Still Seeking Answers

For a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed prospective UNC-Chapel Hill student, the school’s academic-athletic scandal is a big pill to swallow.

When my parents dropped me off at Koury Residence Hall on campus in August of 2013, I remember my mother mentioning it offhandedly and asking if I had read much about it. I hadn’t.

She didn’t pursue the topic, and I’m sure we went on to something else, like fruitlessly trying to hammer the frame of my bed in place.

And I didn’t really have to think about paper classes or how the school handles the sometimes toxic relationship between academics and athletics for more than a year after that — until the Wainstein report came out a year ago.

Around that time, I was working as an assistant desk editor at The Daily Tar Heel. DTH coverage of the report was constant and thorough, and the scandal was an even hotter newsroom topic than usual. But outside the DTH, most of the people I knew — who didn’t read the paper daily — weren’t really talking about it, nor were my professors.

The only tangible relevance it all had to my own daily experience as a student was that I was taking a class from Tim McMillan, one of the professors in the Afro- and African-American and Diaspora Studies department, who was quietly pushed out following the Wainstein report’s damning accusation that he probably knew at least a little something about his department’s fake classes.

It was improbable that I would end up in McMillan’s class in the last, fateful semester he taught at UNC. In the weeks following the report, he seemed increasingly stressed, and students in the class whispered that he was being let go.

I was thoroughly shocked, because I’d told many people over the course of the fall that he was the best professor I’d had yet. He pioneered the Black and Blue Tour that gave students an idea of how black faculty and students have experienced UNC’s campus over the years. He gave thrilling lectures that had the whole class gasping with surprise and fascination.

On the day of our final exam, I was one of the last students left in the room, and I told him that his class had inspired me to major in African-American Studies. This was the only time I heard him say anything direct about the scandal and the Wainstein report: bitterly, he said, “Oh yeah? Please tell that to the school when you graduate.”

On a personal level, I was angry that Professor McMillan was being targeted when it seemed to me like there must have been plenty more people who knew what was going on, or were complicit in it, than the Wainstein report implied.

But as a student who knew very little about faculty politics or the conversations that had to have happened behind closed doors all over campus after the report came out, I felt helpless to do much and struggled even just to better understand what had happened. Despite a vigilant student newspaper and several student discussion forums, the whole thing still seemed shrouded in mystery.

Could it really just have been the woman’s basketball team and AAAD department that were involved in this? Or were they just scapegoats for a tight-lipped administration that wouldn’t admit it was responsible in any direct capacity?

Just this August, with junior year off to a roaring start, I happened to end up with the assignment of answering the following question: Where are we, a year after the Wainstein report came out?

At first, I was pumped. At the DTH I’d never gotten an opportunity to report on the scandal, and I figured this was a chance to dig deep and come to understand what I couldn’t wrap my head around.

The first step was to read the report and try to read as much old news coverage of the scandal as I could. I Googled, I read DTH archives, I scrolled and scrolled through dozens of pages of Wainstein, which was a bit like reading a burn book. It’s uncomfortable, parts of it feel very he-said she-said, but it’s hard to put down.

I expected to feel more secure, which is what usually happens when I do research on a topic before starting the reporting process. Instead, I felt infinitely more confused. There were dozens and dozens of names of people who had some sort of stake in this process; there were the confusing, vague quotes from UNC officials that did little to clear up questions about how and why the academic dishonesty began.

But most important, and what made the least sense to me, was that no UNC administrators and no major figures in the athletic department were seriously penalized. The problems were cast as isolated, the scandal caused by a few bad apples and mostly in one department.

That would cause — and has caused — skepticism in anyone reading about the scandal. But for me, it was especially frustrating, because it meant I wasn’t any closer to understanding why my favorite professor was fired from a job he clearly loved and to which he devoted himself fully.

As I continued to do research for the story, I began to feel more and more helpless. I had wanted to add something to the conversation about how academics and athletics interact, but I wasn’t sure it would even be useful to add more conjecture to a conversation already full of half-truths and careful political dodging.

When I called someone in the athletic department trying to get an interview, I was quickly redirected to the department staffer responsible for communications, which was normal — but to me it felt like further confirmation that all I would be able to get would be sugarcoated, public relations nonsense.

In the end, despite having written investigative pieces in the past and having experience dealing with tough reporting situations, I decided I just felt too uninformed, too lost in documents and with too little access to anyone who would be able and willing to tell me the whole truth.

No doubt many other people would have continued to pursue the story where I stopped. It’s very common, of course, for the most important topics to be the most difficult to report on. But something about this story had gotten to me in a way that other equally complex stories I’d written had not.

I don’t often write about UNC, and I suspect part of the problem is that I felt immense pressure to do the story justice for the benefit of UNC students, the AAAD department, Tim McMillan and the general Chapel Hill community.

But mostly, I think what scared me was this: despite all the work over many years by DTH and other local reporters, despite many public statements by the university, despite student forums following the Wainstein report’s release, and despite two separate investigations into the scandal, the University has never had to publicly bear any real responsibility for a culture of valuing athletes — and the money they represent — over quality education.

While I am just another undergrad who doesn’t completely understand the inner workings and history of UNC, I don’t think I’m alone in having these feelings and these questions. The skeletons in UNC’s closet had a human toll — they stripped this university of a passionate, effective professor who improved my education. And I’m not sure if that was the solution to a problem that seems systemic.

I think UNC owes me, my classmates and the student body as a whole real, authentic, honest answers to our questions. That’s probably too much to ask of university bureaucracy, but the least we can do is pose the question.