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Wednesday February 1st

Scandal: a student's examination of Jay Smith's class on college athletics

Professor Jay Smith, pictured here in 2017, teaches History 383.
Buy Photos Professor Jay Smith, pictured here in 2017, teaches History 383.

Editor's note: Kiana Cole is a graduating senior and the outgoing director of investigations for The Daily Tar Heel. This piece is told from her first-person perspective, as she was a student in History 383 during the spring 2018 semester. Though much of the reporting done for the piece was conducted during the semester, this piece was written, edited and published after she received her final grade in the course. 

The Daily Tar Heel acknowledges that, because of her involvement in the course, this is not an unbiased perspective — however, we believe Cole's perspective and thorough examination of the course's history is newsworthy and underreported. We encourage our readers to examine the relevant documents linked in this article. 

History professor Jay Smith has contributed guest columns to The Daily Tar Heel regarding the athletic-academic scandal and the Honor Code in the past, which you can read here. Other contextual articles on History 383 and the scandal are linked throughout the article, along with documents from and by the University related to this piece. 

Even if you haven’t taken History 383 at UNC, you probably know what it’s about. 

“Big-Time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes, 1956-Present," taught by history professor Jay Smith, is one of the few history classes currently offered at UNC that has a history of its own. It examines the evolution of college athletics in the United States, the formation of the NCAA and the rights of student athletes.

But this isn’t why the course might sound familiar. 

You’ve probably heard of History 383 before because it also examines UNC’s own athletics and academics scandal, which, according to the Wainstein report published in 2014, involved the participation of more than 3,000 students — many of them student athletes — in fraudulent classes. 

In October of 2017, the NCAA determined that UNC's "paper courses" had not constituted a violation, because they could not prove that the classes were exclusively offered to student-athletes. Though UNC was initially put on academic probation by the Southern Association of Schools Commission on Colleges due to these findings, the probation was lifted in 2016 after a year-long monitoring process. 

Read More: A chapter closes, six years later

Smith says that when he attempted to teach History 383 during the fall 2017 semester, his efforts were suppressed by administrative forces outside of the history department. 

In July 2017, he filed a grievance with the University's Faculty Grievance Committee, asserting that his academic freedom had been violated. 

On April 20, 2018, the Board of Trustees issued the final say in the matter: the University’s administration did not violate Smith’s academic freedom in the case of History 383 being kept off the fall 2017 schedule.

Even if you haven’t taken History 383 at UNC, I have. That’s because, though Smith was unable to teach it in the fall 2017 semester, it was added to the spring 2018 schedule shortly after he filed his first grievance. 

Going into this story, my initial plan was to focus mainly on this recent BOT decision about History 383. But when I began reporting a few weeks ago, my editor felt pushback over a potential conflict of interest, as I was a student in the class at the time. 

So I stopped writing. I took the final exam, refreshed ConnectCarolina until my final grade was posted, and then — as a former student of History 383 — I started writing again. 

As I wrote, I thought about the coverage of History 383 up until now. Reporters have presented the facts. University officials have commented on it. Smith has vocalized his frustrations. But there hasn’t been much, if any, insight from the people who know the most about the course, the people who the course is ultimately for: the students. 

We rarely talked about History 383's backstory in class. Smith didn’t bring it up unless he was asked. But many of my classmates knew it had been borne out of strenuous circumstances, and many – like myself – had questions.

I believe that students should be able to know the context of their classes. So, instead of ignoring my perspective as a former student of History 383, I decided to embrace it. I wanted to understand how this class came to be, so I decided to start from the beginning. 

The history of History 383 begins in the summer of 2016. 

'I’ve never received any explanation'

When a professor in the history department at UNC begins planning what they’re going to teach for the next school year, the process is fairly routine: the associate chair of the department – in this case, Louise McReynolds – sends out a course request form, which professors use to list what courses they’d like to teach, and at what times. This process begins anywhere from 14 months to a year ahead of the teaching period in question.

Then, some compromising. 

Scheduling a department’s courses for any given school year is one-quarter science, three-quarters art, History Department Chair W. Fitzhugh Brundage said, especially when you think about all the prerequisite courses and first-year seminars that have to coexist with higher-level classes. 

Brundage and Smith both said negotiations within the department during this process are normal – sometimes, professors have to teach a lecture or seminar that wasn’t their first choice in order to meet the demands of the department. 

What’s not normal is hearing from anyone outside – or above – the department about the scheduling of a specific class. 

