ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
March Madness is college basketball's annual shining moment. And few schools have shone as brightly or as long as the University of North Carolina. This year the Tar Heels are in their record 26th Sweet 16. They've been in 18 Final Fours. And they've won the National Championship five times - the last time in 2009. Among the UNC alumni are Hall of Famers James Worthy, Billy Cunningham and Michael Jordan. And that's not counting the scores of NBA players that have come from Chapel Hill over many decades. And for more than two of those decades North Carolina was home to a massive academic fraud scheme. I talked earlier with Jay Smith and Mary Willingham, the co-authors of "Cheated," a book which details that scheme and cover-up. Jay Smith is a professor of history at UNC. Mary Willingham worked with UNC's athletes for nearly a decade as a learning specialist. I asked her how the academic scam worked.
MARY WILLINGHAM: Well, students were steered, or enrolled, by academic counselors - academic advisors that worked in the Athletic Department - to a lot of paper classes that were offered in the African-American Studies Department, and we trace the history of this system back - in the book - to the fall of 1988. I worked in the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes from 2003 to 2010, and I became aware of this system shortly after I arrived.
SIEGEL: The phrase paper course, it's quite misleading because it implies that you have to write a paper for this course and the paper is a pretty big deal. In this case, that meant you really had to do almost nothing.
WILLINGHAM: Right. We told athletes to get - call over to the African-American Studies Department, to the office manager and get a prompt. And they would then go to the library or, with our assistance, just cut and paste from online material or we would put something up on the screen that they would copy and then they would just turn it in. No one really ever read them, and they were always graded A or B.
SIEGEL: There's one course you mentioned in which the professor would grade a test by only considering those questions to which the student had offered an answer. So if there were 20 questions on the test and nine were left blank, and he got 7 out of 11 right, that was 7 out of 11.
WILLINGHAM: So that was in our School of Ed., of all departments - the School of Education. We had a gentleman who taught a class. It was about public schools and about public education and about education here in North Carolina - so ironic. Many, many athletes over the years took this class because it only met one night a week for three hours. Many of them slept through it or left at the break. And then there was just one test at the end. And you really only had to answer the questions that you knew or you thought you knew, and you would get a C or a B or an A. It depended on if he liked you or not. You know, you needed to make nice with him, too. It was ridiculous.
JAY SMITH: Basketball players in particular are rumored to have done yardwork for this professor, to have had dinner at his house. He was very, very chummy with the athletes. That phenomenon of the friendly faculty member is universal. Every campus has some. And they represent curricular weak spots - soft spots that will be taken advantage of systematically.
SIEGEL: The phenomenon, I think known to all of us, of the friendly faculty member - very often, that friendly faculty member feels that he or she is helping the student and helping them get through this doubly difficult thing: to be a college student, perhaps without the high school preparation other students have, and also have a full-time job playing football or basketball. What do you say to that teacher?
WILLINGHAM: Yes, I worked with a lot of people and I actually felt that way for a long time myself. I felt like at least I was, you know, giving the opportunity to these young men to come to college and to have some sort of a college experience and play their sport, which they were happy doing. So, yes, I understand the sentiment. I understand the feelings. But I'm a mother. I have three kids, and I wouldn't want anyone to treat them the way that these young men and the way that I participated in this system of fraud - I wouldn't want my kids to be treated this way.
SIEGEL: Just to be perfectly honest here, I have to say that my college transcript is not something that I am proud of and that my bachelor's degree was achieved thanks in small part to - I remember one course in cinema history that was known around campus as Wednesday night at the movies. It was not the most rigorous course. Where's the line between what we used to call gut courses - easier courses - and fraudulent courses?
WILLINGHAM: One thing that I want to say about that, as someone who took a class called math in our culture today myself when I was a college student (laughter) to get my math credit, the difference is that we needed to keep players eligible. These students also were taking - and their transcripts are littered with other pass-through classes in drama, in geology, in philosophy, not just, you know, like maybe you or I, where we had some of those classes but we still had a major and got a decent education. The NCAA and its member institutions are promising these athletes a world-class education, and that's not what they're getting at all - not even close.
SIEGEL: And, Jay Smith, one of the questions that the two of you address in the book is, how aware was the academic community of Chapel Hill of what was going on in that department?
SMITH: There were varying levels of awareness. I mean, there were plenty of academics, the majority I would say, across the campus, who knew nothing at all. But there were plenty others in and around that department, who had administrative contact with that department in one way or another, who had to have been aware in one way or another. And some administrators, some deans surely had to have suspected that something was amiss. But it was more convenient to look the other way.
SIEGEL: This isn't just happening at the University of North Carolina. This may be the most flagrant scandal of recent years, but there are other professors at other universities who are bumping into very similar issues.
SMITH: We're number one though, OK? Let's get that straight. UNC is number one. But these pressures are applied to university faculties all over the country - faculties and administrators - because it's the same game being played. What I think sets off the UNC case, in addition to being such a long-running scandal - 20 years plus - is that our administrative leadership has been exceptionally reluctant to admit the meta-cause, the basic cause of all of the fraud, which is the need to keep athletes eligible. They just won't talk about it.
SIEGEL: There was a book published in the 1930s by a man I believe named Reed Harris about what colleges were doing for their football teams. And in the 1940s and early '50s there were discussions over how to fix the problem of easy grades and easy courses for athletes. It seems to be, no matter how shocking the scandal, Americans seem to like this association of colleges with very, very high-level sports. How can you win?
WILLINGHAM: Well, I think that if Americans like it, and we do, that we should become better consumers and understand that this system right now - I think it's been like this for a while - it's broken. And we need to do some serious reform work if reform is even possible.
SMITH: The current system is a mandate for fraud. It basically requires fraud and make-believe games.
WILLINGHAM: We need to just be honest. And that's what's happening, I think, now with all the conversations that are happening. We need to raise the level of awareness and let everyone just be honest about what's happening so that we can fix this problem once and for all.
SIEGEL: Mary Willingham and Jay Smith, co-authors of "Cheated," thanks so much for talking with us.
SMITH: Thank you.
WILLINGHAM: Thank you for having us.
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