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INSIGHT: I Helped Investigate 18 Years of Paper Classes at UNC—Lessons for the Admissions Scandal

March 22, 2019, 8:00 AM

In the wake of recent charges against parents for seeking “side doors” through bribery and other criminal conduct for their children to gain admittance to prestigious schools, colleges and universities are faced with questions about their integrity, fairness, and transparency.

Already, commentators are asking whether our system of higher education is broken; whether money buys access at the cost of merit; and whether these charges merely highlight the entitlement of elites. While certainly broader in nature, these questions are not so different than those asked of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in its paper class scandal.

UNC confronted many of these questions when it was discovered that the university had, unbeknownst to most leaders, permitted a shadow curriculum of paper classes (classes that did not meet and required only a single paper to earn a high grade) to persist for over a decade. It faced allegations that this scheme permitted athletes and other students to remain eligible to participate in sports, remain in school, and in sometimes, graduate.

I was part of the investigative team that was ultimately retained by UNC to ferret out what happened, to ask the tough questions and pull no punches. Now, I am a founding member, along with several of my colleagues at my law firm, of an organizational integrity group that focuses on assisting organizations (schools, corporations, and others) in responding to crises where the organization’s overall integrity is called into question.

Be Open, Investigate, Take Action, Learn

Based on these experiences, I offer the following lessons learned from UNC and other engagements to universities addressing the current scandal.

First, universities should be “out in front” on this issue. University leaders should make public statements reinforcing their institutions’ commitment to integrity in aspects of campus life, but especially in admissions and academics. University leaders should communicate this commitment to all constituencies—students, faculty, staff, athletics, alumni and, in the case of public schools, government leaders.

Leaders should take questions, and where possible, answer questions directly. They should not remain in their offices, but should be out walking the campus and addressing campus groups.

Second, universities must commit to “get to the bottom” of what happened. They must affirm to their constituents that they will root out the facts of what happened and, to the extent possible, share their findings with the public. While painful, universities that “rip off the band aid” and thoroughly probe what happened will be able to move past the scandal.

For example, it was only the probing investigation we conducted at UNC that allowed the school to move forward after nearly three years of responding to countless news media and community requests. And it made the report public, bringing an end to questions that plagued the university for years. As Justice Brandeis long ago quipped, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Third, universities must take—and describe—corrective measures. Based upon the findings of its investigation, university leaders must be prepared to take—and must take—decisive actions to correct misconduct.

In connection with the recent charges, some universities have already terminated its relationships with charged coaches. But more will be needed to prevent the same thing from happening again. Universities must be prepared to review their admissions policies and procedures to ensure that there is no room—no way— for similar misconduct to recur.

Universities should establish controls, for example, that confirm that students admitted as “athletes” are indeed on the field (and not just in the classroom).

Lastly, universities are the perfect place for a discussion of the broader issues raised by this scandal. Colleges would do well to embrace the opportunity the scandal presents to tackle the issues head-on as part of a university events series, townhalls, or other lectures.

What is the role of the modern university? Should it be different? How does the selectivity of a particular school affect the composition of its student body? Should admission be completely blind?

There are no easy answers to these and other existential questions, but it seems to me that the university is a perfect place to begin discussing them.

Author Information

A. Joseph Jay III is a member of the White Collar Team and a partner in the Government Contracts, Investigations, and International Trade practice group at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP. He was a principal member of the investigative team at the UNC, Chapel Hill, and a primary author of the final report that found an 18-year history of irregular paper classes. Along with a few of his partners, he is a founding member of Sheppard Mullin’s Organizational Integrity Group.