So when Senior Associate Dean Jonathan Hartlyn reached out to Brundage in 2016 about the History 383 course Smith was teaching that summer, Brundage didn't know what to do. He'd never encountered a similar situation before. 

Hartlyn asked Brundage about the course and, most memorably, asked to be notified if the class was ever going to be taught again. He also asked Brundage if Smith, specifically, planned to teach the course again, to which Brundage said he had no idea.

As Smith would later put it during his Faculty Grievance Committee hearing, he “became a bit of a lightning rod for Tar Heels fans everywhere” after writing a book about the scandal and the events that led up to it, “Cheated." The book was published in 2015 and co-authored with Mary Willingham, a former reading specialist at UNC who blew the whistle on the academic fraud at UNC involving athletes. 

According to a recent letter written by Chancellor Folt on March 20, 2018, the dean made this request to be notified so that he could defend the class and answer inquiries, and not to prevent or inhibit its scheduling. 

In an interview, I asked Brundage if the dean ever explained why he wanted to be notified if the course were to be taught again. 

“No," Brundage said. "To this day, I have no idea why there was any interest in this course."

He continued. “I mean, I can speculate. But I’ve never received any explanation.” 

'When our powder will be dry'

Brundage kept his conversation with Hartlyn to himself until May 2016 when through an email exchange, Smith mentioned an idea he’d been toying with: what if, instead of teaching the honors course he was slated to teach for fall 2016, he could teach History 383 instead? He explained that History 383 had a strong enrollment over the summer, and since the scheduled honors course for the fall only had four students enrolled at the time, it seemed like a logical switch.

McReynolds saw the email and, unaware of the conversation between Brundage and Hartlyn, approved this request the next day, since “we still have sufficient Honors courses to meet our requirements there,” she said in an email.

Brundage, who was out of town at the time, watched this series of events unfold in his inbox, unsure of what to do.

“It created a difficult situation for me, because I told the dean that I would notify them if Jay was going to teach it again,” he said. “This was uncharted territory for me, and I didn’t know what was going on here."

On May 16, 2016, Brundage replied to Smith. He explained that he would have to discuss teaching 383 in the fall with Hartlyn. 

“I am more than willing to fight for your right to teach this course in the regular academic year (or whenever you would like to do so),” Brundage said in the email. “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.”

I asked Brundage why he said this. Aside from the conversation with Hartlyn, why was he already suspicious that there would be resistance to scheduling the course?

He said that, at this point, he’d already received emails from people outside the history department questioning what the course was and why Smith was teaching it, some people vowing to never give money to the school again, or even suggesting that Smith be fired. 

On May 17, 2016, once McReynolds and Smith were made aware of the discussion between Brundage and Hartlyn, McReynolds asked Smith: "Do you want to try teaching 383 in the spring, when our powder will be dry?” 

To this, Smith responded that he's "hopping mad" at the idea of having to postpone his History 383 class because of pressures coming from outside of the department. 

“In my opinion my academic freedom is being seriously infringed, outrageously so, and I would like to think that the department as a whole would be less than happy about that," he said in the email. "There is no plausible excuse for denying my request to teach it.” 

McReynolds replied that she was not suggesting Smith’s academic freedom be denied, just that the course be taught in the spring instead of fall, “because it would be less of a headache for me (and undoubtedly Fitz) at the moment.” 

In the end, Smith taught History 383 during the fall of 2016, as was his intention. But this is a crucial period in understanding the evolution of History 383, because it's when those besides Brundage become aware that there was interest in the course – and who was teaching it – coming from administrators outside the history department. 

Read More: Emails show Jay Smith and big-time sports course faced resistance from athletics

Where the rubber hits the road 

“Where the rubber really hits the road for me – really, seriously hits the road – is when I request to teach it again (for the) fall of 2017,” Smith said.

In October 2016, about six months later, McReynolds emailed Smith. She needed to schedule an honors course for the next fall, she said. In his reply, Smith said that, since he’d like to teach 383 for the fall of 2017, he could update the curriculum and turn it into an honors course to meet that need.

McReynolds replied, “I can’t be scheduling 383 for the next academic year. For which, of course, there are multiple sources.” She told him the goal would be to get the course on the schedule for the fall of 2018. 

“Are you telling me I have to take 383 out of the rotation for all of next year?” Smith replied. “Have you or anyone else ever told anyone else that same thing about a particular course? The whole thing strikes me as absurd.”  

