Between transcripts of Peppers, Austin, a decade of questions for UNC

acurliss@newsobserver.comAugust 18, 2012 

The academic scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill is marked, more than anything, by the disclosure of parts of two academic transcripts tied to high-profile athletes.

One was football star Marvin Austin, who was kicked off the team in 2010 and now plays in the NFL for the New York Giants. The other belonged to two-sport star Julius Peppers, an All-American in football who was a key reserve on the 2000 Final Four basketball team.

The transcripts show classes and grades that have raised serious and ongoing questions about the rigor and type of education UNC has offered athletes, who bring in millions every year for the university with their on-the-field performances.

What would a deeper review of athlete transcripts show?

Chancellor Holden Thorp said in an interview that the university has reviewed some transcripts as part of its investigation that earlier this year found dozens of classes in the African studies department in which students, a majority of them athletes, did not have to show up. That review was completed months after an unrelated NCAA investigation found that a tutor engaged in “academic fraud” by writing parts of papers, conducting research and doing other work for three football players.

Thorp would not be more specific about what kinds of transcripts were looked at and what was discovered. But the university has not produced any information to the public that indicates it has undertaken a comprehensive inquiry into the types of classes taken by athletes and the grades they received.

Thorp said that is something a new audit, announced Thursday, could dig into. The effort will be led by former Gov. Jim Martin, working with the Virchow, Krause & Company management consulting firm. It specializes in academic performance audit procedures and controls.

For two years, university officials have declined to provide The News & Observer with athlete transcripts. The newspaper had asked for the documents with stripped-out personal information, such as the names and any other identifying details of students, as the NCAA investigation heated up in 2010.

Transcript information, if provided, would show whether there are clusters of classes, disparities in grades, favored professors and other such details at a university where a faculty report issued last month described a “campus with two cultures,” one academic, one athletic.

Jon Ericson, a former provost at Drake University in Iowa, and others who have a reform-minded approach to college athletics say more openness and transparency about classes, professors and grades – information contained in transcripts – would help expose which departments and classes are serving to protect athletes’ eligibility.

“If the faculty and the administrators and the athletic directors knew that the grades and the courses would be public, there wouldn’t be courses to be embarrassed about,” said Ericson, who founded the Drake Group, an association that is trying to reform college sports.

Writing in two law review articles, Ericson and Minnesota lawyer Matthew Salzwedel have argued that universities can release much more information than they do now about athletes’ performance in the classroom.

But schools don’t, they argue, because administrators incorrectly cite federal privacy law and do not want to address what they call academic “corruption” in college athletics.

“Without (full) disclosure,” they wrote in the Dartmouth Law Review in 2010, “isolated disclosures of academic corruption in college athletics by whistleblowers are treated as anecdotes, easily dismissed and often ridiculed. After all, no one likes a spoilsport.”

Withholding transcripts

The N&O first sought transcript information – with personal information deleted – in late 2010.

In early 2011, the university denied The N&O’s request, saying that classes taken by athletes, even with names and other such details deleted, might still be “easily traceable” back to the athlete and violate their privacy.

“Our student-athletes attend class with other students on campus,” Regina Stabile, UNC’s director of institutional records and reporting compliance, wrote in a memo. “That means that many students on campus know which student-athletes were in a particular section of a particular course. Knowing the specific courses taken and the order in which they were taken could too easily provide all the clues needed to match a de-identified transcript with a specific student-athlete.”

Salzwedel, a former tennis player at Drake who published his own university transcript in one of the law review articles, said that approach is typical of universities seeking to protect big-time athletics.

“It simply isn’t credible for UNC to say that because other students (many of whom are long gone from UNC) might be able to discern individual athlete’s transcripts, the redacted transcripts cannot be produced to you, a reporter,” he said. “In addition, as we’ve discussed in our articles, there should be no federal privacy protection for classes taken because, even as UNC admits, any student can watch an athlete walk into class.”

The N&O subsequently requested the data in a different format altogether, seeking classes taken and grades earned for teams, asking UNC to organize the information not in the form of each athlete’s transcript but instead by showing it for each semester. That request is pending.

Thorp said he would not consider the request again until the special audit is completed. A similar request to N.C. State University also has been denied.

Problems a decade apart

The details from the two UNC athletes’ transcripts that have become public – with the star-studded names attached – were revealing.

For Austin, a partial transcript showed that in the summer he first arrived on campus as a heralded recruit, he took a 400-level course taught by the longtime chairman of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, Julius Nyang’oro.

The transcript’s revelation helped prompt UNC’s more formal review. It found Nyang’oro and an assistant had organized and led at least 45 of 54 no-show classes, ones in which no instruction was offered and students were required only to submit a paper. The university says Nyang’oro was forced to retire. His assistant retired in 2009, and has not cooperated with university inquiries.

Then, last week, a 2001 transcript bearing Peppers’ name was found residing in a portal on UNC’s web site. Peppers acknowledged Saturday that it was his and said there was no academic fraud involved in the grades he received.

After it was published in the N&O, national attention focused on the problems at UNC. The transcript showed that Peppers received grades of B or better in the same classes and independent study courses that in later years were identified as suspect in the internal investigation.

In the spring of 2000, for example, Peppers received a B-plus in AFRI 120 – Southern Africa. That same course was listed six times over three later years as a no-show class in the university’s internal review.

The transcript shows Peppers received poor grades, including at least 11 Ds or Fs, in other courses.

The university’s previous review of the African studies department had gone back only to 2007; there is no information available about whether those courses listed under Peppers’ name were also no-show offerings.

By the week’s end, Thorp had written a letter to trustees, faculty and staff that says, “Our focus every day remains on fixing the problems and ensuring they never happen again.”

In the same letter, Thorp announced the new inquiries, including the audit that he said would review “any additional academic irregularities that may have occurred.” It was not otherwise clear what the scope or depth of the new audit will be.

No time frame was given for when it will be complete.

Kane: 919-829-4861

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service