Austin's UNC transcript raises questions

The former Tar Heel began academic career with high-level course in African-American studies.

Staff writerAugust 21, 2011 

Editor's note: A front-page story Sunday about an academic transcript for former UNC football player Marvin Austin overstated the number of freshmen who took at least one 400 level class last year.

The typical path for a college student beginning his or her academic journey starts with introductory courses, followed by more specialized ones. That's why many colleges label classes as 100 level, 200 level and so on.

But a transcript for former UNC-Chapel Hill football player Marvin Austin shows his academic path got off to an unusual start. In a summer 2007 session just before his first full semester on campus, Austin took a 400 level class in African-American studies and received a B plus.

The class was taught by the same professor, Julius Nyang'oro, who did not catch a blatant case of plagiarism by another football player. And Austin got into the class despite having a score on the written portion of the SAT that was low enough that he needed to take a remedial writing class, which he took in the subsequent fall semester.

A prominent critic of big-time college sports said Austin's transcript suggests he was assigned to a class that was intended to provide him a good grade to maintain his eligibility on the football field.

"You don't start at the senior level seminar and then work your way down to remedial writing," said Jon Ericson, a retired Drake University provost who started an organization called The Drake Group that advocates reforming college sports.

UNC-CH spokesman Mike McFarland said he and other officials could not comment on Austin's academic record. McFarland said that would be a violation of a federal law that prevents the release of student academic records. But the law, commonly known as FERPA, which stands for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, does not prohibit university officials from commenting on student records it did not release. The partial transcript obtained by The News & Observer did not come from the university.

McFarland said the course Austin took does not require a prerequisite and is therefore open to all students. But he confirmed that students could not just sign up for the course. They had to get permission from the African studies department, which is led by Nyang'oro.

McFarland also said a 400 level course is not necessarily harder than a 200 level course. But its designation as a 400 level course means that it is open to undergraduate and graduate students, suggesting it had a level of sophistication that would pose a challenge to a newly arrived freshman.

The title of the class is Bioethics in Afro-American Studies. A description of the class on CourseRank.com, an unaffiliated website that provides course information, describes it as a course that will "examine the process involved in resolving moral dilemmas pertaining to people of the African Diaspora." UNC-CH officials could not produce a syllabus outlining the course requirements for the 2007 class.

Exceptions to the rule

Julia Nichols, the student services manager for UNC-CH's Academic Advising Program, said it is unusual for any freshman to begin his or her college education with a 400 level course. The exceptions, she said, are freshmen who have demonstrated an aptitude, either through advanced placement classes or other experience, and petition the professor to be allowed to take the course.

"As a general, blanketed rule, freshmen are not normally allowed to take 400 or 500 level classes," she said.

McFarland said university registrar records show 1,033 freshmen took a 400 level course in the last academic year.

Austin could not be reached for comment. He was a much heralded recruit when UNC landed him in 2007, but he was kicked off the team last year after an NCAA investigation that eventually found that he had accepted more than $13,000 in improper benefits from agents and others identified as go-betweens. He did not graduate from the university. A defensive tackle, he was selected by the New York Giants in the second round of the NFL draft and is now competing for a spot on the team.

Austin provided the first public glimpse into the scandal by boasting on his Twitter account in May 2010 that he was partying in a South Florida club. It turned out he and other athletes were at a party thrown by a sports agent.

During the course of the investigation, 14 players missed at least one game and seven sat out the entire 2010 season in connection with the probe into impermissible benefits given to players and into academic misconduct.

On June 21, the NCAA sent UNC-CH a letter alleging nine major violations. Three allegations were leveled at John Blake, the associate head coach who was receiving money from a sports agent and had long-standing ties to head coach Butch Davis. Blake resigned in September.

UNC-CH has until Sept. 19 to respond to the NCAA's notice of allegations and is scheduled to appear before the Committee on Infractions on Oct. 28 in Indianapolis.

Missed plagiarism

Nyang'oro, the longtime chairman of UNC-CH's Department of African and Afro-American Studies, drew attention last month over a paper produced by a second football player for another 400-level summer session class. The paper for a Swahili class was submitted by defensive end Michael McAdoo, and had numerous examples of lifted passages from other sources. It was one of three papers McAdoo wrote for African studies classes that drew the attention of UNC-CH officials and NCAA investigators.

McAdoo also had been kicked off the team, partly for accepting improper academic help from a tutor. But when he sued to get back on the team and made the paper public in early July, rival N.C. State University fans quickly found the plagiarism, causing further embarrassment for UNC. Four weeks later, UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp fired Davis and accepted the early retirement of athletic director Dick Baddour.

