Peppers' transcript might point to broader academic issues at UNC

dkane@newsobserver.comAugust 13, 2012 

On the football field, Julius Peppers was one of the most dominating players to ever wear a UNC uniform, an athlete dubbed a “freak of nature” so skilled that he helped take the university’s men’s basketball team to the Final Four in 2000.

But in the classroom, Peppers was a marginal student with a grade point average so low he was continually at risk of losing the opportunity to play, according to an academic transcript bearing his name. What kept bailing him out were several classes in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, a relatively young academic unit led by department chair Julius Nyang’oro.

A transcript bearing Peppers’ name, found over the weekend in an odd portal on a UNC website, shows a subpar academic record: a 1.82 grade point average and 11 grades of D or F. It also suggests that the academic fraud already confirmed by the university in the African studies department goes much further back than it had previously been able to confirm.

Peppers’ transcript, and a second one that practically mirrors it, show he received grades of B or better in seven classes within the department, offerings found in later years to be academically suspect. Without those grades, it’s unlikely Peppers would have kept his GPA high enough to play sports. UNC records show Nyang’oro taught or supervised at least three of those classes.

Willis Brooks, a professor emeritus of history at UNC who once sat on its faculty athletics committee, called the transcript evidence of an academic path with the sole intent of keeping an athlete eligible to compete. But he pointed the finger at those in the university who helped make it happen.

“I feel willing to criticize a university that allows a student to get away without an education, or a very narrow one,” he said. “And that’s what this one is, a very narrow education. In no sense is this a liberal arts education.”

University officials had little to say Monday about the transcript, which was first identified by rival N.C. State University fans on the PackPride bulletin board. The university said in a brief statement that the transcript appears to be genuine, and declined all requests for interviews.

“Student academic records should never be accessible to the public, and the university is investigating reports of what appears to be a former student transcript on the University’s website,” the statement said. “The university has removed that link from the website. University officials are prohibited from discussing confidential student information.”

Peppers has gone on to a sterling career as one of the NFL’s most feared pass rushers. Nyang’oro continued to run his department as a respected chairman until last year, when another football player’s academic difficulties began a flurry of revelations that continue to haunt the university.

Today, UNC is grappling with what may be the worst case of academic fraud in its history, as Nyang’oro and his former department manager have been linked to at least 54 classes and dozens of independent studies over the past four years that offered little or no instruction and were sometimes packed with athletes.

Peppers, now a defensive end for the Chicago Bears, could not be reached. His agent, Carl Carey Jr., is a former academic counselor at UNC who helped Peppers manage his schoolwork. He said Monday that Peppers did his work.

“To suggest a connection between a decade-old transcript and the current academic issues at the university is extremely irresponsible,” Carey said.

Wolfpack fans dig

Peppers arrived at UNC in the summer of 1998, just after the departure of football coach Mack Brown, who left for Texas. Brown improved the program’s performance on the field, but his tenure also saw a rise in the number of academic exceptions admitted to play football.

Peppers’ transcript is the second of a prominent UNC football player to become public in the past year. The News & Observer last year obtained a partial transcript of former defensive standout Marvin Austin. It also had signs of a plan to keep Austin eligible to play without necessarily providing him a well-rounded education.

Austin was kicked off the team for receiving improper financial benefits from agents and others, part of an NCAA investigation that started in 2010 and ended earlier this year with a one-year bowl ban for the team and the loss of 15 athletic scholarships. Austin’s transcript helped kick off a second investigation that culminated three months ago in the university’s announcement of the academic fraud in Nyang’oro’s department.

University officials said then that it was possible the fraud went back beyond 2007, where their work stopped. But in recent weeks, they declined to answer questions about two developments that suggested the fraud went several years beyond that period.

Several weeks ago, The News & Observer found a 2001 test transcript on the university’s website that bore several similarities with the current scandal. The N&O showed it to university officials while preparing a story; the university dismissed the transcript as a fake used in testing a computer program.

The officials declined to check the transcript against academic records.

After The N&O published a story Saturday and posted the test transcript on newsobserver.com, Wolfpack fans started scrutinizing the classes and the web address. Late Sunday night, they discovered a related web address that housed what is described as Peppers’ transcript. It is a near match to the test transcript.

Why both were apparently lingering on the university’s web site for more than a decade remains unclear. If they are indeed Peppers’ records, the university could find itself in trouble with federal education officials. A 37-year-old law known as the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act prohibits the unauthorized release of most student academic records, and universities can lose federal funding for blatant violations of the law.

Who’s ‘minding the store’?

But the larger question for the university is the possibility that the academic fraud had gone undetected for more than a dozen years, and may have stayed that way without public knowledge of the transcripts of Austin and Peppers.

Burley Mitchell, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court and a member of the UNC system Board of Governors, said “the whole thing disturbs” him.

“The entire program over there has been an unguided situation,” Mitchell, a graduate of N.C. State, said Monday. “It doesn’t seem like anybody’s in charge.”

Further troubling Mitchell is that it seems that all the revelations are being uncovered and exposed by the N&O and Pack fans, not the UNC-CH administration and trustees.

“It just seems to keep coming and coming,” Mitchell said. “I wonder who is minding the store.”

The fraud is now the subject of an SBI investigation and a special review by the Board of Governors. The NCAA continues to offer no clues as to whether it will investigate. The university’s internal investigation is also continuing, and a special faculty committee, concerned that athletics have gotten out of control at the university, has called for an independent review.

Louis Bissette, chairman of the special Board of Governors panel, said Monday the panel will delve into the latest revelations and any that follow. “All I can say to you is we really mean to do this right,” he said, “and we mean to do it thoroughly and we mean to look at all relevant material.”

Andrew Carter and Anne Blythe contributed to this report.

Kane: 919-829-4520

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