The System Dynamics of Scandal: Allegations of Academic Misconduct at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

By Susan Fairchild and Chris Soderquist

On October 16, 2014, Kenneth Wainstein, Joseph Jay and Colleen Kukowski released their report documenting findings of the investigation into academic misconduct in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  For almost 18 years, 188 different lecture classes as well as hundreds of independent studies were offered that had no coursework expectations, no attendance requirements, and no assigned faculty member resulting in approximately 3100 students receiving “one or more semesters of deficient instruction.” The sole requirement of these “paper classes” was a single paper that was graded by the Student Services Manager (whose “responsibilities were limited to serving as the office secretary and administrator for the curriculum”).

What is troubling about this practice is not just the non-existent academic standards that define these courses or that an office secretary “handed out consistently high grades largely without regard to the quality of the work”, but that this practice targeted a particular segment of the undergraduate student body. Student athletes accounted for almost 50 percent of the students who took and passed these classes, though they made up only 4% of the total UNC undergraduate student body.  But unlike many students enrolled at UNC and colleges across the nation, athletes are required to maintain a 2.0 GPA if they are to remain eligible to play their sport under the NCAA regulations. 

Wainstein and his colleagues found that several of these student athletes, particularly those in the high revenue programs (football and men’s basketball), were encouraged to take the African and Afro-American paper classes by some UNC academic counselors.  In other words, the paper classes were the equivalent of academic steroids that boosted GPAs and guaranteed that several low performing student athletes remained eligible to play their sport. Wainstein et. al., found that the average grade earned in the AFAM paper classes was 3.62 as compared to the average grade for regular AFAM classes, 3.28. 

Through the lens of systems thinking, we examine the seductive quick fix - the lowering of academic standards - as well as the high stakes nature of college sports programs that resulted in allegations of an academic scandal that spanned eighteen years. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill paper class scenario is a case study of the erosion of goals archetype. The systems thinking map below represents our mental model and, though incomplete (like all mental models), highlights the need to invest resources in authentic skill building of student athletes who are recruited well below academic standards.


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