Like many university leaders, UNC's Thorp struggled with athletics scandals

Chancellors often feel powerless in battle of academics vs. athletics

dkane@newsobserver.comSeptember 18, 2012 

Fourteen months ago, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp drew derision from sports fans but high praise from academics for firing popular football coach Butch Davis after an NCAA investigation found agents offering perks to players and a tutor fixing up their papers.

Thorp’s explanation was simple: Academics come first at one of the nation’s top public universities, and the issues raised by the investigation had become too big a distraction for that mission.

But the athletics-related distractions didn’t end. An academic fraud scandal and, last week, a travel scandal, emerged that raised much deeper questions about how beholden UNC-CH had become to big-time college sports.

Like many university chancellors and presidents around the country, Thorp struggled to balance the competing demands of academics with a major athletics program. Monday, he announced he would resign at the end of the school year and return to teaching as a chemistry professor.

Thorp did not expressly state why he was stepping down, but his prepared statement suggested that he thought he had become the distraction.

“I will always do what is best for this university,” Thorp said. “This wasn’t an easy decision personally. But when I thought about the university and how important it’s been to me, to North Carolinians and to hundreds of thousands of alumni, my answer became clear.”

An uphill battle

Big-time college athletics have long been a minefield for university administrators. They often find themselves at the mercy of highly paid coaches under intense pressure to recruit top players – who may struggle academically – and wealthy boosters who want successful teams.

“As I’ve told many chancellors, you are going to live by the sword and you are going to die by the sword with athletics,” said David Ridpath, an Ohio University professor who has testified before Congress about NCAA enforcement issues.

A 2009 Knight Commission survey of university presidents and chancellors found many of them feel powerless to stop or slow the financial arms race in athletic departments that has often brought scandal.

“(P)residents would like serious change but do not see themselves as the force for the changes needed,” the report said.

Thorp has announced dozens of changes in the wake of the various scandals, but his administration has had difficulty getting to the bottom of what went wrong. It also at times has been reluctant to release information related to the incidents. Thorp and the university were sued by a coalition of media groups, including The News & Observer, about UNC’s unwillingness to release some documents; the matter is still in court.

Last week, the executive director of the Dental Foundation of North Carolina declined to make public a report that details some of the travel spending that Tami Hansbrough, the mother of former basketball star Tyler Hansbrough, did while working there. He said the foundation did not have to produce the report because it is a nonprofit and not a governmental entity, and therefore not covered by the state’s public records law. The foundation raises money for UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Dentistry.

An infamous tweet

The university’s problems began in May 2010 with a tweet by a former star football player, Marvin Austin. The tweet mirrored a rap lyric about partying, but the ensuing NCAA investigation found he had been doing just that – on a sports agent’s tab.

The yearlong investigation caused Austin and six other players to be kicked off the football team, while several others served suspensions. The NCAA hit the university with a one-year bowl ban and a loss of scholarships.

Davis’ firing, along with the early retirement of former athletic director Dick Baddour, seemed to indicate the university’s athletics issues were behind it.

But rival N.C. State fans discovered that one of the papers that contained improper help from the tutor also had several passages plagiarized from other sources. The professor listed on the paper, Julius Nyang’oro, hadn’t discovered the plagiarism.

On Aug. 21, 2011, less than a month after Davis’ firing, the N&O published a partial transcript of Austin’s grades. It showed that in the summer before he entered Carolina as a full-time freshman he had taken an upper level African studies class from Nyang’oro, who was the longtime chairman of the African and Afro-American Studies department. Austin received a B-plus in the class, despite needing to take remedial writing in the fall semester.

The N&O began asking UNC officials about classes in the department that never met, but in which a paper was required to be written. Within two weeks, the university had received Nyang’oro’s resignation as chairman of the African studies department, and announced an internal investigation into academic irregularities there.

In May, the university released a report that found 54 such classes over a four-year period, with all but nine of them tied to Nyang’oro. The instructors identified with the other nine had said they did not teach the classes, and added that it appeared their signatures had been forged on course records.

University officials insisted the academic fraud was not an NCAA issue, however, because nonathletes had also been enrolled in the classes and had been treated equally. But records later released to the N&O showed athletes made up nearly two-thirds of the enrollments, with football players alone making up more than a third.

The records also showed the scandal had reached UNC’s storied basketball team, with 23 enrollments in the no-show classes. Two classes each showed only a single basketball player enrolled. Another class Nyang’oro had launched in the summer of 2011 – filled with nothing but football players – prompted an SBI investigation.

Peppers transcript emerges

Last month, the N&O found evidence suggesting the no-show classes could go as far back as a dozen years. A transcript the N&O discovered on a UNC website was later identified by N.C. State fans as that of former two-sport star Julius Peppers, who left UNC-CH after the 2001 football season to become one of the NFL’s top defensive stars. The transcript showed that Peppers would not have been eligible to play if not for the grades of B or better he received in classes that in later years had been identified as suspect in the internal investigation.

That revelation triggered more heat for Thorp, who later announced still another investigation, led by former Gov. Jim Martin, to try to determine how far back the no-show classes had been held. He is supposed to report back to the university next month.

Despite the mounting evidence that athletic eligibility was driving the academic fraud, NCAA officials allowed the university to announce on Aug. 31 that there continued to be no NCAA violations.

Roughly a week prior to that announcement, Thorp had no comment on whether the academic fraud constituted an NCAA violation.

Seven days after the NCAA announcement, the N&O contacted Thorp again to ask about allegations of improper travel by Tami Hansbrough and Matt Kupec, the vice chancellor for university advancement. Hansbrough had been hired as a fundraiser for the university during her son’s senior year.

Thorp said nothing about the allegations, but promised to call back the following week.

That was a week ago Monday, when he contacted the N&O and said Kupec had resigned and Hansbrough was on administrative leave after Thorp found evidence of personal travel at the university’s expense. Records later showed several trips to cities where Tyler Hansbrough, now a player for the Indiana Pacers of the NBA, and Ben Hansbrough, a star for the University of Notre Dame, were playing basketball games.

That brought Thorp before the UNC Board of Governors for a closed-door meeting Friday. But no one on that board or UNC-CH’s board of trustees called for Thorp’s resignation.

Art Padilla, a former UNC system vice president who has written a book about university management, said athletics often overwhelm chancellors and take away needed time for academic and budgetary issues.

He did find one possible cause for optimism in Thorp’s announcement. Thorp will remain in the job until next summer, and if he’s sincere in getting to the bottom of the problems and cleaning them up, he no longer has to worry about those who might stand in the way, Padilla said.

Kane: 919-829-4861

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