Questions linger in academic fraud case

UNC probe dates only to 2007

dkane@newsobserver.comJune 15, 2012 

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Julius Nyang'oro

HARRY LYNCH — Harry Lynch

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story had incorrectly reported the date when the university first notified the NCAA of a suspect class filled with football players, university officials said. The notification happened Aug. 24 in a phone conversation between UNC-CH General Counsel Leslie Strohm and the NCAA, spokeswoman Nancy Davis said.

The UNC-Chapel Hill academic fraud case started with a suspicious Swahili paper made public nearly a year ago. Since then it’s been one surprising development after another, usually with each new release of information. This week, the UNC Board of Governors, which oversees the 16 public universities, tasked a four-member panel to review the UNC-CH internal investigation.

Some board members have said they felt left in the dark as each new development has unfolded. Here are some key questions in the case that highlight some of the issues, and point to what remains unanswered:

Is it about athletics?

UNC-CH officials have consistently said that the academic fraud was not intended to solely help athletes because non-athletes benefited as well. University data show that 42 percent of the enrollments in classes under investigation were non-athletes.

That, presumably, would keep it out of the NCAA’s purview, because it only probes cases in which the intent is to provide improper academic assistance solely to athletes.

But there’s little other evidence to back the claim up. Julius Nyang’oro, the former department chairman of African and Afro-American Studies, has talked to university officials but little has been made public. He is directly connected to all but nine of 54 suspect classes in which little or no instruction was provided.

What have the students, both athletes and nonathletes, told university officials? What about athletic advisers and others who would have been in the information chain? So far, UNC-CH officials have produced very limited, and in some ways contradictory information.

What contradictory information?

On Thursday, Chancellor Holden Thorp acknowledged that he and others were troubled to learn in August that a summer class taught by Nyang’oro in the second summer semester of 2011 was filled with football players. The university notified the NCAA of that on Sept. 24, the same day it announced that Nyang’oro had stepped down as department chairman. But that same day, UNC-CH officials said publicly that the evidence did not show particular benefit to student athletes.

University officials never made mention that certain classes had nothing but student athletes enrolled in them. Records released last week show four of them did – five if you count the former football player in the summer class.

Speaking of the former football player, the university is defining him as a nonathlete because he could no longer play. University officials have made the argument that such individuals should not be considered athletes because they have exhausted their eligibility.

But there’s reason to steer former players into bogus classes. One of the ways to remain in good standing with the NCAA is to show strong graduation rates.

The University of Connecticut’s basketball team has to sit out next year’s NCAA tournament, for example, because of poor academic performance.

Is this about basketball?

UNC-CH men’s basketball coach Roy Williams said Thursday that the academic fraud case is not a basketball issue. “I’m worried about it from a university issue, but not from a basketball issue,” he said.

Some have cited the low percentage of basketball players enrolling in the 54 classes that university officials say showed little or no instruction. Three percent, or 23 enrollments, does seem small. But it doesn’t take many athletes to field a basketball team – five on the floor plus several backups. If Williams fielded a new team each of the four years of the period under review, 23 enrollments could equal one in three players taking a suspect class.

Furthermore, the records show that in two cases a basketball player was the sole enrollee in a class. In another, a basketball player was one of two enrollees. Two of those three classes were Swahili language courses, and are among nine classes in which officials can’t identify who created them and provided some kind of assignment.

Put another way, here are two language classes in which students would be expected to develop their speaking skills that never met. And they had no more than two students enrolled. How were they expected to practice speaking the language?

Why just past four years?

Thorp has acknowledged this question, because some wonder whether the academic fraud goes back even farther. His response is the university doesn’t know whether the academic fraud was going on before summer 2007, but it would be very hard to find out.

The internal review started there because that’s when former football player Marvin Austin took AFAM 428, the upper-level class that he received a B-plus in, despite having yet to take remedial writing as part of his first full semester on campus.

That time frame also represents the Butch Davis era on campus, which reinforces the notion pushed by some that he brought all this misfortune to UNC-CH.

His lawyer has said he had no knowledge of the suspect classes and had never heard of Nyang’oro.

Thorp said trying to dig deeper into the past would be difficult because some records no longer exist, some faculty and staff are no longer on campus, and those who remain may not have accurate memories.

Little evidence has surfaced so far to peg the problem beyond the reviewed period.

What’s not released?

The university has not made available the grades given to all of the students enrolled in these suspect classes, or said how many passed or failed. It has not released any of the work students performed.

So far, only one assignment has surfaced, the Swahili paper that former football player Michael McAdoo wrote, which turned out to have numerous plagiarized passages. McAdoo made that public in a legal effort to get back on the team.

What is the SBI studying?

Some on the UNC Board of Governors have suggested the SBI investigation now under way eliminates the need for a board investigation. But the SBI investigation is looking only at potential criminal conduct, Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said.

What prompted it is the question of whether Nyang’oro lied or misled officials to get paid for a class that the university says he did not teach.

It’s questionable that athletes being steered to bogus classes would constitute a crime, which means that particular aspect of the academic fraud case may not be probed by investigators. And even if they uncovered such evidence, it may not become public. SBI investigations aren’t public record.

Woodall would have the authority to release the final report, but generally, district attorneys choose to keep them secret.

Kane: 919-829-4861

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