The conversation around scheduling 383 for the academic year continues, but by late fall of 2016, Brundage made the decision: History 383 would not be offered for during the fall of 2017. 

In response to this, Smith filed a grievance with the Faculty Grievance Committee in July of 2017, alleging that his academic freedom had been violated.

This is when the nearly year-long grievance process begins. The arguments from both Smith and the University boil down to this: Smith says that his academic freedom was violated because he was kept from teaching History 383 in the fall 2017 semester since Brundage, intimidated by the administration, decided to keep the class off the schedule. 

Read More: History faculty say cancellation of Jay Smith's big-time college sports course violated academic freedom

The University says that the administration was only interested in History 383 because, in the fall of 2016, it replaced an honors course that already had students enrolled, and honors courses are necessary to meet the University’s strategic goals.

Smith amended his grievance once History 383 was scheduled for the spring 2018 semester, but suggested that the only reason it was added to the spring rotation was because he had brought attention to the issue by filing his initial grievance.

Once a grievance is filed with the Faculty Grievance Committee, the committee can decide whether or not they want to take the issue up. In this case, they did. In September, they held a hearing.

A transcript of the Faculty Grievance Committee's hearing in August 2017, obtained by The Daily Tar Heel from Smith.

The hearing took place in a closed setting, and therefore, most of the names on the hearing’s transcript have been redacted.

According to the transcript, Smith explained that his academic freedom was violated because he wasn’t able to teach the course in the fall due to external pressure on the department. 

A respondent from the University replied that the reason the administration got involved with History 383 was because it was taking the place of an honors course, which are necessary to meet curricular needs.

“(Smith) doesn't like that answer because it, perhaps, doesn't sound scandalous enough,” a respondent for the University said, according to the transcript. The respondent goes on to say that there was no grand scheme to prevent Smith from ever teaching History 383.

“Instead, my discussions about the course focused on how it fit within the greater strategic priorities for the department and the college, and I've stated time and time again that I was specifically concerned about this course having replaced History 516 Honors, which was already on the books, and had students enrolled in it,” the respondent said. 

After the hearing, the committee published their findings in October 2017. While they acknowledged there were several requests for remedy in Smith’s initial grievance that were out of their control to recommend, they sided with Smith. 

The Faculty Grievance Committee's findings after Smith filed his complaint, released on Oct. 3, 2017.

“Senior University officials have a right to set those goals and to expect that department scheduling decisions, in the aggregate, support those goals,” their findings stated. "But University officials should not interfere in individual course selection decisions made by department officials nor should they pressure department officials in favor of or against particular courses."

The committee noted that it did not find any evidence of personal bias against Smith. They go on to say that adding History 383 to the spring 2018 calendar was not the appropriate remedy. 

“The inclusion of History 383 in the spring 2018 schedule after Professor Smith filed his grievance does not provide adequate relief because it does not eliminate the Committee’s concerns about the initial course scheduling process,” the findings stated. “The fact that Professor Brundage now feels empowered to add History 383 to the regular academic schedule does not change the fact that he did not feel so empowered in fall 2016.”

From there, the committee sent its finding to the provost, Robert Blouin. In November 2017, the Provost rejected the grievance committee’s findings on the grounds that the grievance was moot, as Smith was scheduled to teach the class in question the next semester, and no further adjustments needed to be made.

Provost Robert Blouin's Nov. 30 response to Smith's grievance.

Furthermore, the provost asserted, "I strongly believe that University leaders can and should maintain oversight over course offerings, which includes the right to participate in individual course selection decisions." While faculty have the right to teach, investigate and publish freely, "the exercise of these rights should not interfere with the overriding obligation of an institution to offer its students a sound education," his statement said. 

Once the provost rejected the committee’s findings, the committee issued an appeal to Chancellor Folt on Smith's behalf. On Feb. 26, 2018, the Chancellor issued a statement siding with the provost’s decision. 

“The primary remedy sought, beginning with your original grievance, was to be allowed to teach History 383, which you are doing this semester,” Folt said in the letter, addressed to Smith. “That decision, to put HIS 383 on the schedule for the Spring 2018 semester, was already in place when you filed your amended grievance. Accordingly, I agree with Provost Blouin that your grievance in (sic) now moot and no adjustment is necessary.” 

