The humiliation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill continues. Last month, a comprehensive investigation at UNC revealed that many athletes had been receiving credit for no-show classes and unauthorized grade changes within the African and Afro-American studies department since 1997, more than fifteen years ago. The deeply entrenched fraud—which extended to 216 courses, some composed of more than 40 percent athletes—has been a devastating embarrassment to the university.
The athletics scandal at UNC should be a grave warning to Duke about the potentially dangerous combination of high profile sports, weak administrative oversight and bias toward the status quo. Fortunately, Duke has not experienced a widespread scandal related to academic impropriety among its athletes. But it is not immune to misconduct. In 1995, Duke basketball center Greg Newton was found cheating on a computer science program and, after a two-semester suspension, returned to Duke and continued playing on the team. In 1997, Duke guard Ricky Price was caught plagiarizing and also later returned to the university and the team.
With teams generating large revenues as well as an international and high-powered fanbase, Duke is in some sense the perfect storm for an athletically motivated academics scandal. The pressures on our student athletes are enormous. Their teammates, coaches and fans have extraordinarily high expectations of them. It is thus easy to imagine professors experiencing implicit pressure to not obstruct a high-stakes sports season. Consider the community reaction if a star basketball player were benched for a crucial playoff game due to academic underperformance.
Professors can have other reasons for cutting corners. Although there was no clear motive for the counterfeit courses at UNC, the report suggested that the African and Afro-American department—whose courses were especially popular among athletes—may have wanted to increase enrollment and gain more faculty positions.
It is hard to imagine the partial or complete falsification of 216 courses happening at Duke, but surely the UNC community could not have fathomed such a terrible thing—until it happened. If Duke is to learn anything from our rival’s misfortunes, it is to be hyper-vigilant or else risk a similarly ruinous catastrophe. After its scandal, UNC has enacted strict vetting of independent study courses and stronger departmental oversight. The Athletic Council—a presidential committee within the Academic Council—should monitor UNC’s policy revisions closely and evaluate Duke’s own mechanisms of maintaining academic integrity on both sides of the classroom, from both the student and the teacher perspective.
To be clear, we have no reason to believe that any Duke student-athletes, faculty or administrators are acting improperly. But as with any big sports school, the danger is there. Recent incidents of child abuse at Penn State, improper booster benefits at University of Miami and inappropriate staff hires at University of Arkansas all point to the misconduct that can occur when no one is looking. Now, UNC is reeling from the astonishing truth about its academic corruption, which hurts the vast majority of student athletes who have diligently and honorably earned their degrees. Fortunately, Duke has not yet experienced a similar disaster, and it should take every precaution to ensure it never does.