A little too much team spirit at UNC

Who engineered the system to steer UNC-Chapel Hill athletes into bogus courses?

July 11, 2012 

To echo UNC-Chapel Hill’s noted son Andy Griffith, may he rest in peace: What it was, was fraud to help the football – academic fraud, a blight whose full extent has yet to be determined but that already has tarnished the university’s reputation.

Evidence is accumulating that shows a high percentage of student-athletes, notably football players, enrolled in “courses” lacking in structure and supervision. It’s questionable whether the courses, offered within the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, even met or whether legitimate work was performed, although a final paper supposedly was required.

The more that’s uncovered, so far thanks mainly to investigative work by The N&O, the plainer it becomes that UNC-CH had a system designed to let football players remain eligible to compete, but with little regard for proper academic standards.

How far into the athletics department and its supporting cast of academic advisers does responsibility for that system extend? How many blind eyes were turned among professors, deans and administrators who should have noticed that something was amiss?

University officials have been firm in denying any special treatment for athletes – as if making bogus courses available both to athletes and regular students somehow makes things better. Yes, it appears that some regular students did get in on the deal.

Athletes welcome

But The N&O’s Dan Kane has done the accounting to show that athletes benefited disproportionately. A total of 54 courses have been identified “with little or no instruction,” as a chart on Sunday’s front page described them. There were 215 athletes, 26 former athletes and 193 non-athletes in those courses. Professor Julius Nyang’oro was listed as the instructor or was the person who signed the grade rolls in all but nine of the courses.

The largest group of athletes was football players, reflecting the size of the football team. There also were a few basketball players (the team is much smaller) as well as athletes from “non-revenue” sports.

Taking into account students who signed up for more than one course – many offered during abbreviated summer sessions, when football players often are on campus – there were 391 enrollments by athletes, 48 by former athletes and 247 by non-athletes. The pattern is unmistakable. How did it occur?

Nyang’oro, the former chairman of African and Afro-American Studies who was allowed to retire July 1, hasn’t publicly commented. Nor has a former department manager, Deborah Crowder, who was responsible for scheduling courses until she left the university in 2009. As it happens, Kane reports, an enrollment pattern suggesting that seats in phantom summer courses overseen by Nyang’oro were being reserved, primarily for athletes, goes back at least until 1999.

The pattern, which should have set off alarms in the academic chain of command, involved courses with an announced maximum enrollment of a single student. Those who weren’t in the loop would have been deterred from enrolling. In practice, some of those courses wound up with several students – and no set hours or classroom.

Enrollment games

Of the 54 courses with negligible instruction, 44 were listed as having a one-student capacity, according to Kane’s front-page Sunday report. Nevertheless, university records showed that 31 of them had enrollments in which athletes made up the majority.

Criminal investigators are looking into payment to Nyang’oro for a course that he did not teach in the expected format – i.e., with actual classes – and into the apparent forgery of other professors’ signatures in connection with classes they say they didn’t teach.

It’s unfortunate, however, that the university itself has been so slow on the uptake, and that the UNC system’s Board of Governors has not been more aggressive in demanding answers from the Chapel Hill campus and making those answers public.

Even if it reawakens the NCAA, which sanctioned the university for “improper benefits” received by football players but did not delve into the evidence of academic misconduct, this scandal must be fully exposed. That’s the only way the university that North Carolinians with good reason have viewed as one of the nation’s best of its kind can restore a reputation sullied by its own misplaced priorities and neglect.

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