Thursday, October 23, 2014

''I think the existence of fake classes and automatic grades - you might say an athlete track, where essentially you might as well not have the university at all - I think that's pretty extreme. I hope it's pretty extreme,'' said Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education who studies cheating.  He was referring to the UNC Chapel Hill scandal, in which it was discovered that some 1500 student athletes were allowed to take fake courses for which they were assigned high grades based only on an essay that was briefly skimmed by a non-faculty administrator.  An investigation has been completed, resulting in several firings, and the NCAA is still considering its next steps.

Of course, this sort of skirting of academic standards to accommodate student athletes is hardly unheard-of, and one could even call this a dog-bites-man story, unworthy of much attention--except for one widely ignored detail:  nearly half the 3100 students given credit for the bogus courses were athletes. In other words, more than half the students given credit for the bogus courses weren't athletes at all.

Some obvious questions that will probably never receive an answer:

1) How did non-athletes hear about and register for these courses?

2) Was every student who asked to register for these courses accepted, and if not, what criteria were used to accept some and reject others?

3)  If benefiting the UNC athletic program and its athletes was the internal rationale for offering these bogus courses to athletes, then what other internal rationale justified offering them to non-athletes?

4) Why does the press insist on treating this scandal as a matter of excessive indulgence of student athletes, when over half the beneficiaries were non-athletes?

5) If UNC could show this sort of rampant disregard for academic standards irrespective of campus athletics, then why shouldn't we expect it to be endemic in the American university system as a whole, also irrespective of campus athletics?


sean said...

Later reports indicate that many (most?) of the non-athletes were in the Greek system. Those students are more socially connected than others, so they are quicker to learn of opportunities like this by word of mouth.

As to why all students didn't take this opportunity, the classes were in the Afro-Am department. Most employers know that such courses are a joke, where everyone gets A's (admittedly, at some universities, you have to actually do some work), so there is a countervailing disincentive to have such course on your transcript.

In general, I would say that most employers (I am one) are not as stupid as professors think we are, and probably not as stupid as grad school admissions officers.

Dan said...

Interesting--I was not aware that African-American studies courses were broadly understood to be worthless, or rather even more so than the average non-core liberal arts course. Is it your understanding that most employers can roughly judge the rigor of a transcript from the course names and grades? And if so, do the students who take those worthless courses generally know that their prospective employers won't be fooled?

I remember easy courses being available and widely known by reputation when I was in college, and I don't think interviewing employers were necessarily savvy enough to identify them. But then, in my field those were mere accompaniments to the numerous rigorous core courses that employers presumably paid the most attention to. How would an employer go about deciphering the random collection of courses and grades--some bogus, some perhaps less so--on the typical modern liberal arts student's transcript at a place like UNC Chapel Hill?

Anonymous said...

Let's face it, some universities are fast becoming a joke. I have recently read that Dalhousie in Nova Scotia has a credit course in protesting and one can obtain 20% worth of the final mark just by showing up at a demonstration.

sean said...

Hmm, rejoining a very drawn-out conversation. To respond to Dan's question below: employers look at course titles and give some weight to the difficulty of the courses, not just the GPA; employers' judgments about academic difficulty are likely to be superficial (although the Afro-Am courses here were in fact jokes); a clever department looking to boost enrollment could probably create a whole bunch of easy courses whose nature was not readily apparent to outsiders, but professors aren't that smart; and a well-counseled student will take a handful of easy courses to reduce stress and improve his or her GPA, but not so many that the transcript becomes an obvious joke.

sean said...

"below" should be "above."