Former UNC African studies chairman had close ties to athletic counselors

dkane@newsobserver.comJune 8, 2013 

  • A cozy relationship

    Emails show that Jaimie Lee, an academic counselor for athletes at UNC, sought help from Julius Nyang’oro, who was then the African studies department chairman, to schedule one of the no-show classes at the heart of a major academic fraud scandal. The class he offered shares similarities with other no-show classes but has not been confirmed as one by the university.

    Source: UNC records

Julius Nyang’oro, the former UNC African studies chairman at the heart of an academic fraud scandal, had a cozy relationship with the program that tutored athletes, according to newly released emails.

Members of the academic support staff offered Nyang’oro football tickets and the chance to watch a game from the sidelines. One counselor offered to discuss athletes’ coursework over drinks, and another negotiated with Nyang’oro to schedule a no-show class.

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp and other officials have said the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes did not collaborate with Nyang’oro or his department manager, Debbie Crowder, to create the classes to help keep athletes eligible to play sports.

The university, in its own investigation and in a probe helmed by former Gov. Jim Martin, had concluded the fraud was not intended to benefit athletes because nonathletes were also enrolled and received the same high grades. They have pinned the blame solely on Nyang’oro and Crowder.

The emails were released to The News & Observer this month as part of a public records request filed nearly a year earlier. None of the details within the correspondence had shown up in the numerous investigations conducted since the university confirmed the existence of the fraudulent courses in May 2012.

One of the records is an email exchange between Nyang’oro and Jaimie Lee, an academic counselor for athletes. In March of 2010, Lee asks Nyang’oro about putting back on the academic calendar a Swahili language class that should have been taught lecture-style, but had instead been turned into a “paper” class that only required a term paper at the end.

“I failed to mention yesterday that Swahili 403 last summer was offered as a research paper course,” wrote Lee, who was helping football players at the time. “I meant to (ask), do you think this may happen again in the future?? If not the summer, maybe the fall?”

Nyang’oro responded: “Driving a hard bargain; should have known.....:)Will have to think about this, but talk to me....”

Nyang’oro did not schedule the Swahili class, but he did create another one for the summer. Later that day, he emailed Lee: “I have added AFAM 398 to our Summer Schedule….:).”

Lee responded with a similar emoticon: “:-) thanks! I appreciate that!”

Crowder’s concerns

The correspondence also shows that in early 2005, Crowder raised concerns that too many students were seeking to enroll in independent studies within her department. She had told one advising official that word about the department’s independent studies “had sort of gotten into the frat circuit.”

After being informed last week about Crowder’s concerns, another former academic advising official, Betsy Taylor, who mostly worked with nonathletes, said she was aware that Crowder and Nyang’oro had accommodated the crush of students by turning lecture-style classes into independent studies. But Taylor said she did not realize the courses lacked instruction.

“I felt that I never knew exactly what happened with the student when they were given one of these independent studies,” Taylor said. “I guess I had maybe naively thought they would be doing the regular course but one-on-one with a professor, which is the way most independent studies were. But I think maybe that was not happening.”

Attempts to reach Thorp and Karen Gil, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, which oversees advising and the African studies department, were unsuccessful.

Though much of the academic fraud happened before Thorp became chancellor, it helped lead to his resignation, which he announced last September and takes effect at the end of this month. Thorp begins a new job as provost at Washington University in St. Louis next month.

A UNC-CH spokeswoman, Karen Moon, said the newly released correspondence contained no “new information” about the academic support program for athletes. But Peter Hans, the chairman of the UNC system Board of Governors, said it shows the program had deeper involvement in the scandal.

Relationship ‘too cozy’

“This is additional confirmation that there was far too cozy a relationship between the academic advisers in the athletic department and Nyang’oro and Crowder,” Hans said.

The internal probe and Martin’s investigation found that as far back as 1994, the African studies department had more than 200 confirmed or suspected courses that should have been taught lecture style but had been turned into independent studies. They typically involved a term paper to be turned in at the end. Athletes made up nearly 45 percent of the enrollments over the last 10 years of the scandal, and the average grade was nearly an A-minus.

Martin’s investigation found little evidence that the papers were actually read by an instructor, but neither he nor the university investigated the quality of the work turned in. There were more than 500 unauthorized or suspected unauthorized grade changes, with half of them involving athletes.

The scandal had its beginnings in a paper with several plagiarized passages that went unnoticed until it was made public in 2011 by a former football player suing the university to get back on the team.

