In the midst of the controversy, a bizarre subplot developed: Five thousand miles away, a physics professor named Paul Frampton sat in a decrepit Argentine jail. The UNC scholar had been caught at the Buenos Aires airport
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In the midst of the controversy, a bizarre subplot developed: Five thousand miles away, a physics professor named Paul Frampton sat in a decrepit Argentine jail. The UNC scholar had been caught at the Buenos Aires airport with two kilograms of cocaine in his suitcase. He claimed innocence, saying he’d been tricked.
The story made waves back in North Carolina, even as the athletics scandal raged. The UNC administration took Frampton off the payroll as he awaited trial. That move didn’t sit well with some professors. (He was later awarded back pay.) “It makes the faculty worried,” one scholar told the student newspaper. “What if I was in that situation? Would I be treated the same way?” Two faculty members set up a website to raise money for Frampton, and dozens of academics — at UNC and elsewhere — wrote a public letter objecting to the suspension.
Reginald Hildebrand watched the saga with disappointment. As the athletics scandal continued to churn, skeptical observers had — in the absence of a motive or more detail about the suspect classes — turned their gaze on the department in which they had been offered: African and Afro-American studies.
The most thorough investigation of the classes would later conclude that knowledge of them inside the department had been limited to a secretary, the department chair, and perhaps one or two others. But back in 2012, a laser beam of suspicion settled on Hildebrand and the roughly two dozen other professors in the department, which has since been renamed. Whiffs of impropriety gave people the opening they needed to say exactly what they thought about Black studies. Letters flowed into the local newspapers, casting aspersions on the department’s integrity. “‘Black studies’ are nothing more than a politically correct sop by our institutions of higher learning to a preferred minority group,” one resident wrote in a letter to The News & Observer, in Raleigh.
One student suggested to The Daily Tar Heel — the student newspaper, which I edited at the time and which published its fair share of sensationalistic coverage — that the entire department should be eliminated. “The actions of a single department have brought shame and embarrassment onto the entire UNC community,” he wrote. A member of the Board of Governors, which oversees the university system, floated the idea of shutting down the department.
A lack of evidence about widespread wrongdoing in the department didn’t stop the generalizations and accusations. Where, Hildebrand wondered, was the faculty support? Why did professors across the university seem more willing to support a white physics professor ensnared in an apparent narcotics scheme than their colleagues in African and Afro-American studies?
Finally, in the 1990s, African and Afro-American studies was elevated to a department. Julius Nyang’oro — the chair who later resigned amid the fake-classes scandal — wrote in his request for departmental status that the subservient status of African American studies made it seem like “some lesser academic entity to be politicized whenever there is inside or outside focus on the African American population at the university.”
Now the unit was taking fire. The problem wasn’t the department, Hildebrand wrote to The News & Observer. It was that the university was attempting to run a minor-league sports franchise while asking the players to double as full-time students. “We are forced to confront the fact,” Hildebrand said, “that this charade can only be kept going through the resourceful manipulation of smoke and mirrors and by a lot of winking and nodding. The system will find, or create, enough academic wiggle room and gimmicks to keep things moving along.” The departmental secretary, Debby Crowder, had supplied that wiggle room, Hildebrand suggested, but just because the locus of the latest revelations centered on the department where she worked didn’t mean that the department was rotten.
The silence of fellow faculty members was particularly upsetting. “Such silence reads loudly as consent,” wrote one professor in the department, “in the face of the ongoing firestorm whose flames would consume us.” Hildebrand and his colleagues defended their department’s integrity. At a meeting in the fall of 2012, the UNC faculty endorsed a resolution that “affirms the integrity and validity of the intellectual disciplines represented in the department of African and Afro-American studies and expresses our solidarity with those members of the faculty of that department whose professional lives and work have been in no way connected with academic irregularities.”
The faculty’s show of support came to rankle Hildebrand. Expressing solidarity with only the faculty members who were “in no way connected with academic irregularities” implied that the suspicion that clouded the department was legitimate. “They aren’t saying, ‘Until you prove he’s done something, he’s a member of this community and needs to be respected as such,’” Hildebrand said in an expansive oral-history interview. (He declined to be interviewed for my book, from which this essay is adapted.) And the first part of the statement, the validation of the department’s integrity, implied that the department needed validating. The well-intentioned statement of solidarity both honored and demeaned Hildebrand and his colleagues.
It reminded Hildebrand of a monument the university had erected a few years before, to memorialize the enslaved people who had built much of the university’s campus. But the form it took — a low, black table propped up by a mass of muscular statuettes inches off the ground — struck some as far from an honor. When it rained, the “unsung founders” got splattered with mud, Hildebrand remembered. They were used as footrests. It was hard to even see them. “Suppose we were trying to honor the chancellors of this university,” Hildebrand said, “and got little images of all of them, and put them as table legs, and had us put our feet up on them. It would be so outrageous and unacceptable. … Nobody would even consider it.” Like the faculty’s statement in support of his department, the monument was both gratifying and insulting.
The conditions that prevailed in both cases amounted to something “that still looks and feels and tastes like racism,” Hildebrand said.
Taylor Branch, the civil-rights historian and UNC alumnus, argued in his 2011 cover story for The Atlantic, “The Shame of College Sports,” that big-time sports had begun to carry “an unmistakable whiff of the plantation.” The saga that played out on Branch’s own campus carried more than one such whiff. The African and Afro-American studies department’s building stood in the shadow of a statue of a Confederate soldier, erected at the height of the South’s white-supremacist terror campaign, in the early 20th century, and that statue towered over the Unsung Founders Memorial. (Protesters tore down the Confederate statue, known as Silent Sam, in 2018.)
The many Black athletes who used the phantom courses to stay eligible lacked the right to earn money of their own. In being pushed by advisers to take the courses, they were being deprived of an education on par with their classmates. Even when the football players took the field, they did so amid the legacy of a white-supremacist history. Until 2018, Kenan Stadium was named for William Rand Kenan Sr., the donor’s father, who in 1898 captained a squad of machine-gunners that carried out a coup d’état against Wilmington’s biracial government. Historians estimate that at least dozens and possibly hundreds of people were killed in the rebellion, many of them Black.
Just think of it: Mostly Black players competing in a stadium built to honor a white-supremacist killer, deprived both of the right to be compensated at a market rate and of the right to a full university education. Black professors who worked in the shadow of a Confederate statue were shrouded in unfair suspicion. “This would not have taken the bounce it did if, somehow, in the background, we weren’t talking about what people perceive to be a Black department, a Black subject, and Black athletes,” Hildebrand said.
The department’s reputation was unjustly stained. In the wake of the scandal, Hildebrand was approached after class one day by a student who asked whether he thought she should mention in her graduate-school application that she had majored in his department. “She felt, just by saying that, it would be a signal that she wasn’t a serious student. That she’d learned nothing in my class.” That was the worst shame of all, the professor said — what the scandal had done to the department’s students. “I felt like somebody kicked me in my stomach,” he recalled.
Hildebrand also paid a personal price. As the scandal raged, he attended an event in honor of the Emancipation Proclamation, a copy of which was then on display at the North Carolina History Museum, in Raleigh. He had heard stories about how his last name came from a distant relative who, on emancipation, refused to take the name of the man who had enslaved him, instead choosing Hildebrand. At the event, while Hildebrand was making small talk with a former state politician, she asked him what he did for a living.
When he told her he taught Afro-American studies at UNC, she laughed in his face.
The public scapegoating of the African and Afro-American studies department has not entered into this conversation — perhaps because the department is still viewed as complicit in the scandal. If so, that mistake must be corrected. Though Crowder and Nyang’oro were found to have presided over the infamous phantom courses, the root cause of the scandal was the contortions that so-called amateurism in big-time sports inflicts on campuses like UNC.
The collateral damage suffered by the department’s scholars was among the most lasting and shameful consequences of the scandal. It also revealed the extent to which Black scholarship still was not valued nearly half a century after the creation of the department. Had the irregular classes been found in Frampton’s physics department, would letter writers and board members have called for its elimination? Would newspapers have allowed public conversation to center on the discipline’s validity? Of course not.
Any institution’s priorities can be ascertained by whom it chooses to side with when the ship starts taking on water. Black scholars under siege or the shiny athletic brand? Black student activists or a Confederate statue? A qualified Black journalist seeking tenure or those who despise her work? It is no wonder that the student-body president has urged Black students and professors to stay away from Chapel Hill.
This essay has been adapted from Discredited: The UNC Scandal and College Athletics’ Amateur Ideal, slated for release by the University of Michigan Press on August 27.