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My Carolina Degree Not Devalued by AFAM Scandal

UNC's academic scandal is troubling and embarrassing, but ultimately has no bearing on the value of the degree earned the right way by tens of thousands of students over the past two decades.

UNC-Chapel Hill

In a day full of hot takes at Wednesday's ACC Operation Wainstein Report Basketball, UNC junior forward Brice Johnson was asked 11 AFAM scandal-related questions before the topic of the upcoming season was ever raised. One of the questions Johnson was asked was about the perception that a degree from the University of North Carolina was "devalued" because of the AFAM fraud. Beyond the obvious disconnect of asking Johnson about an issue whose main impact on basketball was when he was in middle school, it might be hard for him to comment about the value of a degree when he has not yet earned one.

Well, I have a degree from the University of North Carolina and let me say unequivocally: the AFAM scandal has no impact on the value of my degree. Zero. As an alumnus, I am disheartened by this mess. I am disappointed. I am embarrassed. But I have this range of emotions precisely because the academic malfeasance is inconsistent with my experience, and with most every other student who has matriculated at Chapel Hill. Because of that, this fraud does not devalue my degree in the slightest.

I graduated from UNC in 1991, which is before the paper classes reportedly began, but as I have mentioned in this space before, AFAM had a reputation of being a less-than-rigorous curriculum long before the paper class era began. I took AFAM 40 in the fall of 1988 because it was supposed to be an easy class that wold fulfill a general education perspective. My other classes that semester were Molecular Biology, Genetics, Analytical Chemistry, Chemistry Lab, and German III. The class was not as easy as I had heard (nor was it a paper class) and I struggled to get a B. But the reputation attached to AFAM pre-dated the fraud that would later manifest itself.

One thing I think is lost in the hype and hyperbole that is the modern sports and news cycle is that, while the scope and length of the fraud is extensive, in the grand scheme of things, AFAM was and is a very minor department in the realm of a large research university. The rankings of UNC as top five among all public universities, top 30 in all American universities, and top 50 among worldwide universities does not rest on the performance nor reputation of the AFAM department. The value of my degree was not enhanced before the fraud was revealed, nor is it diminished after the fraud.

Another key point in examining the scope of the fraud and its impact on the value of a degree is that at UNC it takes a minimum of 40 courses to graduate from Carolina. In another conversation Brian and I were having on this topic, he made the excellent observation that we must be careful not to place too much weight on the idea that every one of those 40+ courses is of equal rigor and that if you took a paper class you must have been cheated out of your right to an education. Moreover, the Wainstein Report notes that many of the students enrolled in a paper class actually completed the research and wrote the paper as assigned. This simply proves how difficult it is to paint things with too broad a brush.

Ultimately the people who chose to take paper classes - and it was a choice - whether they were athletes or non-athletes, have to assess the value of their experience at Carolina for themselves. Taking the path of least resistance to eligibility or to a degree is not unheard of, both prior to the AFAM revelation and after it. Using my own example, I chose an AFAM class thinking it would be an easier balance to an otherwise brutal semester schedule. The thousands of students who chose a paper class, whether once for a GPA boost or multiple times to achieve an eligibility or graduation goal or simply because it was easier, are the ones who missed out of the potential richness of their college experience. Their choices have no impact whatsoever on the education I received at Carolina and the value of my bachelor's degree.

I am proud of my degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I worked hard for that degree and the actions of two people (and their associated cohorts) in one relatively minor department of a large research university have no impact whatsoever on the value of my degree. Is the AFAM fraud serious? Absolutely. Does it cut to the core of the school's academic mission? Of course. Does it mean anything other than tarnishing the reputation of an otherwise exceptional university? Not really. Tens of thousands of students graduated from UNC during the time period in question, and nearly every one of those had no contact with AFAM or the paper class scheme, so how than the misdeeds of a very few have any bearing on their college experiences and the value of their degree? Sure the perception of the university is rightfully damaged, but the high quality of research and education at UNC as a whole remains undaunted. This notion that a long-running yet highly localized scandal reduces the value of the degree for thousands of others is a hot take that can't go away fast enough.