Academic Freedom, Meet Big-Time College Sports

Can sports and its money control the curriculum?
By Jay Smith

As a specialist in European history whose most popular courses are Old Regime France and The French Revolution, I am unaccustomed to being the target of censors. Students interested in Molière or the Reign of Terror will find my courses, but the world beyond the classroom has always greeted my teaching with cold indifference. In the University of North Carolina history department that I have called home for twenty-six years, I have never once been told I could not teach a course I wanted to teach. No colleague ever asked questions and no administrator ever cared.

Until last year, that is. Until I developed a course that addresses the history of big-time college sports and the system’s treatment of the athletes it claims to serve. Now, suddenly, people in the halls of power at UNC care very much about my teaching. They care so much that they recently decided that my right to teach the course next year must give way to other “departmental priorities.” (I say “they” because the party ultimately responsible for the decision, whether dean, provost, chancellor, or sports booster, lacks the courage to own it.)

Some faculty colleagues have expressed shock and alarm. Others have shrugged their shoulders, not knowing what to think and not seeing big issues at stake.

The story of my course—its difficult birth, the opposition it inspired, the administrative attempts to kill it—shows just how vulnerable academic values have become in the big-money business of twenty-first-century higher education. Freedom of inquiry and academic freedom have suffered in an academy buffeted by diminished resources, administrative bloat, a ruling corporate ethos, and a clearly unbreakable addiction to professionalized sports.

Sports Under Scrutiny

Since 2010, UNC–Chapel Hill has been embroiled in an athletic-academic scandal of unprecedented scope. A department chair and his administrative assistant, who was a basketball devotee, had created hundreds of fake courses over roughly a twenty-year period. The administrative assistant doled out high grades for the completion of a single paper, often wholly or partially plagiarized. The courses accounted for several thousand student enrollments, with nearly half coming from UNC’s athletic department. (Athletes make up just over 4 percent of the undergraduate student body.) The complexity of the case has meant that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is still debating what punishment to impose.

In 2015 I coauthored a book that addressed the two UNC scandals—the academic fraud itself and the bungled cover-up that followed its initial exposure. I was more than a little relieved to learn, in early 2016, that the university administrative boards responsible for ensuring that UNC courses meet appropriate academic standards had approved the syllabus for my new course, History 383—Big-Time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes, 1956 to the Present—featuring that book.

In many ways, History 383 is a quintessential research university course. It grew out of my own deep research and involvement in the subject matter. It addresses issues of topical importance. It invites students to exercise critical judgment over a domain of experience they have been trained to take for granted—the big-time sports culture to which they are all, to varying degrees, dedicated. In short, mine is the kind of course of which UNC should be proud.

In March 2016, my department began to publicize summer course offerings and students were alerted to the existence and availability of my course. Initially, all seemed well. Yet, within days, my unfortunate department chair, Fitz Brundage, found himself parrying objections to the course from around campus. A faculty member from the sociology department called to question my credentials. Brundage had to defend the existence of the course to Jonathan Hartlyn, a senior associate dean. “How did this course get approved?” he asked. Brundage recounted the process, explained the intellectual rationale for the course, assured the dean of its sound design, reminded him of my recently acquired expertise in the subject, and successfully defended my right to teach it. When he relayed to me the gist of this conversation, we both shook our heads. He told me that he had the distinct impression that Hartlyn was uncomfortable and that he most likely acted on orders from above.

Hostility, I soon learned, was widespread and deep. One of the course activities was a class visit to the Loudermilk Center for Excellence. Adjacent to the football stadium, the center houses the academic support program for athletes, a strength and conditioning room, locker rooms, and luxury seating for well-heeled football fans. Because my students would be reading about the facilities “arms race” among the big-time sports schools, I wanted them to see firsthand how a lavish facility functions. I contacted the director of the center to ask her assistance in facilitating a tour. Finding her unresponsive, I e-mailed the athletic director, Bubba Cunningham. I explained the nature and objectives of the course, told him why a tour of the athletic facility would be valuable, and asked for help getting access to the building.

