Meeting minutes don't confirm Martin report in UNC academic fraud scandal

dkane@newsobserver.comDecember 29, 2012 

Earlier this month, former Gov. Jim Martin absolved UNC-Chapel Hill’s athletic department and the academic support program for student athletes of any wrongdoing in a major academic fraud scandal, contending officials there tried to raise red flags about questionable classes within the Department of African and Afro-American Studies.

Martin said those officials twice tried to alert the university’s Faculty Committee on Athletics, in 2002 and 2006, to concerns about the higher-than-expected numbers of independent study enrollments and lecture-style classes that had been converted into independent studies. But the committee, he said, wasn’t concerned about those red flags, and told the officials that professors “had wide latitude how to teach a course.”

But a review of faculty athletic committee minutes for those years and 2007 do not show red flags being raised, and several committee members said they either had no recollection of any concerns or they said it never happened.

“You won’t find any reference to it in the committee minutes because there was no reference to it,” said Dr. Stanley Mandel, a medical school professor who was committee chairman in 2002. “There was no discussion. Nothing was brought up.”

Dr. Desmond Runyan, a former social medicine professor, was on the committee in 2006 and 2007. He said he never heard anything negative regarding athletics and academics.

“It seemed like everyone around the table was congratulating themselves about what a squeaky clean program they had,” said Runyan, who now teaches at the University of Colorado in Denver.

Martin’s finding is critical to the university’s efforts to convince the NCAA that there were no violations related to an academic fraud scandal that has now been confirmed to go back as far as 1997. While the football team was recently penalized following a 2010 NCAA investigation into improper agent benefits and improper academic help from someone described as a “rogue” tutor, the academic fraud was not discovered until The News & Observer reported in August 2011 that a former defensive tackle had received a B-plus in a 2007 summer class before he had entered the university as a full freshman in need of remedial writing.

The subsequent investigations now show the fraud spilled over into the university’s storied men’s basketball program. Records show the 2009 championship team accounted for two no-show enrollments, and the 2005 championship team had 15 enrollments in independent studies.

Martin’s report found that the longtime African studies department chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, and his department manager, Deborah Crowder, were involved in a scheme to generate lecture-style classes that never met and only required a term paper at the end. The report also found independent studies that lacked any oversight, with term papers that Martin said likely weren’t read. Nyang’oro was forced to retire in July.

Some of these classes involved unauthorized grade changes, and other documentation that made it look like other professors had taught the classes when they hadn’t. All told, Martin’s report found 216 classes with proven or potential problems, and 560 suspected unauthorized grade changes.

Athletes were heavily enrolled in these classes, but Martin said it wasn’t an athletic scandal. He said he could not find evidence that athletic officials had concocted the scheme with Nyang’oro. Nonathletes were also enrolled in the courses, receiving the same good grades as the athletes.

But even if the scheme did not start with a goal of keeping athletes eligible to play sports, there is evidence to suggest that it ended up that way. Records from the academic support program for athletes show that staff there knew about the no-show classes and knew they were not intended to be challenging. Freshmen were enrolled in such classes, including one that stated it was for upperclassmen.

In the summer of 2011, Nyang’oro quickly arranged a no-show class before the semester began, and it was immediately filled with football players.

The contention that academic support officials twice raised concerns about such improprieties to the faculty athletic committee, and were told not to worry about it, would in effect, inoculate the athletic department and academic support program from claims they had become accessories to the scheme.

That is what Martin found. But his investigation, done with the help of the Baker Tilly management consultant firm, only interviewed one professor on the faculty athletics committee – business professor Jack Evans, who was the university’s longtime faculty representative to the NCAA.

Evans took the minutes of the meetings in 2002, 2006 and 2007 that are now at the heart of the red flag debate. Evans declined to talk about what happened on the committee, or what he told Martin.

Martin said in an interview Saturday that he based his findings on interviews with Evans, recently retired athletic director Dick Baddour, senior associate athletic director John Blanchard, former academic support director Robert Mercer, Chancellor Holden Thorp and Laurie Maffly-Kipp, the chairman of the Religious Studies department.

