How can a higher education scandal last for years? Money, power, and politics.

By: - August 24, 2021 12:17 pm

As a student reporter and editor at the Daily Tar Heel, Andy Thomason was at ground zero for the UNC-Chapel Hill “paper classes” athletics scandal that broke in 2010. He helped direct coverage at the independent student paper during the rest of his college career and followed it for the Chronicle of Higher Education after landing a reporting job there in 2014.

“It was the dominant story for years,” Thomason said. “It was a scandal that lasted for seven years. How can a higher education scandal last for seven years? It dominated the news even while other big stories came up.”

With his new book, “Discredited: The UNC Scandal and College Athletics’ Amateur Ideal,” Thomason is reflecting on the scandal in greater depth and with new perspective.

The book chronicles the many twists and turns of a years-long scheme to provide student athletes with fake classes and how it led to other ugly revelations about UNC athletics. It examines the damage those revelations did to the reputations of both Carolina and the NCAA, which ultimately let the school off the hook without meaningful penalties. But it also examines the UNC culture, the powerful interests that compete to define the university, and the way those competing interests can disable a school’s leaders.

It’s a story that is today more relevant than ever, Thomason said.

“This scandal never ended in a couple of ways,” Thomason said. “This vortex of competing interests didn’t go away for UNC chancellors when Holden Thorp resigned.”

That vortex has continued to envelop chancellors and UNC System presidents in the years since, Thomason said.

“Carol Folt was haunted by Silent Sam for most of her tenure,” Thomason said. “And then ended up essentially resigning in protest and ordering the base of the statue to be removed because she was so boxed in by all the competing constituencies.”

The school’s current chancellor has found himself torn by the same conflicts on everything from the school’s response to COVID-19 to the controversy over the hiring of acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.

“You find Kevin Guskiewicz, although he hasn’t been forced to resign, in this pickle,” Thomason said. “He’s an academic. He would love to have had Nikole Hannah-Jones get approved for tenure through all the normal processes. But as soon as board opinion and donor opinion was thrown into the mix, he settled for less and it ended up sort biting him a little bit.”

“In a way, you’ve just seen it escalate from a governance standpoint,” Thomason said.

But the athletics scandal at the center of Thomason’s book struck at the core of the UNC identity.

“It was such a part of the school’s identity, winning the right way and being a prestigious university while also being one of the most recognizable athletic brands in the world,” Thomason said. “That was an identity decades in the making. And all of a sudden you have these revelations come out that it wasn’t that way at all, or it wasn’t as pretty as the institution’s leaders would like you to think.”

On campus the feeling of disillusionment was palpable.

“There was this sense that we were in this elevated place,” Thomason said. “We felt we were different. And now we knew that wasn’t true. Everybody shared this feeling of coming down off of this big, mythical high of the 80s, 90s and 2000s and realizing well, big time sports does come at a cost. One of the ways that cost manifests itself is through the occasional scandal.”

Accepting the facts at the center of the scandal was difficult for students, administrators, alumni and the public, all of whom Thomason said, had a lot invested in the idea of “The Carolina Way” and keeping that ideal untarnished.

The mythical idea of the amateur college athlete is an attractive fantasy, Thomason said. People want to believe student athletes can maintain high academic standards while shouldering the burden of practices, travel and competition. They want to believe student athletes aren’t treated differently and aren’t exploited by a system that is enormously profitable for their schools while providing them with little or nothing beyond their athletic scholarships. They want to believe that everyone, from professors and administrators to wealthy donors and sports agents, are going to treat these athletes the same as any other student while many are essentially star players on farm leagues feeding the professional sports industry.

There is a lot of incentive not to spoil that illusion, Thomason said, and a lot of powerful people encouraging it.

“It’s an identity, a foundational issue of identity, not just for students, but for alumni, board members and lawmakers,” Thomason said. “They obviously  know how much it matters to their constituents. And some of them also want to go to the chancellor’s box at Keenan stadium. So there are a lot of ways in which sports becomes a top-level issue for administrators, presidents and chancellors. I spend a good deal of the book talking…about how that ends up hamstringing college leaders.”

Powerful interests at UNC and those in its orbit also played a part in determining how far the NCAA would go to sanction the school, Thomason said.

“The last little point in the timeline when the NCAA decided to let UNC off without any meaningful penalties, I feel it can’t be overstated how much of a dent that put in the NCAA’s already waning credibility,” Thomason said.

“You still see it resonating today with them saying we’re going to rewrite our constitution and cede some of the authority back to the conferences,” Thomason said.

But in citing a loophole and saying the NCAA couldn’t tell schools how to run their classrooms, Thomas said the NCAA probably made the prudent decision.

“It’s easy to dunk on the NCAA, back then and now, always, Thomason said. “But they knew it probably wouldn’t have stuck.”

“Friends of UNC are everywhere,” Thomason said. “They’re in the NC legislature. They’re in congress. There are rich UNC grads everywhere. There would have been a lot of momentum behind a legal challenge had the university decided to go that way, and they probably would have. UNC is a very powerful institution. And that ends up determining what penalties they face from the various actors who are supposed to watch them.”

In the end, the rising tide of a thriving UNC athletic program lifts all boats.

“If you’re a university leader it’s much better for you when things are clicking in that arena – from a donor perspective, from a financial well-being perspective,” Thomason said. “But if you spend any time walking around the town of Chapel Hill, you know that everybody profits when UNC wins a national championship. Even at the Daily Tar Heel, I remember from when I was there, part of whether we had a successful year financially was, would we be able to put out a national championship paper that people would buy? That’s thousands and thousands of dollars. That didn’t drive any of our decision making, but it was notable.”

For Thomason, the scandal was the beginning of a career covering higher education. Now an assistant managing editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Thomason said covering universities drills to the heart of money, power, influence, politics, and lofty ideals struggling to survive daily compromises.

“The UNC scandal was in many ways my introduction to all that,” Thomason said. “You have fans who want university presidents to do something. You have rich white guys who want university presidents to do something. You have faculty members trying to be part of the conversation. You have all of these people bringing something to this conversation and they all want to shape what the university is.”

The athletics scandal was part of a long history of that tension at UNC, Thomason said, and it’s apparent that it continues today.

“As any history major can tell you, the past is never actually gone,” Thomason said. “In many ways, it determines the future.”

Andy Thomason will appear to discuss his book at an event at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh Monday, Aug. 30, at 7 p.m.
Register for the event here.

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.