UNC players needed academic help, records show

Academic support unit cited department chair’s generosity

dkane@newsobserver.comSeptember 30, 2012 

AFRI 370 is an upper-level course at UNC-Chapel Hill for seniors majoring in African and Afro-American studies and other students with a background in the study of Africa. It was touted to have “lectures, readings and research projects” on a significant problem facing African leaders or American officials tasked with African issues.

But when it came available in the spring semester of 2010, among those enrolled were several freshman football players who struggled to read and write at a college level.

There were no lectures or readings, and the class never met, one of dozens of such classes offered between 2007 and 2011. The players simply turned in a 20-page paper they produced with extensive help from tutors and oversight from counselors. That help, at times, included intense editing and material made available for use in the papers, according to records from UNC’s Academic Support Program for Student Athletes obtained by The News & Observer.

The records develop a deeper picture about the academic fraud that has spawned four ongoing investigations and reviews on the Chapel Hill campus. They show that the athlete support program used the no-show classes to help keep student-athletes eligible to play.

UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp has pledged new and higher academic standards as the probes continue, including severing the athlete support program from the athletic department. Until last month, it reported to the athletic department and the College of Arts and Sciences.

The academic support records show the depths of the trouble in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, including information the university has not revealed in its own probes, one of which did cite 54 department classes that had no lectures. For example, it did not identify AFRI 370 as a no-show class.

The documents also describe a sometimes-contentious relationship between tutors and players, with descriptions of study sessions where players wouldn’t cooperate. The university has said that the academic fraud was limited to department chairman Julius Nyang’oro and a department manager, Deborah Crowder, but the records also suggest at least one other professor in the department was aware that no-show classes existed for struggling players.

It was Nyang’oro, the longtime chairman, who gave the players and academic support staff confidence. Nyang’oro had such low expectations for these “paper classes,” as the academic support program called them, that the work largely consisted of papers stitched together with passages from the required reading materials that were then, in some instances, “paraphrased” to avoid plagiarism concerns.

In one case, it appears that a player did nothing more than copy various articles and other background information from the Internet and paste it all into a paper before turning it over to a tutor.

Nyang’oro was forced to retire July 1, after resigning as department chairman 13 months ago when university academic officials were just starting to learn the depth of the scandal.

But no-show classes were common knowledge within the athlete support program.

“Professor Nyang’oro, Chair of the AFRI/AFAM Studies Department, has been very generous in granting several students (not just student-athletes) the opportunity to do independent study papers,” Amy Kleissler, a learning specialist with the athlete support program, wrote in a Feb. 8, 2010, email informing tutors of the AFRI 370 paper class. “Since we have worked with him in the past in this same manner I wanted to let you know that his expectations are very reasonable and very achievable for our students.”

When one tutor told the athlete support program’s assistant director, Beth Bridger, that she was discouraged with the work one football player turned in, Bridger told her not to worry.

“Just remember,” she wrote in a March 16, 2010, email, “guys are in this class for a reason – at-risk, probation, struggling students –you are making headway … keep it positive and encouraging!”

Thorp, in a brief interview Friday, declined to talk about the records, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, commonly known as FERPA. It prohibits universities from releasing student education records.

He said he sent copies of the records to former Gov. Jim Martin and the accounting firm Baker Tilly, whom Thorp appointed last month to dig deeper into the academic fraud.

Thorp did not explain why the records had not surfaced until now, but he said they are “of concern.”

“These records are important and have been referred to Gov. Martin,” Thorp said.

The McAdoo pattern

Nyang’oro came to UNC in 1984 as a visiting assistant professor and became the African studies department’s chairman in 1992. University officials now admit he never received a review from a supervisor since he was elevated to that position, another institutional flaw that has since been fixed.

Until August, the university had resisted going back further than 2007 to investigate other potential academic problems in the department, so it’s difficult to assess exactly what was happening before then.

Difficult, that is, except in the case of Julius Peppers, whose transcript sat unnoticed on UNC’s website until this summer. Peppers had D’s or F’s in 11 of 30 classes, the transcript showed, and was barely eligible for football and basketball only because of a string of better grades in courses he took in the AFAM Department.

Before that, the university was embarrassed by the case of defensive end Michael McAdoo, tossed off the football team by the NCAA in 2010 after its investigation found that tutor Jennifer Wiley had helped write three papers McAdoo submitted for three African studies classes. Under NCAA regulations, tutors are not supposed to do the players’ work but instead show them how to do the work themselves.

All three, records show, were no-show classes, including an intermediate-level Swahili language class that only required a term paper, written in English, on Swahili culture and history. Rival N.C. State fans last year discovered it had numerous passages lifted from several sources.

Just like the football players in AFRI 370, McAdoo had been placed in one of the no-show classes while he was a freshman. He took the other two before he started his sophomore year.

In McAdoo’s lawsuit to try to return to the team, he claimed the work he submitted resulted from the advice and help he received from the academic support staff.

Help from ‘paper classes’

That support staff is large, and it is challenged. The university employs roughly 120 people in academic support for athletes, charged with tutoring and counseling nearly 800 athletes.

The challenge comes from working with a group of students who ordinarily wouldn’t have been admitted to one of the country’s best public universities. In the past five years, records show, 53 football players have been admitted as academic “exceptions.” The university has not provided numbers for basketball players, the other major revenue-producing sport.

