The Role of Role Morality in the North Carolina Athletic Academic Scandal
Here’s a teachable moment. Both business professors and students should pay close attention to the academic scandal at the University of North Carolina where “paper” courses were offered in disproportionate numbers to mostly football and basketball players in order to keep them eligible to play without requiring them to attend class, read, write, or learn anything. For years grades for independent study classes in the Afro-American Studies Department were handed out on a “need” basis rather than an “earned” basis by office secretary Debby Crowder and, to a lesser degree, by department chair Julius Nyang’oro. Plagiarism was rampant. The utter lack of academic standards was unconscionable and inexcusable. It greatly damaged UNC’s reputation as a university that could balance successful athletic programs with high academic standards.
The important lesson here is not so much what happened as why it happened. A natural conclusion might be that Crowder and Nyang’oro were corrupt, or greedy, or just bad people. But the recently-released 131-page Wainstein Report makes it clear that Crowder and Nyang’oro did bad things, but not to line their pockets, or even to promote their department. Their primary motivation was to help the students. Crowder’s background led her to do almost anything to help students who were struggling, as she had once struggled herself. Nyang’oro had taught two students athletes early in his career who had become academically ineligible and been forced to leave school. One had soon been murdered and the other ended up in prison. Nyang’oro wished to avoid similar future tragedies.
Crowder’s and Nyang’oro’s motives mirrored those of the teachers and administrators at the center of the Atlanta public school scandal that is still playing out. In Atlanta, smart and dedicated teachers changed exam answers so that their students could pass standardized tests and their schools could stay open. They thought their students had worked hard and were doing the best they could, so they cheated to prevent the students from being labeled as “failures” and having their schools closed down. The motivation was understandable, but people are going to jail for their actions and, like UNC, the Atlanta school system will be under a cloud for years to come.
The notion of role morality provides some context here. Oftentimes people will do unethical things that they would not ordinarily do because of a role they perceive that they are playing inside an organization. They might never lie to put money in their own pockets, but find themselves stretching the truth so that their company can meet its profit goals. In their role as a “loyal employee,” they give themselves permission to be dishonest. They might never cheat to advance their own career, but they do to help their child get into a better school than the child deserves. In their role as “loving parent,” they give themselves permission not to live up to their normal standards.
It is obviously easier to rationalize wrongdoing if we are doing it not to help ourselves but to help someone else, such as our students, our friends, our family, or our co-workers. If students understand how role morality can make them vulnerable to taking unethical actions, they can guard against such mistakes. It might be helpful for them to view the educational video on role morality at my school’s website: http://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/role-morality. The video is easily-available, award-winning, and, best of all, free.
McCombs School of Business
University of Texas at Austin