with players. But when they were presented with a conflict—namely, that some of their students couldn’t write, and if they didn’t help those students, it might lead to their dismissal from the university—they questioned whether the rules should apply.

For Ms. Boxill, the dilemma may have come down to this, said Mr. Southall: “If you have students who are plopped down within an inherently corrupt system, do you have a moral obligation to help them?”

Deborah Stroman, a faculty member in the business school whom Ms. Boxill met years ago through her work with the women's basketball team, said the two had long debated big moral issues like that.

Asked whether Ms. Boxill might have viewed her situation as a counselor through that kind of lens, Ms. Stroman declined to comment: “I don’t want to speak for her.”

But in her view, Ms. Stroman said, Ms. Boxill often let her heart guide her.

“It would be easy, knowing her spirit of being a very caring person, to imagine that she would try to do whatever she could to help,” Ms. Stroman said. “But I’ll never know what Jan was thinking at the time.”

Clarification (10/24/2014, 9:42 a.m.): Ms. Boxill did not return a call from The Chronicle seeking comment for this article; it has been updated to reflect that.

Jan Boxill, in Her Own Words

Ms. Boxill has been quoted on Chapel Hill’s academic-fraud scandal a number of times. Here’s a sampling of her comments:

"I’ve done more than anybody could think to address the problem." The Daily Tar Heel, August 26, 2013

"I don’t really know what goes on in most departments. I just trust my colleagues." The Daily Tar Heel, August 26, 2013

"It’s painful. I’ve been trying—in very many ways—to get out in front of some of the things and also to recognize that no issue is simple," on prior allegations that she had tried to change language in a report to avoid catching the eye of the NCAA., August 29, 2013

"I’ve never shied away from creating space for frank analysis of college sports to take place." The Daily Tar Heel, September 15, 2013

"We trust everybody, and you assume everyone is doing what they’re supposed to be doing." The Chronicle, January 6, 2014