Higher Education

UNC’s “Paper Classes” are Merely the Logical Endpoint of Several Current Trends

Unless you subscribe to the SoD monthly print zinesign up now for the low, low price of $100 per crudely photocopied issue; please make all cheques payable to CASH–chances are you have an internet connection and have seen this recent Vox article on the UNC Chapel Hill “Paper Class” scandal bouncing around your social media feeds.

On the off chance you haven’t, here’s the gist of it: for a period of about eighteen years, a select group of student athletes and other “deserving” undergraduates at Chapel Hill were allowed to sign up for the academic equivalent of no-show sinecures. You know, those sorts of “jobs” that, in olden times, were usually reserved for legitimate businessmen and the Baron Tweedle’s useless nephew. These so-called “paper courses” were classes that, despite offering real credit hours to and fulfilling major requirements for the students enrolled in them, did not actually require students to do any work, learn any material, or even show up anywhere. In other words, they were a bit like MOOCs without even the pretense of giving students little videos to watch in their jammies or a few True/False quizzes to fill in while waiting for Hulu ads to finish playing in the other tab.

A reasonable person unfamiliar with current trends in academic culture might wonder just how such a scheme could occur–basically in the open–for nearly two decades. In fact, from an outsider’s perspective, the whole thing seems positively ludicrous. But the reality of the situation is not that the UNC scandal represents some kind of bizarre fluke or aberration that just happened to go undiscovered. Rather, it represents the logical endpoint of a number of widespread attitudes and practices common in higher education, and it was precisely for this reason that it was able to go on for so long without raising any red flags.

Let’s list a few of them.

Sports Trump Academics

All right, this one is perhaps the most obvious factor in play (hah! get it?), and it is certainly not unique to Chapel Hill. From the article:

On campus, the fake classes, which at least 3,100 students took, were hardly a secret. They were particularly popular with athletes, who made up about half of enrollments. Nearly a quarter of students who took the classes were football and basketball players. And the classes made a difference: good grades that students didn’t have to work for made more than 80 eligible to graduate who otherwise would have flunked out.

We all know that sports-worship is an ongoing problem in American academic culture, and it starts in high school. To my mind there is simply no reason why universities need to be in the sports business at all, or at least certainly not on the pseudo-professional, million-dollar-coach, tv-broadcast level we see today. Even if massive sports programmes did make money for their schools (they don’t), their profits still couldn’t justify the perverse incentives they create to recruit students on the basis of their athletic–rather than academic–performance and to then keep them eligible to play with a potent combination of bird courses and institutional pressure. Can’t we just stick to intramural Quidditch?


Grade Inflation

Our good old friend Grade Inflation has an especially important role to play in the UNC scandal, primarily due to the manner in which it has warped not only universities’ grading practices, but also students’ perceptions of what it really means to “pass” a class. After all, when “A” is for “average,” a cultural expectation is created whereby students can expect to receive a very good grade simply for fulfilling a course’s minimum basic requirements (i.e., “complete all the work”). This of course comes with the inevitable result that students can earn a mere “pass” with less than the minimum basic requirements. Many courses, particularly of the avian kind favoured by the sorts of students more interested in GPAs than actual learning, are designed in such a way as to be nearly impossible to fail so long as the student shows up and puts in even a little bit of effort.

Of course, that does not mean no one fails them–try hard enough and anything is possible. But it is certainly true that, as the minimum requirements for a given course approach zero, it becomes increasingly possible to pass a course simply by registering for it. That is, of course, what we see with the UNC case: as soon as the only requirement for the “paper courses” was a single assignment, it became possible to interpret nearly any “good-faith” attempt to do this assignment as worthy of at least a passing grade:

In some cases, the investigation notes, students took the research paper requirement seriously and put work into researching and writing about their assigned topics. But in many other cases, they turned in papers that were plagiarized, written by tutors, or that had only an introduction and conclusion with “fluff” in between. Crowder sometimes gave out passing grades even if students didn’t turn in anything at all.