After this decision, it was up to Smith if he wanted to continue the process. He did. When I asked him why he wanted to keep fighting these decisions, he said it was because the end goal in all this wasn’t just to teach History 383 again, as the provost and chancellor asserted – he wanted the University to acknowledge the truth of what happened and ensure it wouldn’t be repeated. 

“I want them to acknowledge that they departed from academic practice in ways that are coercive of academic freedom, and then simply affirm that they won’t do it again,” he said. 

Smith's appeal to the Board of Trustees after Chancellor Folt rejected the grievance committee's findings. 

On March 8, Smith appealed to the Board of Trustees. He refuted the notion that his primary remedy sought was to be able to teach the course again: “A course got put back on the schedule after months of bitter fighting; the conditions that produced the fighting in the first place… have never been addressed,” he said in his appeal.

On April 2, the BOT issued their findings in response to his appeal. They agreed with Chancellor Folt. The primary remedy had already been met, and any remedy beyond that – in other words, the assurance Smith sought that a situation like this would not happen again – would “undermine the authority of the Dean to oversee curriculum and would be contrary to the University’s institutional standards and accreditation requirements,” the findings stated. 

Unanswered questions

In addition to hearing from different voices within the history department, I wanted to understand what happened from everyone involved, and I was especially interested in speaking with Dean Kevin Guskiewicz, the head of the College of Arts and Sciences.

I emailed him about this story, and included the specific questions that no one had been able to answer. For example, if the issue was that there was a shortage of honors courses, why couldn’t 383 have been made into an honors course to remedy the problem, as Smith suggested? 

Also, budgetary constraints are often cited in the documents as an explanation as to why the University turned to the history department to address its need for more honors courses, but I could never connect the dots as to how these budgetary constraints influenced whether or not History 383 was offered in fall 2017, or why, out of all the professors in the history department, it had to be Smith that accommodated this demand for honors classes. 

These were just some of the many matters I hoped the University could shed some light on. 

Joanne Peters Denny, a University spokesperson, replied to my email, saying that the faculty grievance committee process is confidential, and more broadly, the NC Human Resources Act prevents the University from discussing personnel issues. 

“As we have said before, Carolina has a steadfast commitment to academic freedom and shared governance, and we respect the grievance rights of all faculty to ensure that these principles are upheld,” Peters Denny said in the email. The University has nothing further to add at this time, she said. 

On May 4, Peters Denny sent an update: Chancellor Folt had invoked the integrity clause under North Carolina law, which allows for the release of protected documents in order to maintain the University’s integrity. 

Now, some of the documents that pertain to the grievance process have been made public, including the provost’s decision, letters written by Chancellor Folt and the BOT decision. 

These documents are available here.

'I think this is very exceptional'

Another thing that I couldn’t figure out when going through the timeline of History 383 was that line from McReynolds, when she asks Smith if he'd consider teaching History 383 in the spring, once the powder was dry. If History 383 could be taught in the spring, why couldn’t it be taught in the fall? 

I asked Brundage. 

“There were a series of things that we needed from South Building last year,” he explained. Things like the resources to hire new faculty members and ensure the current ones were going to stay. Brundage said this hiring process is usually carried out during the fall.

“So the crucial period of time tends to be between, we’ll say, September and January,” he said. “From my point of view as an administrator, if the course is offered in the fall or spring, what difference does it make, as long as it’s offered?” 

This was a hard line to walk. Brundage explained that the history department has always had a unique relationship with the administration. 

“I think it would be fair to say there is a broad consensus in the department that the athletic-academic scandal was not generating the kind of self reflection on this campus that some of us thought it should," he said. “I did not want to exacerbate that, especially when we wanted South Building to help with certain things."

Neither Smith nor Brundage have heard of another instance in which a single class has been questioned by administration. I tell Brundage that I’m surprised there hasn’t been more head-butting over individual classes in the past, given how beholden departments are to the administration for resources and funding. 

“Yeah,” Brundage said. “I think this is very exceptional.” 

'I was naive'

Brundage and Smith both said they were not surprised by the BOT's decision. 

That’s because, technically, it was Brundage that made the call to keep History 383 off of the fall 2017 schedule, a power that’s completely within his right. 

But once you consider the pressures Brundage was under to maintain a good relationship with the administration in South Building, it's easier to understand what went into this decision.

I ask him if he agrees with the BOT’s findings, that this was not a violation of academic freedom. 

“This is going to sound like a total cop-out,” he begins. “I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t know the definition, the legal parsing of academic freedom. So this may not be a technical violation of academic freedom, but this episode was intended to manage, and I think stifle, academic freedom.”

