For the first half of the last decade, independent studies offered by the Department of African and Afro-American Studies were a regular go-to class for men’s basketball players at UNC-Chapel Hill.
In one year alone, when the team won the 2005 NCAA championship, basketball players accounted for 15 enrollments, university records show.
Two years later, members of the team all but disappeared from those classes, which did not meet and typically required a paper or research project at the end. UNC-CH records show just one basketball player took an independent study from the department in the past five years.
A university athletic department spokesman attributed the decline to a waning interest in African studies among basketball players. But evidence is emerging that officials within the department and within the academic support program for athletes started having concerns about independent studies in 2006, just as The New York Times published a lengthy story about an independent study scandal involving athletes at Auburn University.
Former Gov. Jim Martin, who has been leading a probe into academic irregularities at UNC-CH, said in interviews that Robert Mercer, the former director of the academic support program, and John Blanchard, a senior associate athletic director who oversaw academics, said they saw higher-than-expected independent study enrollments from athletes in the African studies department.
UNC-CH records show more than 1,400 enrollments of athletes and regular students in that department from fall 2001 to summer 2006, with some professors listed as teaching dozens of them at a time. Blanchard and Mercer reported the enrollments to Dick Baddour, then the athletic director.
They said they and Baddour took the information to the Faculty Committee on Athletics, but the committee told them there was nothing to be concerned about.
“There was a concern because of the Auburn incident in independent studies,” Martin said, “so that was definitely discussed.”
Baddour, upon learning of Martin’s comments, largely confirmed that version of events, though he said he did not recall the Auburn story being part of the discussion.
“The issue,” he said, “was there seemed to be more of that (independent studies) available in that department than elsewhere.”
That appears to be where the momentum stopped for a deeper look into the enrollments and the African studies department. But the number of enrollments soon started to drop.
Review: No problem
Members of the faculty committee, which has oversight of athletic matters on campus, say they do not recall such a warning. But the chairwoman at the time, Lissa Broome, a law professor who is now the faculty representative to the NCAA, said she did remember a discussion about the Auburn University case.
Committee minutes reflect some discussion about independent studies and include a reference to the Times report, which was published July 14, 2006. In that case, an Auburn University sociology professor had offered 272 independent studies to students in one academic year. Many Auburn athletes used the courses to boost their grade point averages.
“The committee has conducted a review of student-athletes registrations in independent study courses and has an interest in receiving current information in this regard,” the minutes of the November 2006 meeting said.
Two months later, the committee reported: “No sense exists of a current problem.” Mercer was tasked with tracking independent studies.
The discussion apparently never went beyond the faculty athletics committee, and the African studies department escaped a deeper look.
It wasn’t until August 2011 that university officials launched a formal probe, after The News & Observer obtained a transcript of a football player who had received a B-plus in an upper-level African studies class before beginning his first full semester as a freshman. In May, the university probe reported that the class that Marvin Austin took never met, and was one of 54 such no-show classes within the department that had been billed as lecture classes but were being conducted as independent studies.
The probe also found that the hundreds of independent studies the department offered over the years lacked accountability, with professors responsible for more students than they could keep track of, and unable to confirm that they had taught some of the students assigned to them.
Independent studies are typically courses in which students develop a research project with a faculty member and spend the semester producing a lengthy paper or presentation.
The university is now embroiled in four investigations, including one to determine whether the department chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, committed criminal fraud by accepting $12,000 for a class he never taught that was filled with football players.
Nyang’oro resigned as chairman more than a year ago and was forced into retirement in July. Calls to his home went unanswered.
A surge in enrollments
The new information about the events of 2006 raises more questions about how much concern some university officials and faculty had about academic standards being lowered to help athletes remain eligible to play sports. It also raises questions about university officials’ willingness to report what they knew about the problems in the African studies department.
The internal probe from May, which was done by academic officials within the College of Arts and Sciences, the home of the African studies department, made no mention that there had been prior concerns about the department.
