Friday, November 7, 2014


Here in Chapel Hill, attention has been focused on a scandal that has now broken wide open involving the Department of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies, shadow courses and phony grades, and thousands of Black student athletes and White fraternity members over a period of eighteen years.  Carol Folt, the new Chancellor of the campus, commissioned a study of the matter by an old, established New York law firm, Cadwalader, Wickersham, and Taft, and while Susie and I were in Paris, their 130 page report was released by the university.  I have read the entire report, and it is so appalling that it makes my heart sick. 

Two decades ago, a misguided office manager in the campus's Black Studies department took it upon herself to "help" at-risk Black athletes, who are required by NCAA regulations to maintain a 2.0 GPA in order to be eligible to play.  These student athletes, who at a school like UNC are essentially full-time unpaid athletic employees, were encouraged to sign up for phony "Independent Study" courses that never met and had no content.  At the end of the semester, they would submit patently inadequate "papers," often plagiarized in part and even not written by them.  The office manager would glance at them and herself give them A's or B's, which, when averaged in with their other courses, would suffice to bring them above the 2.0 cut-off.  Eventually, she roped the Department Chair into this scheme, and listed him on occasion for as many as 300 Independent Study courses in a single year.  When questions were raised about the large number of Independent Studies showing up on the student records, she actually started creating phantom lecture courses and "enrolled" the students in them, signing her own name to the grade sheets.

The employees of the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes [ASPSA] worked hand in glove with the department secretary, often telling her precisely what grade a student needed to preserve eligibility, which she would then provide.  The Higher Administration and the Athletic Directors and Coaches of the university claim to have been blissfully unaware of the practice, which extended over two decades during the tenure of five coaches of the world-famous basketball team, but it did not escape the notice of the student body.  Young men on fraternity row caught wind of what was going on and started enrolling in these phantom "courses."  The Cadwalader report, which is exemplary in its completeness, reveals that 53% of the enrolments in the non-courses were by frat members, not athletes.

These sorts of scandals typically unfold gradually.  The NCAA has not yet been heard from, and it is entirely within its authority to ban UNC from television or from March Madness for a number of years, as well as to reduce the number of athletic scholarships UNC is permitted to offer.  The sports affected by the scandal are principally men's basketball, women's basketball, and football, although a few of the phony enrolments were of students in what are apparently called "Olympic sports."  I think we can safely predict that the shit is going to hit the fan.

Kenneth Wainstein, the author of the Cadwalader report, interviewed everyone even marginally involved in the affair, including notably the department secretary, whose retirement five years ago triggered a crisis that led to the exposure of the scheme [the ASPSA employees were frantic that they would no longer be able to get phony A's and B's on request for their charges] and the Department Chair, who was forced to retire.  Wainstein's focus, quite properly, is on what people knew and when they knew it, to invoke the useful phrase from the old Watergate hearings.  But in everything I have read on this affair, there has been not a single word about an aspect of it that touches me personally, and is I believe of very great importance.  In this extended blog post, I am going to talk about that.  In a phrase, this scandal has done devastating damage to the reputation of Black Studies. 

Recall that although I am by profession a Philosopher, I spent the last sixteen years of my half-century career as a Professor in the W. E. B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  I joined the department to help in the creation of a ground-breaking doctoral program in Afro-American Studies, and when our proposal was approved by the state education board, I ran that program as Graduate Program Director for twelve years.  It is an astonishingly successful program that takes Black, White, Hispanic, and Asian students, puts them through a severely rigorous course of study, and turns out a stream of professionally qualified graduates who go on to write books and professional articles and earn tenure at colleges and universities.  I am more proud of what we did during those years than I am of anything else I have accomplished in my teaching career.

Let me briefly review a subject on which I have written at length elsewhere.  Black Studies as a university discipline was created in struggle during the 1960's.  The Civil Rights Movement broke down the barriers that had blocked all but a tiny handful of Black students from enrolling in historically all-white northern colleges and universities.  When significant numbers of Black students showed up on those campuses, they found that their story and that of their forebears could nowhere be found in the curriculum.  Slavery scarcely got a mention.  The Civil War seemed to have been fought over States' Rights, the literature and art and science created by Black men and women was invisible.  It will be difficult for the younger among you to understand, but even jazz, the quintessential Black contribution to American culture, was attributed initially to a white band leader named -- I kid you not -- Paul Whiteman!

The students demanded that their story be part of the curriculum, and the White colleges and universities, terrified by the prospect of riots and demonstrations on campus, gave in.  For the most part, they created ad hoc Committees, Programs, Majors, Minors, Institutes, and other administrative dodges designed to allow the appearance of acquiescence without the permanence of tenure.  Very quickly, more than five hundred such Black Studies programs sprang up, for the most part paid for with "soft money" that did not involve "tenure lines."  [The academics among you will understand the deeper meaning of these administrative arrangements.]  Even in the Harvard Afro-American Studies Department, made famous by Skip Gates' show-boating and money raising and his assembling of what he called his Dream Team, every single member of the department has a joint appointment with Afro-American Studies and some other "real" department.  Hence, should Harvard decide that the heat is off, it can summarily decommission the department, send everyone back to his or her other department, and avoid breaking tenure.

The Academy never wanted Black Studies, never believed in Black Studies, did not consider Black Studies a legitimate field of inquiry, and has for half a century taken every chance it gets to defund it, discontinue it, or fold it into some larger entity like "Ethnic Studies" [on what might be called the "Nigger Jim Theory"  -- I refer of course to arguably America's greatest novel, Huckleberry Finn.]

At UMass, Afro-Am was constantly under assault, despite the fact that the campus was then, and perhaps still is, one of the most politically progressive campuses in America.  The doctoral program we designed was extraordinarily demanding -- a required first year two semester double seminar in which the students read fifty major works of history, politics, sociology, and literature, and write fifty papers!  But when we submitted our proposal to the Faculty Senate for approval, it languished for almost a year because the sub-committee professor assigned the task of finding three people to review it claimed she could not find anyone.  In twenty-four hours, we found three of the most distinguished members of the faculty who took on the task and gave the proposal resounding approval.

Black Studies is always under attack in a way that no other academic discipline is.  The rest of the faculty is always looking for reasons to deny its legitimacy, defund it, deny its status as a field of study.  What that departmental secretary, that department chair, and all those across the campus complicit in this appalling scheme have done is to give the nay-sayers all the excuse they will ever need.  What is more, in this instance, the nay-sayers are right!  The department has not be engaged in a legitimate academic enterprise.  It has for twenty years served as an enabler for all the frenzied Tarheel fans for whom making it to the Final Four is the alpha and omega of their college experience.  This scheme has done a profound disservice to two decades of UNC undergraduates, and it has dealt a devastating blow to the discipline of Afro-American Studies, at least on this campus.

This is why reading the Cadwalader Report made me heartsick and outraged.

As for the Tarheels, I am not a fan.

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