Of course, when even inflation fails, there’s always…


The Administrative Bypass

An important outgrowth of the culture of grade inflation is the ability of students to contest grades they don’t like by going directly to administrators. This process can sometimes occur in secret without even the instructor’s knowledge, as we see in the Vox article:

Then Crowder enrolled students in actual lecture classes, but exempted them from all requirements except for a final paper. In some cases, she would add a student to a legitimate class. That student would fail or get an incomplete for never showing up or doing the work. After the student handed a paper in to Crowder at the end of the semester, she’d change the failure or incomplete to a high grade — without the knowledge or consent of the instructor.


Anecdote time: this once happened to me. I had a student take one of my electives on a pass/fail basis, and,due to failing both midterms and the final exam, went on to fail the class. The grade was contested the following year, and I was not consulted in the matter (though I was made aware of it). Officially speaking, her final exam was re-evaluated by a neutral faculty member and given a grade sufficient to raise her overall course grade to a pass. As the final was a multiple-choice exam (and the original result was not even close to the mark required), I assume a wizard was involved at some point in the process.


Failing Isn’t Fair

Ah the motto of grade-grubbers everywhere. Usually written in slightly flawed Latin that nonetheless ended up with an A. But let’s be serious: failing a class can have a pretty major negative impact on a student’s future academic and career prospects. It can mean not getting into grad/med/law school. It can keep students from progressing through their programmes in a timely fashion due to prerequisites or scheduling problems. For students who can ill-afford the tuition expenses for another year in school, it can mean the difference between coming out with a diploma or just a few years’ worth of debt. It can be serious business. And it can be tempting to help out a student in dire straits:

Crowder, as the investigation tells it, was guilty of caring too much. Once a struggling student at UNC-Chapel Hill herself, she felt the college should be more inclusive of students who weren’t the “best and the brightest […] After two athletes he taught were forced to leave UNC due to poor grades, one was murdered. The other was arrested and ended up in jail. Nyang’oro “committed himself to preventing such tragedies in the future and to helping other struggling student-athletes to stay in school,” investigators wrote.


Students can face all kinds of serious obstacles, but spending too much time manoeuvring aball around while wearing unusually shiny pants just isn’t one of them. I am 100% for helping students who are struggling, and for providing those students with the resources and opportunities they need in order to get through their programmes. Sometimes life gets in the way. Sometimes a family member dies. Sometimes there is illness, or inadequate support for a disability, or any number of other things that can make fulfilling even the minimum requirements of a class all but impossible without extra help. When these things happen, it is important that students be able to drop classes without being penalised (academically or financially), and allowed to make up these credits in a more supportive environment.

But the answer is surely not to enroll them in fake courses instead. Yes, sure, it devalues the degree other students are working so hard for, but it’s also profoundly unfair to those students who do need real help and are instead simply being cheated of the opportunity to make real progress. Worst of all, it makes them into a face-saving prop in a crooked system that’s really just about winning the big game. We need loftier goals than that.


Featured image: Chapel Hill’s Kenan Memorial Stadium, by Tnbailee09

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Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal (paypal.me/dandonnelly) if you like his work!

1 Comment

  1. October 24, 2014 at 2:40 am —

    The student-athletes most likely to be in the classes are those in Football and Basketball, often called the “revenue sports”, because they absolutely do generate large amounts of money for the host institution, at least in Division 1. Even the so called losses in bowl games are often over-inflated, by counting certain deductions multiple times, especially revenue sharing, and then not counting the gains from revenue sharing.
    In addition, the gains in in-group bonding far outweigh the financial value of the teams, creating an additional pressure to have sports teams, and a decided value to them.
    This is not to say the current situation is healthy, it’s certainly not, the burdens fall far too heavily on the athletes, who are not paid, making money for everyone else involved. The thing is, you will not soon get schools to give up their football teams, and not just because of money, but because of tradition.


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