Cunningham’s reaction stunned me. First, he commended me for creating the “fascinating” course. He then offered to teach it in my stead—for free. He noted in an e-mail that he would thereby be “saving the university a sizable amount of money.” (Cunningham makes $705,000 per year, nearly six times my salary.) He then proceeded to lay out his teaching credentials. He has an MBA, he explained, and could speak knowledgeably about the financial aspects of the athletic enterprise. With twenty-plus years of “relevant, practical experience” working in the sports management business, he was in a position to be more “objective” about the subject. If I insisted on having with a PhD teach the course, he wrote, “I would offer any of our staff members with doctoral degrees and requisite experience,” who would be “better suited” than I to teach the class.

I informed him that I—as the professional historian who had designed this history course—would indeed be doing the teaching. I asked again about getting access to the facilities. He explained that since I had taken a “public position on intercollegiate athletics,” making some “divisive” remarks in the process, “I do not think it would be in the best interest of the University nor [sic] the Department of Athletics to conduct the athletic facility tours as you have requested.” Not wanting to assist “in furthering such an environment” for his staff, he would have to bar me from the facility.

In his 2011 book Big-Time Sports in American Universities, Duke University economist Charles Clotfelter discussed the “rival sets of values” that guide athletic and academic enterprises, with athletic departments favoring hierarchy, obedience, and teamwork while the rest of the university favors free expression, individual autonomy, and the untrammeled pursuit of truth. Cunningham’s response to my modest request appeared to underscore this conflict. Indeed, his reaction was so at odds with traditional academic values that even our athletics-friendly provost saw the need to overrule him. I eventually got my facilities tour.

Student reaction to the course was overwhelmingly positive. Few had been inclined to look at college sports through the lens of athletes’ rights (and the ways in which the system deprives them of basic rights). Even fewer had known much about the mechanics or institutional implications of the UNC scandal or how that scandal figured in the historical landscape of intercollegiate athletics, dotted as it was by regular but ill-conceived or insincere efforts at “reform.” The student consensus at the end of the course was that the UNC scandal had been terrible—and wholly to be expected in light of historical conditions.

Quashing a Course

Seeing the course’s pedagogical value, I decided to ask my associate chair to add a section of History 383 for the fall 2016 semester. I had been scheduled to teach an esoteric philosophy of history course that had attracted few students and was facing possible cancellation, and she scheduled the sports course in its place.

Uh oh. Brundage, who had fought for my right to teach the course back in March, now informed me that the course had been scheduled prematurely. He explained that Hartlyn, the senior associate dean who had acquiesced in my teaching a summer version of 383, had assumed that my course would not be offered during the regular school year; we would now need to get clearance from the administration before proceeding. “I am more than willing to fight for your right to teach this course,” he wrote in an e-mail, “but I suspect that there will be resistance from the usual suspects. I have no idea about on what basis the higher administration can interfere in course scheduling, but I anticipate that they will try to do so.” At the departmental level, we would need to strategize to prepare ourselves for the “likely blowback.” The associate chair in charge of course scheduling told me she dreaded having “to deal with trash-talking from South Building [home to UNC’s administrative offices]” while she pursued her summer research abroad. She asked if I might voluntarily defer teaching the course for a semester or two, while the department’s leaders searched to find “where we’re going to take cover.” I sympathized, but I declined.

It is a testament to my chair’s negotiating ability that he managed to persuade Hartlyn to allow my course to go forward. I attracted about thirty eager and motivated students, virtually all of whom (judging from student evaluations) loved the course and found it both stimulating and enriching. I decided to propose to my department in October 2016 that I include History 383 among my two fall courses for the upcoming academic year.

At UNC, faculty typically teach four courses per year. One of those courses needs to be a broad survey course that brings in high enrollments; occasionally, we are also called on to pitch in with various other obligatory offerings—graduate courses, first-year seminars, honors courses, and so on. But faculty have enormous latitude in deciding how to arrange their basket of four courses from year to year. Although we are sometimes asked to teach something we had not proposed initially (“Jay, would you be willing to take a crack at Dissertation Design?”), we are never asked not to teach a specific course that matters to us. I submitted my course requests for fall 2017, feeling confident about my chair’s negotiating abilities and feeling empowered by the objective evidence of student support and enthusiasm that I had begun to collect.

