Updated data on UNC scandal details bogus classes, suspect grade changes

dkane@newsobserver.comJanuary 25, 2013 

— New data released Friday about a long-running academic fraud scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill show athletes made up nearly half of the enrollments in 172 bogus classes within the African studies department, and also accounted for a just under half of 512 suspect grade changes during that period.

Their average grade: 3.56, between a B-plus and an A-minus.

But Baker Tilly, the national management consulting firm that produced the data, said those numbers are not evidence of an athletics scandal at the university.

Raina Rose Tagle, a Baker Tilly partner, said the remaining 55 percent of nonathletes in the classes, who also accounted for half of the suspected grade changes and received similar grades, show it was purely an academic scandal.

“There was not a relationship between the presence of student-athletes in a class and the existence of known anomalies in that class,” Tagle told members of a UNC Board of Governors panel that is looking into the academic fraud.

Baker Tilly was hired in mid-August to help former Gov. Jim Martin try to determine when the academic fraud began, who was involved in creating it, and how many courses it affected. The report released last month found 216 suspect courses and 560 grade changes that lacked proper authorization dating back to 1997.

Friday’s follow-up report did not show the breakdown of athletes and nonathletes in suspect courses and grade changes prior to fall 2001 because that information does not exist in an electronic format.

Tagle said the fraud wasn’t about athletics because nonathletes had the same access to the classes and received similar grades. She and Martin also reported that they could find no evidence that athletics officials hatched the fraud. The report said longtime department chairman Julius Nyang’oro and department manager Deborah Crowder were solely responsible.

Nyang’oro was forced into retirement in July; Crowder had retired in September 2009.

Roughly 800 athletes are attending the university in any given year, and they account for less than 5 percent of the total undergraduate student population. But Tagle said their over-representation in the African studies courses is likely because African-Americans make up a disproportionate percentage of athletes at the university.

She said the data showed that athletes had a similar representation in other African studies courses not found to be fraudulent.

In response to a question, Tagle said she, Martin and her colleagues left no stone unturned in probing what the university had asked.

“Our review and our analysis has been exhaustive,” Tagle said.

What’s missing

Unlike a previous UNC-CH report, the Baker Tilly report did not disclose how many football and men’s basketball players were in the suspect classes, or how many bogus classes were taken by each athlete, compared to each nonathlete. It didn’t explain how numerous freshmen football players got into those classes, some of which were identified as being for upperclassmen.

It also did not disclose what classes had suspicious grade changes.

Panel Chairman Louis Bissette said after the meeting that the report contained important information. But he also acknowledged areas that the report did not go into that could shed more light on athletic involvement, and he said he would try to get more answers before the panel delivers its findings to the full UNC Board of Governors, possibly as soon as their next regular meeting in February.

The NCAA has said little about the academic scandal, but last week President Mark Emmert, in response to a McClatchy Newspaper reporter’s question, said a potential inquiry hinges on the question of whether there was an intent to help athletes stay eligible to play sports. He said he was concerned that freshmen athletes were enrolled.

‘A smokescreen’

Experts in NCAA enforcement said the new report’s grade change data provide further evidence that the association should investigate.

The new report shows that from 2002 to 2009, UNC athletes had their grades changed 38 times in ways that were not approved by the course’s instructor. All were in African studies classes.

Those grade changes, according to the new report and one on the same topic issued last month, were “specifically identified by the course section’s instructor of record as unauthorized.”

“(T)he instructor of record confirmed that, while listed as the authorizer/approver on a grade change form, the signature represented a grade change s/he did not approve,” the report says. “Unauthorized grade changes were either specifically identified by the instructor of record, or associated with a course section found to be … a course determined to represent academic misconduct (and) could not have appropriate grade changes associated.”

The report says that an additional 215 grade changes for athletes are suspected to be unauthorized.

The updated report highlights that the grade changes were made for athletes and nonathletes in similar proportions. But it is silent on other details, including whether athletes were kept eligible by the unauthorized changes.

‘Irrelevant’ proportions

Gerald Gurney, past present of the National Association of Academic Advisers for Athletics and a professor at the University of Oklahoma, said the way the new report is written “is obviously a smokescreen.”

From an NCAA perspective, he said, “it doesn’t answer the right questions.”

John Infante, whose respected blog on NCAA compliance matters was once hosted by the NCAA, and Michael Buckner, a Florida lawyer who has represented universities in infractions cases, both said further investigation is warranted.

“The burden would be on UNC to explain them away, which they did not do in the report,” Infante said, adding that “the proportion of unauthorized grade changes between athletes and nonathlete students is irrelevant.”

Kane: 919-829-4861

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