CHAPEL HILL — The NCAA found no evidence that its rules were violated during the academic misconduct in UNC-Chapel Hill’s African and Afro-American Studies department, university officials said Friday.
On the eve of the football home opener against Elon University, the university released a statement that seemed to suggest its NCAA troubles are over.
The African studies department has been the focus of an academic fraud investigation by the university, the State Bureau of Investigation and now, an independent review led by former N.C. Gov. Jim Martin. An internal campus review disclosed in May that 54 suspect courses in the department, many heavily attended by athletes, were no-show classes with little or no faculty supervision during a four-year period.
The results of that internal review were provided to the NCAA. On Aug. 23, the university’s attorney and a senior associate dean updated NCAA enforcement staff, who reaffirmed that no NCAA rules appeared to have been broken, the university said.
UNC first notified the NCAA about the academic problems in August 2011, and NCAA enforcement staffers came to Chapel Hill several times last fall to join in the investigation, according to the statement. NCAA officials talked to faculty and staff members in African studies, as well as some student-athletes who had taken classes in the department.
“Based on the joint review, UNC and the NCAA staff concluded there were no violations of current NCAA rules or student-athlete eligibility issues related to courses in African and Afro-American Studies,” the statement said.
These issues were not included in the proceedings when UNC appeared before the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions last fall, and it appears the university will avoid additional NCAA sanctions related to the findings about African studies.
In March, the NCAA levied penalties on UNC’s football program for several major violations, including impermissible benefits for players and a failure to monitor the program. The program lost scholarships over a three-year period and was banned from postseason play this year.
But the NCAA has been oddly quiet on the other, arguably more serious, scandal that emerged — the bogus African studies classes attended by some football and basketball players.
The NCAA did not return phone calls from The News & Observer on Friday.
Breaks for athletes?
A former head of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions, Josephine Potuto, said a July interview that the NCAA typically looks for evidence that student-athletes get special breaks.
In the UNC case, both student-athletes and regular students enrolled in the aberrant classes. That may have made the difference for NCAA investigators. Even if student-athletes are clustered in a class with a professor who gives out easy A’s, Potuto said, “that’s not an NCAA violation because that course is open to everybody else.”
In order to find a violation, the NCAA would have to decide that student-athletes are afforded special treatment.
“You can’t do it simply by saying, ‘Hey, there are a lot of student-athletes in this class, and everybody got an A.’” she said. “That’s not going to get you there.”
Still, the NCAA has been inconsistent in handing out penalties for academic fraud.
The NCAA did not get involved in 2008 when a University of Michigan professor was reported to have taught nearly 300 independent studies during a three-year period, with athletes comprising 85 percent. Yet Florida State University lost scholarships five years ago when athletes got improper help from tutors, including receiving answers to an online quiz. In that case, students who were not athletes also benefitted by getting the quiz answers.
UNC officials this week reported various new procedures designed to prevent future academic fraud. They promised more faculty involvement in athletics, a revamped African studies department, new oversight for academic administrators, new rules for independent study courses and changes to the tutoring program for athletes.
The reforms were discussed Thursday at a meeting of a UNC Board of Governors panel reviewing the campus’ handling of the problems. Martin, meanwhile, is working with a national consulting firm to determine whether other academic irregularities occurred in addition to the ones already uncovered.
“University officials will continue to keep the NCAA informed as developments warrant,” the university’s statement said Friday.