UNC system president calls for board oversight of academic investigation

dkane@newsobserver.com June 14, 2012 

UNC system President Tom Ross, responding to complaints about a lack of oversight for UNC-Chapel Hill, called Thursday for a four-member panel of the Board of Governors to review the university’s investigation of its African and Afro-American Studies Department.

Ross said that if the panel or the rest of the board isn’t satisfied with the university’s work, or is unsatisfied with the outcome of the probe of the State Bureau of Investigation, they can launch a full review.

“I think this is the right course,” Ross told the board members.

The Board of Governors placed the academic fraud case on its governance committee’s agenda this week after rival N.C. State fans and officials raised the issue of disparate treatment. They pointed out that 23 years ago, the board launched an investigation into improprieties within the Wolfpack basketball program and the subsequent findings helped lead to the exits of coach Jim Valvano and Chancellor Bruce Poulton.

Some on the board have signaled an unwillingness to dive into the UNC-CH case, contending there’s no need after a university investigation, an NCAA probe that left the football program on probation and a criminal investigation that was launched last month.

Others say the academic fraud appears limited to one professor – Julius Nyang’oro, the former chairman of the African and Afro-American Studies Department – and may not have been hatched to help student-athletes maintain their eligibility to play by giving them easy courses that required no time in a classroom.

But some said they were concerned about the growing number of surprise developments in an investigation that was supposed to have ended a year ago.

Board member Fred Eshelman complained about the “relative paucity” of information that the board has received about the case.

“A lot of us have been surprised,” he said. “We haven’t fully understood what’s going on.”

Relationship revealed

Another surprise came at the meeting, when Ross confirmed that Deborah Crowder, the administrative assistant at the center of the case, has been in a long-standing relationship with a former UNC basketball player, Warren Martin. Crowder, who retired in 2009, has declined to talk to university officials about the suspect classes.

But Ross took the same position a UNC-CH spokeswoman took earlier in the day about that relationship – that it had nothing to do with the fraud allegations.

University officials have continued to say the investigation does not show an effort to help student athletes because nonstudent athletes also benefitted and were treated no differently. UNC men’s basketball coach Roy Williams sounded the same theme Thursday during his regular summer news conference.

“I’m concerned about it because going all the way back to the NCAA stuff, I’ve said the same thing consistently – it’s a very sad time,” Williams said. “But I strongly feel that that’s not a basketball issue ... I’m worried about it from a university issue but not from a basketball issue.”

The majority of enrollments in the 54 suspect classes were of student athletes, with more than a third of them football players, and some classes were solely filled with student athletes.

Last week, The News & Observer reported that one such class – AFAM 280: Blacks in North Carolina – was made available by Nyang’oro two days before the second summer semester of 2011 was supposed to start. It quickly filled with 18 football players and a former player.

Suspicious enrollments

University officials admit those enrollments are suspicious. They also say that academic advisers for the football players knew the class did not meet but did not detect a problem and helped the athletes enroll.

Chancellor Holden Thorp, who gave a long report about the investigation, said that class helped prompt the university to notify the NCAA on Sept. 1 because it was full of football players. But he said the speed with which the class was created and filled didn’t become apparent until much later.

Board member David Powers said of that class: “It seems to me very obvious that it was set up to help the athletes.”

But Powers supported Ross’ call to review UNC-CH’s efforts and the SBI investigation, when completed, rather than to launch a separate probe. The review does not require a full vote of the board, since it has the approval of the board’s chairman, Hannah Gage.

The four members who will conduct the review are Louis Bissette Jr., Walter Davenport, Ann Goodnight and Hari Nath.

Staff writer Andrew Carter contributed to this report.

Kane: 919-829-4861

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