Martin acknowledged that Baddour, Blanchard and Mercer might want to protect the program. But Martin also did not know how Maffly-Kipp came to support those officials’ version of events.

Maffly-Kipp was one of three faculty members who authored a special faculty council report on the academic fraud, released July 26. That report provides the first public inkling of red flags being raised.

“(A)thletic counselors have been discouraged from contacting faculty or questioning decisions about pedagogy,” the report said. “For example, in 2002, Robert Mercer and John Blanchard met with the (faculty athletics committee) to discuss the teaching of (independent study) courses, and were told that faculty members have great latitude to teach courses as they see fit.”

The Martin report adopts this same finding. But Maffly-Kipp said she did not receive this information from Blanchard or Mercer, who were both interviewed by her committee. It came from Thorp.

“We did not have access ourselves to the minutes from the meeting, but instead we were paraphrasing what we heard from Thorp that had transpired there,” Maffly-Kipp said in an email message.

Thorp could not be reached. Karen Moon, a spokeswoman for Thorp said Thorp provided the meeting minutes to Maffly-Kipp’s committee, but he did not attend the 2002 meeting and did not have direct knowledge of what happened.

Mercer and Baddour could not be reached, though Baddour said in an interview for a News & Observer story published Dec. 9 that concerns had been raised .

Blanchard could not be reached for an interview, but in email messages Saturday he said he twice raised concerns in 2006 about an African studies professor who was “teaching courses listed as lecture courses like they were independent studies.”

“Students were taking these courses from across campus, including student-athletes,” he said. “I wanted the Faculty Committee on Athletics to be aware of the situation and give the director of the academic support program some direction.”

He said he did not have much recollection of the 2002 meeting with the faculty committee, other than it involved “reporting on independent studies.” That report from March 2002, lists several independent study classes that athletes had enrolled in, including two in African studies. But it, and the 2002 minutes in which the report was discussed, do not identify concerns about independent studies.

Blanchard said he raised his concerns after a scandal at Auburn University that was reported by The New York Times in July 2006. In that case, a sociology professor had offered 272 independent studies to students in one year. Many Auburn athletes used the courses to boost their grade point averages.

Committee minutes for the November 2006 meeting make reference to the Auburn case. Among the attendees was then Chancellor James Moeser.

In phone interviews and an email message, Moeser denied hearing about a potential problem at UNC-CH.

“To my knowledge, nothing ever came back to (the faculty committee) or to my attention,” Moeser said in an email message Saturday.

Martin’s investigation showed that in between the 2002 and 2006 meetings, the number of no-show classes, independent studies and unauthorized grade changes peaked. He said he does not have a clear answer why they dropped afterward, but the report notes that Crowder retired in September 2009.

Men’s basketball players had not enrolled in the three remaining no-show classes identified after her retirement. Only one player had enrolled in independent studies over the past five years.

Crowder had close ties to the basketball team. She has been in a longtime relationship with a former basketball player, and Martin’s investigation found that in 2008, she had received $100,000 and some Hummel figurines from the estate of the father of a close friend who was the former academic adviser to basketball players until shortly before her death in 2004. Martin’s report said the gift was in exchange for taking care of the father’s dogs, and Martin said he did not see anything suspicious in it.

Martin said Saturday that he still stood by his findings, and offered one additional vote of support: Law professor Lissa Broome, who replaced Evans as the NCAA faculty representative in 2010. She was chairman of the faculty athletics committee in 2006, and also a member in 2002.

Martin did not interview Broome for his report, but said she came up to him after his presentation and told him he was on the mark.

Broome had told The News & Observer in early December that she did not recall any warnings or concerns, but she did remember the Auburn case being discussed. The same day Martin said she gave him the endorsement, The N&O asked again about the committee meetings.

“I just don’t recall myself,” Broome said. “I wish I did.”

Kane: 919-829-4861

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