UNC's Thorp promises faculty that university will learn from scandal

Chancellor addresses faculty council on academic fraud

dkane@newsobserver.comSeptember 7, 2012 

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Chancellor Holden Thorp, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

DAN SEARS UNC-CHAPEL HILL — UNC-Chapel Hill

— It was a promise UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp has made over and over in the three months since announcing one of the worst academic scandals in the university’s history.

But this time it was before a standing-room-only crowd of faculty who came to hear him address the years of no-show classes that predominately benefited athletes.

“No one is more upset about this than I am; no one is more determined than I am,” Thorp told the professors at the first Faculty Council meeting of the academic year. “We are going to use this as a learning experience, and we are going to be a stronger university as a result.”

It was the first opportunity for the full council to delve into the academic fraud scandal that involves at least 54 classes within the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, and dozens more independent study courses over a four-year period that ended with the summer of 2011. Athletes took up nearly two-thirds of the enrollments in the classes that had little or no instruction, raising concerns they were intended to help keep them eligible to play sports. UNC officials have said the suspect classes are not an athletics concern because non-athletes were also enrolled and were treated the same.

Last week, the university released a statement saying the NCAA continues to think that the academic fraud did not violate NCAA rules. The NCAA later confirmed the statement, but neither it nor the university has explained why the problems did not trigger violations.

Jan Boxill, the faculty chairwoman, introduced two resolutions to the council Friday that drew unanimous support. One affirmed the need for an African and Afro-American Studies Department, pointing out that the investigation has shown only two individuals within the department are responsible for the scandal: the former chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, who was forced to retire July 1; and Deborah Crowder, the former department manager who retired in 2009.

Thorp and Boxill said the department is an essential part of the university and does not deserve calls from some to shut it down or fold it into another department. Kia Caldwell, a professor in the department, drew a standing ovation after reading a statement affirming the department’s mission.

The second resolution endorsed a special faculty committee report that said the university was in effect a campus of two cultures in conflict – academic and athletic. The most revealing detail from that report, released in July, was that some of the officials interviewed said athletes reported being steered by academic counselors to no-show classes.

Since then the director in charge of the academic support program for athletes has been reassigned to another job, though UNC officials said he did nothing wrong.

All about athletics?

Thorp spent much of his address talking about the various investigations and reviews that have been completed or are still under way, and noted roughly 70 reform recommendations have been proposed or implemented.

But one professor, Jay Smith, challenged Thorp on the university’s contention that athletics did not drive the scandal. While he praised the university for the reforms, Smith said the university has not been as forthcoming as it should have been.

He cited the last no-show class Nyang’oro taught, AFAM 280, which Nyang’oro created two days before the start of a summer 2011 semester and quickly filled with football players. News & Observer records requests revealed the athletes-only class, which prompted an ongoing criminal investigation.

“The existence of that course alone provides very powerful evidence that the Nyang’oro scandal was all about athletics,” said Smith, a history professor.

He also asked why the university declined to check a test transcript from 2001 that The N&O found on a UNC website that turned out to be that of Julius Peppers, a football and basketball player who is now an All-Pro defensive end for the Chicago Bears. The university had insisted the transcript was fake but did not check records to make sure.

“Instead of confirming the reality of the record and then moving to protect that student’s privacy, the university ignored The N&O’s questions and left that transcript on a publicly accessible website, where it was available for later plundering by N.C. State fans,” Smith said.

Airing dirty laundry

The transcript raises concerns that the no-show classes and questionable independent studies had been going on for at least a dozen years. Nearly all of Peppers’ good grades were in those classes, and without them he would not have been eligible to play sports. Peppers has denied taking part in academic fraud.

Smith said the university “should be doing all we can to get out in front of the press, and to pre-emptively air our dirty laundry, so that we can prove to the world – because we now need to prove it – that there are things more important to UNC than athletics success or the careers of individual faculty or administrators.”

His remarks drew applause from roughly 20 professors.

Thorp said the university hasn’t done a “perfect job” in addressing the scandal, but federal and state privacy laws, along with “our logistical ability to get the information given the resources we have” played a role in limiting disclosure.

Thorp also said the latest investigation, led by former Gov. Jim Martin, has the authority to go anywhere Martin sees fit to get to the bottom of the scandal. That investigation is expected to be complete by mid-October.

Kane: 919-829-4861

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