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Has the corruption ended at UNC-Chapel Hill?

By Jane S. Shaw

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October 24, 2014

It tells a gripping story. The 131-page report by Kenneth L. Wainstein and his colleagues peels back 18 years of scandalous secrecy at UNC-Chapel Hill to reveal that between 1993 and 2011, more than 3,100 students took “paper classes.”

These classes never met, had no instructor, and had only one requirement, a written paper that was arbitrarily given a good grade by a non-faculty administrator. Plagiarism (later found in 40 percent of the papers surveyed) was ignored.

The classes enabled 329 students to maintain athletic eligibility, and 81 students would never have graduated without them.

The report by Wainstein and his team expands on earlier reports, including one by former North Carolina governor James Martin. Wainstein was able to interview the principal actors, Julius Nyang’oro, chair of the African and Afro-American Studies Department (AFAM) and Deborah Crowder, his assistant, who were given criminal immunity by a district attorney. (Both were unavailable to Martin). Wainstein’s report found additional irregular classes, going back farther in time, and more involvement of the athletic advisory and coaching staff than Martin’s did.

Wainstein also confirmed the failures of university faculty and administrators to recognize or respond to hints about the classes, failures that Martin had suspected. Wainstein writes:

  • Several administrators were aware of red flags about potential irregularities in AFAM but took little or no action.
  • …there were a larger number among the Chapel Hill faculty, administration and Athletics and ASPSA [counseling] staff who knew that these were easy-grading classes with little rigor….
  • Several of those same people also made a conscious decision not to ask questions even though they had suspicions about the educational content of those classes.

Almost certainly, football coaches knew about the classes. The report provides a “smoking” gun” from 2009. Members of the academic advising faculty showed the coaches a PowerPoint slide saying that the easy classes were over because Deborah Crowder, the coordinator managing them, was retiring.

The slide, reproduced in the report, says: 

--They didn’t go to class

--They didn’t take notes, have to say awake

--They didn’t have to meet with professors

--They didn’t have to pay attention or necessarily engage with the material

“THESE NO LONGER EXIST!” said the slide.

Students other than athletes knew about the classes. “As with any course that offers an easy path to a high grade, their existence was hardly a secret,” Wainstein writes. In fact, 729 fraternity members enrolled in the classes over ten years. A fraternity member told the investigators that “they never conceived of these classes as being in any way tailored to athletes."

The report notes that a Morehead-Cain scholar (those scholars receive full-ride scholarships for four years) was in danger of losing his scholarship by low grades and was directed to a paper class. He took it and saved the scholarship.

The report is studded with examples of staff members, including faculty and administrators, who had at least hints of the suspect classes but looked the other way. For example, in 2005, one assistant dean told Crowder that she wanted to “actively squash students who are being slack” from attending the classes; the classes were for the “problem kids” that Crowder handled. 

Other examples include a senior associate dean who “appears to have had knowledge of at least some of the issues in the AFAM Department,” according to the report. In 2006, she recognized that Professor Nyang’oro was teaching an impossible number of independent study courses—supposedly working with 300 students, independently. According to Wainstein, she “told Nyang’oro to limit the numbers and ‘rein’ Crowder in”—and may have succeeded. But fake lecture courses replaced independent studies.

This dean was also alerted to possible grade changes and gave an associate a copy of Nyang’oro’s signature to guard against falsification. However, she “apparently never shared the concerns about either the high independent studies numbers or the suspect grade form signatures with anybody above her in the administration.”

And there is evidence that the philosophy professor who was also the academic counselor to women’s basketball recommended grades to Deborah Crowder and, after Crowder retired, recommended them to her replacement. 

Mysteriously, the report does not delve into all the serious questions raised by the scandal. Investigators interviewed Mary Willingham, the former athletic counselor who has claimed that some athletes couldn't read at a high school level. Those charges were not discussed; the interview was about pressure from coaches to get students into the right classes.

Wainstein’s report is remarkably sympathetic to many people in this drama, including Nyang’oro and Crowder. He is convinced that they were acting out of concern for students who were in danger of losing athletic eligibility or a chance to graduate. They knew that they were violating academic standards and feared at times that they would be discovered.

Wainstein is generous toward the current administration, too, stressing that it never tried to hide information (although it faltered at times) and that it cooperated fully with him.

And he gives famed basketball coach Roy Williams a pass. The report says he knew there were many AFAM majors and many independent studies, but “he was not concerned because he trusted the University to put on legitimate classes.”

Wainstein takes pains to list the steps that the university has taken to prevent this scandal from happening again.

For example, the university has stepped up its scrutiny of independent studies, has initiated a spot-check of classes once a year to make sure that they are actually meeting, and has put the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes (ASPSA) under the direction of the provost. Thus, the particular kind of scheme that Crowder initiated and Nyang’oro accepted is unlikely to occur again in the near future.

The report suggests that the university has done something that is even more important, even though it was not formally listed in the report as a change.

Lawrence R. “Bubba” Cunningham, the director of athletics who joined the university in 2011 after the scandals broke, was interviewed by the investigators. In summarizing the interview, Wainstein writes: “Cunningham stated that the University also has a new approach to admissions, that includes higher standards for student–athletes and focuses on recruiting students with higher GPAs and SAT scores.”

This is a positive sign. Indeed, a permanent policy of recruiting only students who are capable of college-level work at UNC-Chapel Hill is essential to fixing this problem long-term. If this change is really occurring, if athletes are really better qualified academically, will it continue?

That depends on how much oversight the university administration—and the UNC Board of Governors—provide in the years ahead.

In an appearance before students, staff, and faculty on Wednesday, Chancellor Carol Folt expressed confidence about Chapel Hill’s future. “I actually believe that academics and athletics can coexist,” she said.

But that remains to be seen. If greater scrutiny of courses leads to massive loss of eligibility, and if tighter recruitment policies lead to poorer performance on the field, the pressures in favor of athletics will return. Will administrators and governors insist on doing what is right?

Evidence extending over 18 years suggests it may not.

 


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