With the negative attention the UNC athletic program received nationally for allegedly channeling athletes to take “paper classes” through the African-American Studies department in order to maintain eligibility, the last thing they need is to be implicated in another academic scandal, but a recent report by the News & Observer that UNC officials felt pressured to admit athletes into graduate programs does just that.
Michael Waddell had a low grade point average, no entrance exam score and was months past the deadline when an athletic official sought to have the football player admitted to UNC’s graduate school in fall 2003.
John Blanchard, then a senior associate athletic director, made the request after classes began, on Sept. 5, just as Waddell was about to be declared ineligible to play against Syracuse the following day, according to records obtained by The News & Observer.
The plea to admit Waddell went up to UNC’s provost, Robert Shelton. Email correspondence indicates Shelton saw no policy that would allow Waddell to enroll, but instead of telling him no, Shelton left it up to Linda Dykstra, the graduate school dean.
Dykstra admitted Waddell, who had already played in the season opener at Florida State. He would play against Syracuse and all but one of the other nine remaining games that season.
Waddell is one of several athletes UNC athletics officials sought to keep eligible to play by getting them into graduate school, according to Cheryl Thomas, the graduate school’s admissions director from 2002 to 2010. Thomas, 51, whono longer works in higher education, supplied documentation about Waddell to The N&O afterfirst sending it to the NCAA and the agency that accredits the university.
Thomas told her superiors that Waddell should not be admitted and that officials at the Exercise and Sports Science Department knew he was not there to legitimately pursue a course of study.
“They know he has not applied and would not meet the minimum requirements for admission, yet the EXSS is willing to accept him as a non-degree seeking, one semester only, graduate student so his football eligibility will continue, if the (graduate school) will allow it,” Thomas wrote.
Thomas also named basketball player Justin Knox, who had one year of eligibility left after transferring from the University of Alabama, as another student athlete who was unjustly admitted into a graduate program.
Both Waddell (NFL) and Knox (Europe) went on to play professionally – ending their graduate degree pursuit right after their athletic eligibility ended. They are the only two mentioned specifically by Cheryl Thomas.
Thomas says her objections to this practice, and other non-related issues, caused tension between her and her superiors. She quit in 2010 after spending 22 years at Chapel Hill.
UNC, which rejects nearly 15,000 graduate applicants annually, has not formally responded to the allegations.