Brundage told Hartlyn that I was again planning to teach History 383 in a regular semester. (The unusual nature of this exchange—an administrator demanding to know the teaching plans of an individual faculty member, a chair feeling compelled to relay that information without the faculty member’s knowledge— cannot be overemphasized. This in itself was an unprecedented assault on departmental autonomy and intellectual freedom.)

By all appearances, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Kevin Guskiewicz, had decided enough was enough. The dean had been in the job for only nine months and was still developing his leadership style. A MacArthur Award–winning researcher in the processes of athletics-induced brain trauma, he had been the chair of the exercise and sport science department and had successfully raised that program’s national profile. He also had very close relationships with personnel in the athletics department and benefited professionally from his ongoing collaboration with the football program, which assisted him in his concussion research. (Not coincidentally, he also had at least once provided a questionable favor for the athletic program, greenlighting the admission into graduate study of a football player so poorly suited to academic work that he had graduated without even realizing it—in 2003, just as the fake classes scam was reaching peak efficiency.)

Guskiewicz had shown me the courtesy of hosting my class at his concussion research center in late September 2016. Unbeknownst to me, he was already concerned about the existence of my course. Now, in October, as the history department made its plans for the coming year, he was prepared to put his foot down. After the senior associate dean informed him of my plans, Guskiewicz had a conversation with a beleaguered Brundage (the fifth such face-to-face conversation he had had to endure in deans’ offices, all because of my course). “We don’t want that course taught again,” Guskiewicz said. He told Brundage that, after checking in with the Office of Undergraduate Education, he had found that college committees had approved my course only because my name had not been attached to the syllabus; if they had known who would be teaching this course, he confidently asserted, they would have smothered it in its crib. (I could have told the dean that they had a name for this sort of thing in old regime France: “prepublication censorship.” Royal authorities often did this to troublesome writers whose ideas they did not want to see in print.) Guskiewicz told Brundage that the course was not going to be placed on the schedule for next year. Or else. The history department was seeking authorization for a job search; it had entered the college competition to attract minority postdocs. There were any number of ways the department could be made to suffer.

I next received an e-mail from my associate chair. Reminding me that she was “only the piano player” relaying a message sent from on high, she announced the sad news: “I can’t be scheduling 383 for the next academic year.” I asked for a full explanation from Brundage. He told me that he had bargained hard on my behalf (I believe it) and that he took some solace from having saved the course from permanent deletion. But though we had lived to fight another day, he told me, we had lost this battle. He noted that at one point the dean had said, “This is not a threat, but . . .”

Resources are scarce. In the current funding environment, historians, like all non-STEM faculty, feel anxious and unappreciated. To hear a dean say, “This is not a threat” would be chilling for any department chair. Brundage told me I would need to take one for the team.

I soon arranged meetings with Guskiewicz, with Provost James Dean, and with Chancellor Carol Folt. The provost had already casually asserted at a faculty council meeting in November that the canceling of my course was “not really an academic freedom issue.” (He had never contacted my department chair or me to get the history department’s side of the story; he simply delivered the party line.) Guskiewicz had declared at another faculty meeting that the canceling of the course was merely a “departmental scheduling issue.” At that same meeting, he portrayed himself as a defender of high academic principles. (He did not remind the assembled faculty of his past willingness to cut corners when the athletics department needed a favor.) All three looked me in the face and told me that administrators had had nothing to do with the canceling of my course, that it had all been the work of my chair.

And so the bad guys win. My course will not be taught next year. My department has the intention of scheduling the course for the following year, but who could trust such intentions now? The UNC administration risked embarrassment and disgrace to get my course off the books for next year. Someone, somewhere, feels very strongly about the need to suppress discussion of the NCAA, the UNC scandal, the system of intercollegiate athletics, and the rights of the athletes who wear the Carolina blue. Is this likely to change anytime soon?

Fighting for Academic Freedom

I now know firsthand that the political sensibilities of administrators or the donors they continually cultivate can trump common sense, institutional integrity, academic freedom, and a faculty’s commitment to good teaching. Given current conditions in the state of North Carolina and elsewhere, I shudder to think about the pressures that might be brought to bear on colleagues teaching about truly hot-button issues— global warming, terrorism, civil rights, authoritarianism, sexuality studies, the Middle East, and more. Throughout American higher education, absurdly well-paid administrators and their anti-intellectual governing boards have gained the upper hand over cowed and generally powerless faculty. Increasingly, faculty simply do what they are told.

