Monday, July 18, 2011

McAdoo about something

Former Carolina football player Michael McAdoo lost his reinstatement-seeking lawsuit last week after the NCAA ruled him permanently ineligible last fall for receiving improper academic assistance and benefits.

That was the lead in most North Carolina papers, but the disturbing part came in the middle paragraphs and moved up to the lead a few days later. The News and Observer nailed it with a Sunday headline: UNC honor court failed to find McAdoo's obvious plagiarism.

I thought the same thing when I read that McAdoo's paper, which the Honor Court found problematic last fall only because of a tutor's help with citations, was actually splattered with undetected plagiarism. And who discovered this? No, it was not the University nor its Honor Court, both of which had access to the paper for almost a year. McAdoo's lawyer published the offending paper in his lawsuit, and a few N.C. State fans spent the two minutes it took to understand the real scam of the paper. State fans figured it out.

The Charlotte Observer reported that free online plagiarism detectors showed McAdoo lifted 39 percent of the paper from uncredited online sources. Further, unattributed quotes from a nearly century-old book appeared throughout. I do not know McAdoo personally, but I know a few things about him. He thought he would get away with cheating. He sort of did. Then he and his lawyer published the undiscovered evidence of his plagiarism for the entire world to see. You draw your own conclusion about Michael McAdoo given these facts while I dispense my thoughts on the honor system.

I never had any direct experience with the honor system while I was a UNC undergraduate, but I was naturally curious about how it prided itself on peer judgment. I knew a couple good people, both Morehead scholars, who sat for the Court. One of them explained that cases were confidential, but I knew most of them ended with guilty verdicts. It sounded legitimate. I still wondered how high-achieving undergraduates could find the time and training to prosecute, defend and judge these numerous cases. Were they really capable and dedicated to such a significant task?

The McAdoo case might pull the curtain open to answer this and other questions. The University stated that the Honor Court does not use anti-plagiarism software, a duty reserved for professors and teaching assistants. These faculty members refer cases and evidence to the Honor Court and wash their hands. The process leaves a rickety bridge between investigation and prosecution. In fact, the Honor Court "rarely" investigates at all. The Honor Court simply presents the faculty's evidence.

The aforementioned circumstance is not specific to McAdoo's case nor the cases of other student athletes. It is true for all cases. The Observer did report one problem specific to student athletes. A faculty member wrote on a survey that the athletic department had intervened to keep a student-athlete's case out of the Honor Court. I have no words.

As an educator and proud alumnus, I take these issues to heart. A couple years ago a student cheated on one of my tests and immediately admitted that he cheated. He understood he would get a zero on the test and I would call his parents within minutes. Later that semester he appeared to cheat again, but I noticed only because I looked at his test more carefully than the others. He was displeased with me when I mentioned this to him, but colleagues defended my practice as "prudent." I agreed with them.

This nearly brings me to my big question. First, consider these facts. The Honor Court found McAdoo's paper slightly problematic last fall and dismissed him from the team for one season. UNC launched an internal athletic investigation, the most significant in its 200 years, that lasted for nine months and attracted more sustained media attention than actual football games. Most notably, UNC defended McAdoo after his dismissal by appealing the NCAA's decision. And through all of this, nobody bothered to use this thing called the World Wide Web to check the rest of the paper? Not the chancellor, the athletic director, the compliance office, the academic support staff, the Honor Court, the professor, a teaching assistant?

Nobody can fault any one person, but everyone can fault the system. I am beginning to think that we will never know most of what we want to know about the UNC football scandal.

1 comment:

  1. I think the crux of the question is what role does the Honor Court hold? Are they meant to be investigators? The quote from Holden Thorp in the N&O article makes me think that like any other court, they are meant to deliberate on presented information and judge based on that. When I was at Carolina, I seem to remember thinking that they did have an investigative role.

    As I've been thinking about it this morning, however, given the fact that it's mostly run by students in addition to their academic responsibilities, I think that the Chancellor may have an appropriate view of what their role is and should be. What I think may be missing as a result of this discrepancy is that professors and TAs should be given the tools to find and the opportunity to present the evidence for their cheating charges when they accuse students. If the Honor Court is not charged with actual investigation, I can see how things like this would happen if others don't accept that responsibility.