A special faculty committee report released nearly three months later makes a reference about Mercer and Blanchard asking the faculty athletics committee in 2002 about “the teaching” of independent study courses, and being told that “faculty members have great latitude to teach courses as they see fit.” But minutes from that meeting do not show concern about the courses, nor do they show Mercer in attendance.
Three weeks ago, reading specialist Mary Willingham, a former employee in the academic support program, told The N&O that her former colleagues in the program knew there was a problem with the independent studies roughly five years ago. That is about when the drop-off in independent study enrollments began.
In academic years 2001-2002 through 2005-2006, the department averaged nearly 300 enrollments a year – 1,433 in five years – in independent studies.
The records show huge numbers of independent study enrollments for particular professors. In spring 2002, for example, one African studies professor was listed as having 70 independent study enrollments. The records say the instructor of record is “not necessarily (the) instructor of supervision.”
In at least 20 other circumstances, either a professor or staffers in the department were assigned 20 or more independent study enrollments in a semester.
During this period, football players accounted for 172 enrollments, or 12 percent, while basketball players accounted for 39 enrollments, or 3 percent. Those percentages are much higher than either team’s representation of the student body. It is not clear how many of the 1,433 enrollments involved athletes in other sports.
In the subsequent five years, independent studies enrollments totaled 327 – a drop of more than 75 percent from the previous five years.
Football players continued to take independent studies during that time, but at a much slower pace. Football players accounted for 68 of the enrollments, or 21 percent.
Even during that period, professors were handling as many as 18 enrollments a semester, the records show. A reform adopted after the scandal has pushed that number down to no more than two a semester.
‘It’s not normal’
James Moeser was the chancellor from 2000 to 2008, which includes the time when the independent study enrollments were averaging nearly 300 a year. He said the enrollment numbers are clearly an indicator of a problem and should have been brought to the attention of the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.
“That’s excessive, and it’s not normal,” he said.
The dean at the time, Madeline Levine, said no one came to her with questions about independent study enrollments in African studies.
She said the concerns of Mercer, Blanchard and Baddour should have come her way. She served as interim dean for the 2006-07 academic year.
“I would have expected them to go to a particular senior associate dean, or to have gone to me, or to simply call the college and say, ‘We’ve got a problem,’ ” said Levine, a Slavic literature professor. “If it had gone to one of the senior associate deans, then I would expect that that dean, with something as irregular as that, would have let me know.”
Baddour said the faculty committee saw no problem with the independent study enrollments. He did not explain why they dropped so dramatically since then, but an athletic department spokesman, Steve Kirschner, said recently that after 2005, basketball players were gravitating to other majors because they had different interests.
Julius Peppers’ transcript
Other evidence shows the African studies department had been generous in enrolling athletes in independent studies. Consider the partial transcript of one of UNC-CH’s most famous athletes: football and basketball player Julius Peppers.
Peppers’ transcript shows that he was allowed to enroll in four independent studies – the first in the summer after his freshman year in which he received an F, two Ds, two D-pluses, two Cs and one B. He got a B in that independent study, a class that was supposed to have been available only to “advanced undergraduate and graduate students,” according to UNC-CH registration records.
Peppers received a B and a B-plus in the two others. The transcript, available by accident on a UNC-CH website earlier this year, shows only that he was enrolled in the fourth.
Peppers, an African studies major who left without graduating, held a grade point average below a 2.0 in his first three years at UNC-CH. He is now a star defensive end for the Chicago Bears.
The N&O has sought explanations for the independent study enrollment decreases since receiving the data more than a year ago. UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp and other administrators declined to talk about it. Thorp was Levine’s successor as dean of the Arts & Sciences college, and he said he was unaware of any problems with independent studies until last year.
Attempts to reach professors in the African studies department who had high numbers of enrollments were unsuccessful.
Former Gov. Martin is scheduled to present his findings at a UNC Board of Trustees meeting Dec. 20. He said he is trying to pinpoint what the discussion was six years ago and determine if it is the cause of the enrollment drop.
“I think you can expect that that’s something that we have to pursue,” Martin said, “even if it takes us past December 20.”