Yet the fight for the soul of the university is one worth having. At UNC–Chapel Hill, we can now see that our administrators learned nothing from the exposure of our decades of academic fraud. They have doubled down on protecting athletics from our critical gaze no matter what and have turned a scandal about classes that existed only on paper into an academic censorship scandal.

Recently we have learned that UNC’s board of governors felt free to shutter the UNC Poverty Center because of its association with the always-outspoken law professor Gene Nichol. We have learned that the distinguished Islamicist Omid Safi left UNC for the more welcoming environment of Duke University, where he is once again free to speak his mind without fear of administrative censorship. We have learned that the board of governors has now set its sights on the law school’s Center for Civil Rights, which has dared to air the state’s dirty laundry by providing pro bono legal representation to poor clients who have suffered at the hands of the powerful. We know that an anonymous and untenured Chapel Hill humanities professor told the New Yorker that “there are certain subjects I simply cannot write about in a public forum and topics I must handle gingerly in my teaching.” To get away with these assaults on academic freedom, UNC’s leaders depend on the indifferent silence of an anxious and overburdened faculty.

It is well past time to draw a line in the sand. When one of the chief weapons of administrators is to dissemble without shame, the first weapon of the resistance must be the willingness to call out the lies and bring the shame. Silence may be one option, but it is an option that betrays the knowledge-making enterprise to which faculty have devoted their lives and careers. The freedom to teach what we discover, and to invite students to join us on a shared journey of discovery, is the bedrock activity of university life. If we fail to defend it, shame on all of us.     

Jay M. Smith is a specialist on early-modern France whose next project will examine attitudes toward truth telling among eighteenth-century political elites. His e-mail address is jaysmith@ email.unc.edu.

Photo by Skot Lindstedt (CC by SA 2.0)

An Academe Blog post by the author covers recent developments in the case discussed in this article.

Comments

Well done. A powerful and timely story that resonates with many of us.

In your followup blog post, you note that "I’m thinking that my next new syllabus will focus on the social and historical roots of the generalized abandonment of integrity on the twenty-first century American campus. "

If you should develop this class - and I hope you do! - please consider offering it as an open online course. I'd sign up for it, and it could become a group activity for many AAUP chapters. It could foster the broad faculty activism that you correctly identify as our only antidote to ever concentrating administrative power.

While I cannot attest to everything that Jay Smith writes, it all rings very true. I have been at UNC for 25+ years and I have never seen a class being canceled like this. Of course, cancelations happen. But they happen very rarely, and it is near impossible that this particular class would be canceled like this purely for administrative reasons.

What is really bad is that Guskiewicz, Dean and Folt did not even bother to invent a better excuse.

We are rooting for you Prof. Smith. Keep it up, please!

It would be an interesting experiment for you to propose new courses such as "The Miracle of The Carolina Way" in which you outline the unalloyed wonderfulness of all things associated wih Tarheel sports and how all of UNC's student-athletes are Rhodes Scholars in the classroom, good citizens who do selfless charitable work in the community, and also superstars on the sports fields, emphasizing how UNC does things better than other schools. Or better yet, you could propose a course that lauds the life and wisdom of Dean Smith to the extent that it becomes more hagiography than an actual course.

I would bet the university would fall all over itself to provide you with virtually unlimited funding for these courses. You would probably even get truckload-sized cash donations from The Rams Club. And you would be invited to teach these courses again and again and again......

Just a thought in case the early modern French history gig doesn't work out.

It takes a lot of courage to write that article. VERY WELL DONE!!!!!!! Isn't this the country of FREEDOM and opportunities? There is freedom of speech and academic freedom as long as you do not say what you are not supposed to. How dare you want to teach about facts that nobody should know? That endangers the salaries of those who make 6 and 7 and 10 times our salaries!!
As M Chandler suggests; just create new courses about how wonderful they are and you will be "FREE" to teach them every semester.

A beautiful sentence:"The freedom to teach what we discover, and to invite students to join us on a shared journey of discovery, is the bedrock activity of university life."

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