Thorp said he fired the coach because the football scandal was endangering the academic integrity of one of the nation's top public universities.

Thorp confirmed last month that Nyang'oro did not report the plagiarism, which was also missed by the athletic department, NCAA investigators and the school's honor court. But Thorp said then that he did not ask what grade Nyang'oro gave McAdoo for the paper and the course, information that remains unknown.

"It's very unfortunate what happened here, but I don't get into grading for faculty members," he said.

McFarland said the university could not speak to Nyang'oro's handling of the paper because it is a personnel matter. State law, however, allows university officials to release information on personnel matters if the university's integrity is at stake.

Thorp and Karen Gil, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, which oversees the African studies department, would not make themselves available for interviews for this story. McFarland said, however, that they and other university officials are taking the issues raised about the African studies department "very seriously."

More popular majors

African studies is not the most popular major for UNC-CH athletes who play for the football and men's basketball teams, the two programs that bring millions of dollars to the athletic department. A review of the rosters for both teams for the 2010-2011 academic year shows that African studies is a distant fourth. Two other majors - communications and exercise and sport science - are the runaway top choices.

The partial transcript shows Austin had either taken or signed up for classes in both majors. He declared himself a communications major for the 2010-2011 academic year. By then, he had received two C minuses for exercise and sports science classes. Students typically have to earn C's or better in their majors to receive a degree in a particular field of study.

The partial transcript shows that Austin was carrying a 2.21 grade point average after more than three semesters and three summer classes. A 2.0 GPA, or a C average, is required to remain in good academic standing at UNC-CH, according to its student handbook.

Austin received grades of C minus or lower in seven of 17 classes and labs, the transcript shows. He failed an introductory geology lab, received D's for two Portuguese classes and a D plus for a 100 level history class. A D is a passing grade at UNC-CH, and allows students to move up to a higher level class.

The Afro-American Bioethics class was one of three within the African studies department that Austin had taken by the end of his second year. He received B minuses on the other two courses. He had signed up for two more in the summer and fall semesters in 2009. Two drama classes also bolstered his GPA, as did his B plus in the remedial English class.

No grade below B-

MyEdu.com, a website that receives grading data from UNC-CH, reported that a large majority of students taking the bioethics class in the past five years scored an A minus or better. The report showed no students received less than a B minus. Nyang'oro is one of two professors the website lists as teaching the course during that period.

In an interview last month, Thorp called the African and Afro-American studies department an important one for the university, given North Carolina's history as a Southern state that supported the Confederacy and Jim Crow laws.

"There are a lot of students in African (studies) programs besides student athletes," Thorp said. "And for an institution like North Carolina and its history, having an African-American studies department is incredibly important to us, and Julius Nyang'oro is a great colleague."

Since McAdoo's plagiarism became public, Nyang'oro has not responded to several email and phone requests for an interview. No one answered during a visit to his home in South Durham last week.

Nyang'oro joined the UNC-CH faculty in 1990, becoming the department chairman two years later. Last month, the university said Nyang'oro remained in good standing.

Cynthia Reynolds is a former UNC-CH employee who was an associate director of the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes and worked primarily with football until 2009. She praised Nyang'oro, saying he was understanding and willing to work within the abilities of athletes that entered UNC-CH with low academic credentials.

"He is very passionate about these students learning something in his class, learning the things they need to do, learning how to do research, learning how to do papers, albeit probably not like the normal student that comes into Carolina," Reynolds said. "And that's where he's willing to be a little more flexible."

Many major college athletic program scandals have had elements of academic fraud. Ericson said it's not hard to understand why. The programs admit athletes who do not have strong academic backgrounds, and then demand of them the equivalent of a full-time job on the football field or basketball court.

Cheating to stay eligible

That dynamic forces student athletes to cheat to maintain eligibility, Ericson said, or be steered to classes taught by professors willing to cut them slack. Ericson calls them "collaborators."

The problem isn't going to go away, Ericson said, until the public can see how student-athletes fare academically. He advocates releasing the grades for athletes in high-dollar programs, but not their names. The grades will help show which departments and classes are serving to protect student-athletes' eligibility, and hopefully, he said, prompt faculty to speak out against the erosion of academic standards.

"It isn't going to be resolved unless you get enough faculty to join the resistance and throw out the collaborators," he said.

Staff writer Ken Tysiac contributed to this report.

dan.kane@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4861

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