CHAPEL HILL — For the past three years, John Blanchard has led the University of North Carolina’s student-athlete services department through scandals that called into question the department’s role in various cases of academic fraud.
Now Blanchard, a senior associate athletic director at UNC, is retiring to open his own consulting business. He will work his final day Thursday. The university announced his retirement in a statement Wednesday.
Blanchard, 60, spent 25 years working in the UNC athletic department and since 2002 has been the director of student-athlete services, which includes the academic support program for athletes. That program has faced scrutiny in recent years amid two academic fraud scandals.
There was the academic fraud involving a former tutor, Jennifer Wiley, who provided improper help to UNC football players. That case, along with an impermissible benefits scandal involving agents, led to NCAA sanctions – including a one-season postseason ban – against the UNC football team.
More recently, UNC has been embroiled in controversy since an internal investigation last spring identified widespread academic fraud in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. University records show a significant percentage of athletes were enrolled in fraudulent AFAM courses, and questions have persisted about whether athletes – including football and men’s basketball players – used those suspect classes to remain eligible.
Blanchard’s retirement has been in the works since last spring, according to UNC.
Blanchard, a 1975 graduate of Stanford, first worked at UNC from 1985 through 1999, when he served as director of the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes. He left for the University of Minnesota but returned to UNC in 2002.
Blanchard at UNC received an annual salary of $110,749. UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham changed Blanchard’s role last spring. Cunningham last August reorganized the athletic department and hired Vince Ille to be the department’s liaison with academic advising and counseling for athletes. Before Ille arrived, Blanchard had been that liaison.
At the time, Cunningham said the reorganization wasn’t an indication that Blanchard failed his responsibilities. Cunningham on Wednesday defended Blanchard’s record, and he praised how Blanchard handled adversity during the past several years.
“I think John has been great to work with, and been a leader locally, nationally, and I’ve enjoyed working with him,” Cunningham said. “I think he handled things very well. I think his career has been outstanding.”
Blanchard helped organize the student-athlete services department when he returned to UNC in 2002. The department includes career planning, life skills, community service and the Baddour Carolina Leadership Academy. He serves on the executive committee for the Sports Management Institute, and also was a chairman of the NCAA’s Committee on Sportsmanship and Ethical Conduct.
“The thousands of students I have served have fueled my passion for education and student development, challenged me and taught me,” Blanchard said in a statement. “They have a special place in my heart.”
Throughout UNC’s misdeeds, Blanchard has never been accused of wrongdoing. Still, he became a major focus of the AFAM scandal in December, when a UNC-CH commissioned report by former Gov. Jim Martin and the Baker Tilly management consulting firm found that Blanchard and Robert Mercer, the director of the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes, had expressed concerns to a faculty athletics committee about lecture courses that did not meet and only required a 20-page paper.
Blanchard said in a subsequent email message that he twice told the committee in 2006 about such classes, involving a professor within the African and Afro-American Studies department.
But several faculty members on that committee, including then Chancellor James Moeser, said they had no recollection of the issue being raised. Martin and Baker Tilly interviewed none of those faculty members on the committee.
Minutes from that time only mention an independent study scandal at Auburn University, with faculty members asking whether such a problem could exist at UNC-CH. The committee tasked Mercer with tracking independent studies, but earlier this month university officials acknowledged they had no evidence in hand to show he had done that.
Other UNC correspondence related to that period show no discussion of the African studies department. Two emails from Mercer among that correspondence were of news articles that downplayed the Auburn scandal. Mercer was quietly transferred to another position away from athletics in August. He has not responded to requests for comment.
As recently as Feb. 13, Blanchard maintained he had raised concerns with the faculty committee, but he declined to provide details.
“I did address the entire Faculty Committee on Athletics regarding the lecture classes being taught as independent study,” Blanchard wrote. “I remember what I said and their response. I have told the investigative bodies that have looked into this issue and I do not think there is a need to relate all the details over again here. I do understand how six years later some of the committee members do not remember the discussion. Keep in mind, none of us had the detail of the situation that we now have.
“The fact of the matter is that the Faculty Committee on Athletics said faculty has the right to teach their classes the way they see fit. Whether or not members of the committee recall that part of the discussion does not change the fact.”
Blanchard said he did not have any documents to show he had reported his concerns to the committee.
Before he returned to UNC in 2002, Blanchard spent roughly 20 months as the director of the academic support unit for athletes at the University of Minnesota. Within weeks of his arrival, one of the worst academic fraud scandals in NCAA history broke, when the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that a former office manager had been writing papers and filling out take-home exams for basketball players over a five-year period.
Blanchard told local media that the stress from the scandal, and subsequent reforms at the university that altered his position, caused him to leave the job in fall 2000. A News & Observer reporter asked him via email why that experience wouldn’t have taught him to document a perceived problem at UNC-CH. Blanchard did not respond.
Cunningham said Blanchard’s position will not be filled. But UNC is close, Cunningham said, to announcing a permanent director of academic support for athletes. Harold Woodard has served in that role on an interim basis.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter