The revelations from the report on the academic-fraud scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have been startling: More than 3,000 students over a period of 18 years were awarded grades and credit for nonexistent courses.
But much of what has been said and written to date about the extraordinary failures in ethics and oversight seems to miss both the seriousness of the misbehavior and the extent to which it strikes at the core of any college or university.
This is not chiefly an athletics issue, though the students involved are disproportionately intercollegiate athletes. Nor is it primarily a matter for the NCAA, which is more a cause of than a solution to the problem of athletics in American higher education.
This is an issue of institutional integrity, a violation of the most basic assumption upon which the credibility of any college or university is based: that the grades and credits represented on the transcripts of its students are an accurate reflection of the work actually done. Absent this assurance, a transcript—a degree—from the institution has lost its meaning.
What has been uncovered in the Wainstein report at Chapel Hill is not an isolated incident but a barely concealed process of falsification that persisted for well over a decade, involved more than one in five of all the university’s athletes during that period, and was either known to or willfully ignored by many officials in positions of responsibility.
Accreditation for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is provided by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Here is one of the “Core Requirements for Accreditation” as specified by SACS:
The institution provides instruction for all course work required for at least one degree program at each level at which it awards degrees. If the institution does not provide instruction for all such course work and (1) makes arrangements for some instruction to be provided by other accredited institutions or entities through contracts or consortia or (2) uses some other alternative approach to meeting this requirement, the alternative approach must by approved by the Commission on Colleges. In both cases, the institution demonstrates that it controls all aspects of its academic program.
Again, this is a “core requirement” for accreditation, and I suppose that the “alternative approach” taken was ... no instruction at all. One might also point to the federal requirement that “the institution has policies and procedures for determining the credit hours awarded for courses and programs that conform to commonly accepted practices in higher education and to commission policy.” Or to the SACS standard that “the institution assumes responsibility for the academic quality of any course work or credit recorded on the institution’s transcript.”
I have little interest in whatever penalties the NCAA chooses to impose upon Chapel Hill’s athletics programs or that the university chooses to impose upon itself. As I said, this is not fundamentally an issue about sports but about the basic academic integrity of an institution. Any accrediting agency that would overlook a violation of this magnitude would both delegitimize itself and appear hopelessly hypocritical if it attempted, now or in the future, to threaten or sanction institutions—generally those with much less wealth and influence—for violations much smaller in scale.
Most of us work very hard to conform to the standards imposed by our regional accrediting agencies and the federal government. If falsified grades and transcripts for more than 3,000 students over more than a decade are viewed as anything other than an egregious violation of those standards, my response to the whole accreditation process is simple: Why bother?
I have read many responses to the report of corruption at Chapel Hill. Some argue that those at the center of the activities were simply trying to help at-risk students, to which my response is that awarding credits and grades without providing instruction is not “help” in any sense that I can accept. In the case of student athletes, I see it as closer to exploitation for the benefit of the university. Some argue that this behavior is widespread among institutions with highly visible Division I sports programs and therefore should provoke no particular surprise or outrage.
I hope that this last claim is untrue. If it is, however, the only way to alter such behavior is to respond with force and clarity when it is uncovered. Reducing the number of athletic scholarships at Chapel Hill, or vacating wins, or banning teams from postseason competition, is in each case a punishment wholly unsuitable to the crime. The crime involves fundamental academic integrity. The response, regardless of the visibility or reputation or wealth of the institution, should be to suspend accredited status until there is evidence that an appropriate level of integrity is both culturally and structurally in place.
Anything less would be dismissive of the many institutions whose transcripts actually have meaning.
Brian C. Rosenberg is the president of Macalester College.