Brundage said it strikes him that no undergraduate who has taken the course, no parent of an undergraduate who has taken the course and no faculty member in the department has expressed any reservations about it.

"There is nothing intellectually, academically questionable about 383, so there is no reason to have had multiple conversations about this course," he said. "Were it about soccer hooliganism, and corruption in FIFA, we would not be having this conversation.”

Still, it's an episode during his time as chair that, in retrospect, he would have handled differently. 

"I would have drawn a line in the sand immediately," he said. "I would have said, 'What's going on here? Why are we doing this?' I was naive and overly confident in my ability to navigate this successfully.”

Brundage said he still hasn’t received any explanation that’s accounted for all the events relating to History 383 from 2016 to today. 

I ask him about the explanation that the University has given, that the dean was interested in 383 because it was taking the place of an honors course during the fall 2016 semester.  

“Well,” Brundage said, “I don’t think that argument withstands close scrutiny.” 

The great irony

In an interview, I asked Smith about what I find to be the biggest paradox in this whole situation: this course – about courses that were not, and should have been, interfered with – was interfered with.

He laughed. 

"It's so great. It's a great irony, that we had such lax oversight for so long, that completely phantom classes just fell off the radar of the dean’s office and were allowed to propagate, and proliferate, for two decades," he said. "And that a course that, in part, examines the culture and the mechanisms that made that failure possible, and puts all of it in historical context, is regarded as suspicious."

Smith is currently scheduled to teach History 383 again during the spring 2019 semester. After all of this, after everything it’s taken to get 383 on the schedule, after the backlash Smith continues to receive from UNC fans about the course’s existence, I had one question for Smith that seemed too simple and too convoluted all at once.

“Why do you teach this class?”

He sighed. There are a lot of reasons, he said. First, he’s interested in everything that's now a part of college athletics; whether it’s social, cultural, political or economic issues, they are all worth exploring in the context of college athletics. 

He also likes teaching it because his students like taking it – he can tell from class discussions that the students are engaged. “It’s clear to me that there’s quite an appetite for this kind of course, and exploration for these kind of issues,” he said.

But a main reason he likes teaching it is because no one else is talking about the topics that it covers. 

“I have long believed that UNC administrators have actively ignored their own obligation to have a meaningful campus discussion about the UNC scandal – how it happened, why it happened, what its implications are, how we should be moving forward,” he said. “And so my class was going to be the one site on our campus where such discussions could take place. I thought it was important for the undergraduate population to have that opportunity.”

History 383 is not a perfect class. After the semester ended, I asked my classmates what they thought about the course. Some thought it focused too much on UNC’s academic scandal; some wished it was only about the scandal. Some thought Smith could have done a better job empathizing with other people involved in the scandal; some thought he did a fine job acknowledging his own bias and wished he delved deeper into his own experiences. 

Regardless of their individual recommendations, everyone I spoke with agreed that it was a class they enjoyed taking, one that’s left them more knowledgeable and eager to discuss the issues within college athletics that, though uncomfortable, are worth confronting. 

Throughout the semester, one of my favorite observations was that, even when we were discussing UNC’s shortcomings in how it handled the scandal, I could always spot at least one student wearing a 2017 National Championship T-shirt celebrating the men's basketball team. 

That’s because it’s possible to love UNC's athletic accomplishments and also take History 383. 

This sentiment is best articulated by a documentary our class discussed, “The Business of Amateurs,” which is about college athletics today. Toward the end of the film, Kirsten Hextrum, an advocate for student athletes and a former UC Berkeley Rower, said something that, to me, summarized why the class grabs students’ attention.

“I love Berkeley,” she said about her alma mater. But, she added, “I think you can love something and also push it to be better.”

I get that. I cried when our men's basketball team lost to Villanova in 2016. I “Harked the Sound” so fervently after we won the National Championship in 2017 that I couldn’t talk the next day. 

But, for a long time, UNC messed up. I think we deprived students – many of them athletes – when we failed to educate them properly, instead escorting them through classes clearly not up to our University’s academic standards.

I’m not coming out of History 383 with disdain for what UNC did or didn't do, but with the context to understand how we got ourselves into this scandal in the first place, and how we can work to ensure nothing like it happens again – at UNC or at any other university. 

I love UNC. And what I learned from History 383 was that, when you love something, you should push it to be better.   

To me, that's a lesson worth learning.


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