A grade for the Martin probe: incomplete

The former governor’s report on an academic fraud scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill falls short.

December 20, 2012 

Former Gov. Jim Martin and a management consulting firm, Baker-Tilly, did their duty, as best they could, no doubt, in issuing a report on academic fraud in the African and Afro-American Studies Department at UNC-Chapel Hill. But there are a couple of considerable gaps in the report, gaps perhaps not the fault of Martin or consultants.

The gaps are named Deborah Crowder and Julius Nyang’oro. Crowder was the administrative assistant of the department and Nyang’oro its chairman. Both are implicated in the report as the ones responsible for various independent study classes, sometimes called “no show” because students got no lectures and submitted a paper at semester’s end.

The classes, as is now well-known, were favored by athletes and apparently by the academic support system that, according to one former member of the support staff, was focused on keeping players eligible. Martin’s report noted 216 courses in the department with real or potential problems and 454 suspect grade changes.

Crowder and Nyang’oro declined to talk to anyone with Martin’s group. Both are retired. It appears only they could address important questions: How did these courses come to be? How did athletes manage to enroll in substantial numbers? Why did some athletes do well in these classes but not in many others? Did anyone know these no-show classes existed outside the departmental office?

Problems contained?

Martin’s group found the problems were confined to African studies. Its report reached the sweeping but dubious conclusion that the problems represented an academic scandal, but “not an athletic scandal.” Significantly, the report found that problems with the classes went back to 1997, five years after Nyang’oro took over. University officials initially wanted to go back a much shorter period in their own investigation. That changed when suspicions arose that problems might have had a longer history.

The university also says that the reports about the courses shouldn’t cause any further problems with the NCAA, the governing body of college sports, because regular students, not just athletes, were in the classes as well and were treated equally.

That’s a nice piece of rationalization, but the university has other concerns. Martin’s review is one of five investigations related to academic fraud. In one, the State Bureau of Investigation is looking at a 2011 summer school session in which Nyang’oro was paid $12,000 to teach a class that had no lectures and required only a paper. An accreditation agency also is looking at the campus.

The university has an entire law school. Is it not possible for someone in that school to determine a way in which Crowder and Nyang’oro could be compelled to tell what they know about these classes?

And they could tell what they know about the favorable treatment some star football players allegedly received.

It’s not over

Absent full comments from the two people the report puts at the center of the problems,this story cannot be said to be over. It’s had some frustrating and occasionally reassuring moments along the way.

Initially, it seemed the blame was going to fall on a tutor alleged to have helped athletes too much with their work, but it became obvious the problems went beyond that. Other stories began to unfold, with the university reluctantly responding to each one. That pattern was frustrating in many ways, for it appeared that either the university was trying to keep a lid on things or that the administration didn’t know what was going on.

Then there was the moment when Mary Willingham, who had worked in the academic support system but then moved to another job in 2010, stated plainly to The N&O that the no-show classes were used to keep athletes eligible and that the support staff knew it. Willingham had been moved to come forward after attending the memorial services for the late UNC system President Emeritus William Friday, a long-time advocate of pulling the reins on college athletics.

Martin approached his task with the precision of a professor, which he was, and the findings on the numbers of questionable classes are valuable. But this sorry saga, which has wounded a great university, has yet to reach its final chapter.

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