Academic support director for UNC athletes quietly moved out of job

New leadership sought after fraud scandal

dkane@newsobserver.comAugust 21, 2012 

  • Martin sees no conflict of interest Former Gov. Jim Martin has one tie to the man who appointed him to lead an audit of the academic fraud at UNC-Chapel Hill. He and Chancellor Holden Thorp serve on the Board of Directors of the Institute for Defense & Business, a nonprofit that helps the military apply business principles and technology to do a better job. Martin is the chairman of the nonprofit’s Board of Directors. It is based in Chapel Hill, and includes a number of business and university leaders such as Roger Perry, a local developer and former UNC-CH trustee. Martin and the rest of the board are all unpaid, Martin said. Martin said he did not think the connection created a conflict of interest. “Maybe it’s how the chancellor knew me personally because of that, but it certainly doesn’t obligate me in any way,” Martin said. “And more importantly, he at the beginning has assured me there’s no restriction on what I do and where I go. So I’m flexible and can go where the evidence leads.” Martin said he had asked the university to disclose his role on the board. A news release did that, but did not mention that Thorp also serves on the board. Thorp’s predecessor, James Moeser, also served on the board, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. Martin, a Republican, is also a former congressman and a former chemistry professor at Davidson College. He also served a term on the UNC Board of Governors.

When UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp announced a reorganization of the academic support program for athletes last week, he said the university has installed an interim director and is searching for a new one.

What he didn’t say is what happened to the guy who held that job for nearly a decade, Robert Mercer.

Mercer was quietly moved to a new job, outside of athletic advising, as a “special assistant for operations” at a center for undergraduate excellence, for the same salary of $81,900. His former boss, Harold Woodard, who is serving as interim director, said Mercer had done nothing wrong, but that the issues that have welled up from the academic fraud investigation required a search for a “national” leader to run the program.

The move came less than a week after a special faculty report said evidence suggests that academic counselors working under Mercer were steering athletes to classes that were later found to involve little or no classroom time. An internal investigation found 54 such classes within the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, and placed the blame solely on the former longtime chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, and his former department manager, Deborah Crowder.

“It’s not about Robert, it really isn’t,” said Woodard, who is also an associate dean in charge of the university’s academic support program for undergraduate students. “It’s really about this opportunity for Carolina to claim the mantle of operating a model program.”

Woodard’s Aug. 3 letter to Mercer, 46, notifying him of the reassignment makes no mention of the work he has done leading the program.

It simply stated that he had been reassigned to the Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence, effective last Wednesday. The center handles honors programs and undergraduate research. It is led by James Leloudis, an associate dean.

“You will be referred to as the special assistant for operations and will assist with the facility and its operation, programming and other duties, as assigned,” the letter said.

It also said the terms and conditions of Mercer’s previous job will remain the same. Woodard said he is unaware of any other personnel moves within the program or in its home – the College of Arts & Sciences.

Mercer had been director since October 2002, and had worked in the academic support program as an administrator since 1996. Before that he was an area director for student housing.

Other changes in athletics

The faculty report said an unidentified “departmental staff manager” within African studies may have directed athletes to enroll in the no-show classes, and that “it seems likely” someone in the department was calling counselors for athletes to tell them “certain courses” were available.

“We were told that athletes claimed they had been sent to Julius Nyang’oro” by the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes, the report said.

Woodard said he knew nothing about the claims of steering athletes.

“I’m not aware of what was happening in that department, and that’s probably a good thing because it allows me to focus on where we want to take the staff during the interim,” Woodard said.

Mercer’s reassignment followed changes that Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham announced last month in hiring a new senior associate director, Vince Ille, from the University of Illinois, and Paul Pogge as an associate director.

Thorp said part of Ille’s job is as a liaison between academic advisers who help athletes pick classes, and separate academic counselors who make sure athletes are doing their school work and progressing toward degrees, as the NCAA requires. Ille also supervises the department’s NCAA compliance efforts. Pogge, who came from the University of Denver, has responsibility for student-athlete eligibility matters, as well as coordinating summer camps.

Thorp said last week he has severed a previous line of reporting between the academic support unit’s director and the athletic department.

Driven by athletics?

The moves come amid new evidence suggesting that the academic fraud had gone on longer than the 2007-to-2011 period examined by the internal investigation.

Earlier this month, The News & Observer reported that a former student said he had taken a no-show class taught by Nyang’oro in fall 2005. And two transcripts from 2001 tied to former UNC football star Julius Peppers have called into question the quality of athletes’ education as far back as the late 1990s.

One of those transcripts was a test transcript found by The N&O on UNC’s web site. That led rival N.C. State fans to Peppers’ actual transcript, which showed that he had achieved grades of B or better in several classes that the internal probe found to be academically suspect in later years. For example, Peppers received a B-plus for a Southern Africa class in his sophomore year, a course that showed up six times as a no-show class over three later years, according to the UNC investigation.

Peppers performed poorly in many other classes, including some within the African studies department that did not turn up later as no-show classes. He received a D on an introductory course, and failed a civil rights class in spring 2001.

Peppers’ agent, Carl Carey Jr., released a statement from Peppers on Saturday confirming that the transcript is his, but denying that he took part in academic fraud. On Monday, UNC officials announced that Peppers had made a $250,000 contribution to a scholarship program for African-American students.

Thorp’s announcement last week included tapping former Gov. Jim Martin to lead an audit to determine how deep the academic fraud went at the university. Martin said Thorp has given him the authority to go anywhere he sees fit, and that could include auditing the courses Peppers took.

In prior weeks, Thorp and other university officials have said the academic fraud is not an NCAA violation because nonathletes also were enrolled in the no-show classes. University records show nearly two-thirds of the enrollments were athletes, largely football players, but two classes showed a single men’s basketball player enrolled.

Last week in an interview, Thorp declined to say whether he still thought the academic fraud was not driven by athletics.

Kane: 919-829-4861

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