Athletes typically have much greater need for classes that do not meet. They spend so much time preparing and playing in games that four years ago the university gave them priority registration so they could get into classes that fit their schedules.

Evidence shows that some non-athletes who enrolled in the classes did so unwittingly and were dumbfounded to find the class only consisted of a paper assignment.

One such student commented about the Spring 2010 AFRI 370 no-show class on a course evaluation website known as Koofers.

“I am taking the course by submitting a paper with Prof. Nyang’oro and it is a bit daunting,” said the student, who was not identified, in a comment posted in April 2010, long before the scandal was uncovered. “It has to be between 20-25 pages. I wish I was able to take the actual course with him.”

Thorp has said those who were enrolled in the classes were cheated out of a Carolina education.

Difficulty with reading

The internal records obtained by the N&O include evaluations of the football players who had been assigned to tutors and reports known as “Feedback Forms” that tutors filled out after study sessions to help the academic support staff and athletic coaches know the progress athletes were making in each class.

The records also include detailed assessments of the classes, complete with descriptions of professors’ expectations and testing styles.

The evaluations and other correspondence show the football players enrolled in AFRI 370 and another African studies class, SWAH 112, needed plenty of help from tutors. (The N&O is not identifying the players mentioned in these records because they don’t give a full picture of the athletes’ academic backgrounds or performance.)

“The process of reading and writing is slow and laborious” for one prominent player, the records say. For him, the tutor was advised to “seek out other resources for him to learn the material – search on the internet for video lectures or demonstrations.”

UNC records released late Friday show that two-thirds of the 21 students enrolled in AFRI 370 were athletes, nine of them football players. Ten of the 19 students enrolled in SWAH 112 were athletes, seven of those football players. No men’s basketball players enrolled in either class.

The AFRI 370 class had an average grade of 3.22. The average for the SWAH 112 class was a 3.05, a B.

Emails show academic support staff knew the football players were incapable of doing college-level work on the AFRI 370 paper. Those staffers did not appear concerned by that.

An email written by tutor Whitney Read showed she was concerned about papers that were largely put together with passages lifted from source materials.

Jaimie Lee, an academic counselor, told her that was to be expected.

“If they have a ton of historical information, that’s fine, as long as it is cited and not plagiarized,” Lee wrote. “They have not necessarily developed the skill of critical analysis, so just try to get some in there, but if it is mostly background information, honestly, it is to be expected.”

Several records show staff working with the athletes to turn plagiarized passages into acceptable material by paraphrasing.

The documents also include a 19-page draft by one player – a freshman in the 370 class – that was being worked on five days before it was due. It has several large sections that are not cited, paraphrased or otherwise formatted to indicate the words are anything but the player’s.

A comparison of the language in the paper, whose focus was on oil in Nigeria, with Internet sources shows that the passages are lifted word-for-word from a magazine article, a summary of a Nigerian conference proceeding, Internet encyclopedias and other such sources.

It’s not clear how much the draft paper changed before it was turned in. Other documents, however, reflect Read and the player working together to get the paper done. Days before the paper was due, she was trying to get him to paraphrase two sentences, but he resisted.

Three days before it was due, Read told administrators of the athlete support program in an email message that she hoped someone else would work with the player and “make sure his paper is all done.”

UNC officials said Saturday that compliance administrators interviewed the player on Thursday. The player said the draft was not the final version. Officials said the university only keeps papers for one year.

They said the player would not agree to be interviewed.

Crass behavior

Reports that Read wrote about some study sessions showed how little some football players cared about their classwork.

“People were just rude,” Read wrote about a SWAH 112 study session. That class was held in the first summer session of 2010, and was not a no-show class. “...people farting, watching videos on their computers, talking back, complaining, rapping, not paying attention.”

SWAH 112 combines the first two Swahili language classes into one intensive six-credit-hour course. Those who pass it and the intermediate-level Swahili class have fulfilled their language requirement at the university. Records show Swahili and Portuguese are popular languages for basketball and football players. Unlike Spanish and other language courses taught more broadly at UNC, there is no additional language lab required.

Alphonse Mutima taught the Swahili class, and the feedback forms reflected his difficulty in getting through to the football players. At one point, Read wrote, Mutima was so discouraged by one football player’s inability to grasp the language that he wanted to put the athlete in an “independent study paper class” for intermediate Swahili.

It also suggests that the “paper class” version for intermediate Swahili, or SWAH 403, was set up to be an easy class.

That’s the class McAdoo took, and university records show that there were at least four other no-show intermediate Swahili classes. Football players accounted for seven of the enrollments in those five no-show classes, while men’s basketball players accounted for three.

Read declined to be interviewed. She is a 2009 graduate with a degree in African studies who no longer tutors for the university.

Mutima also declined to comment. He is a nontenured professor, hired in 1999, who makes $37,000 a year.

Bridger did not return several phone calls on her work and cellphones. Kleissler and Lee referred questions to Bridger and other higher-ups in the program. Several other former or current tutors declined to talk about the support program.

One who did, Megan Anderson, said she saw no problems with the way athletes were tutored or the work the athletes submitted. The 2010 graduate in education was a reading specialist for the program, but she said she did not work with athletes on the AFRI 370 paper.

“I had no reason to doubt that there was integrity in that assignment,” she said.

News researchers Brooke Cain and Peggy Neal contributed to this report.

Kane: 919-829-4861

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