That paper was for a language class in Swahili in the summer of 2009, and it listed Nyang’oro as the professor. In August 2011, university officials questioned Nyang’oro about the class. He said he didn’t teach it, and pointed the finger at Crowder, who had retired in September 2009. Thorp and other officials began suggesting that Crowder was the mastermind behind many of the fraudulent classes.

It was that class, the correspondence released to The N&O shows, that Lee, the academic counselor to the athletes, had asked Nyang’oro to put on the calendar again.

UNC records show at least one section of the class he offered instead, AFAM 398, was held the following summer. Only two students enrolled; at least one was an athlete. Because of the small enrollment, UNC officials would not disclose any more information about the class, saying such information might violate student privacy under the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.

AFAM 398 is identified in the UNC course catalog as a “Seminar in Afro-American Studies.” The course description: “An examination of the historical, philosophical, theoretical, and methodological issues underlying the field of Afro-American studies. For senior AFAM majors. Major research paper required.”

Moon would say only that the course did not turn up as a no-show class in either probe. She gave no indication the university would check the class.

Profile of a no-show

The class fits the profile of a no-show. A class with two students would have been unlikely to have been assigned a classroom, and many of the no-show classes had little more than a handful of students enrolled.

Lee still works for the support program and could not be reached for comment. Before joining UNC as a counselor, she worked for a charitable nonprofit founded by former UNC basketball players.

Nyang’oro, who was forced to retire in July, has declined numerous interview requests.

The correspondence shares many similarities with other internal academic support records The N&O obtained for a story published Sept. 30. That story also showed academic support staff steering athletes, including freshmen football players, to a no-show African studies class. That class had escaped UNC officials’ notice.

The newly released correspondence also shows a tutor, Suzanne Dirr, had drawn up “topic” papers for athletes that are virtual outlines of the 10-page, double-spaced papers they would have to write for two classes in 2005. One of those classes has been identified as a no-show class; the other hasn’t. Both had high numbers of athletes attending.

Dirr, who died in 2008, submitted her suggested topics to Crowder for approval. Crowder, who was not a faculty member, has declined numerous requests to interview her.

Madeline Levine, a former interim dean of the College of Arts & Sciences in 2006, said she was appalled to see how much work the tutor had done for the athletes in those classes. She said such assistance would not be performed by tutors and other academic support staff in the programs that serve regular students.

“It looks really corrupt, academically corrupt, to me,” said Levine, who is now retired.

She was also troubled by the email banter between Nyang’oro and the athletes’ academic counselors. She said while some of it might have been in jest, it suggested a relationship in which Nyang’oro was doing favors for the counselors.

In one email from September 2009, Cynthia Reynolds, a former associate director who oversaw academic support for football players, told Nyang’oro in an email that “I hear you are doing me a big favor this semester and that I should be bringing you lots of gifts and cash???????”

It’s unclear what that favor was. Reynolds makes reference to two athletes taking AFAM 396, an independent study, that semester and suggests she and Nyang’oro talk about the students’ assignment via “phone call, meeting or drinks, whichever you prefer.” UNC records show 15 students enrolled in that independent study; 11 of them were athletes. The average grade for the athletes, however, was a C-plus.

On three occasions, the records show two athlete support program counselors offered football tickets and food to Nyang’oro and his family. In one, Reynolds told Nyang’oro he would be “guest coaching,” which meant that he could watch the game with the team on the sidelines.

Reynolds left the program in 2010. She has claimed she was the victim of age discrimination; athletic officials say she had made mistakes in handling athletes’ academic schedules that could have cost them eligibility. She could not be reached.

Perks discouraged

The National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics, a professional standards group, warns academic support programs about offering tickets or other perks to professors who teach their athletes. While not an outright prohibition, the group’s code of ethics says its members “should never be party to the offer of tickets, trips, sideline passes, autographed memorabilia or any other items that would constitute bartering for a grade with an instructor.”

The other counselor who twice offered tickets to Nyang’oro was Beth Bridger, who replaced Reynolds as the counselor to the football team. She left the program in April and could not be reached for comment.

That same month, the former director of the support program, Robert Mercer, also left the university. He had been moved into an interim job outside of the program in August.

Moon, the UNC spokeswoman, would not specify who among the various investigators into the academic fraud scandal received the Crowder and Nyang’oro correspondence given to The N&O this month.

She said it was “considered during past investigations, in which the university cooperated fully.” She also did not explain why it took nearly a year to produce the correspondence for The N&O.

It also does not represent the entire record.

Moon said other correspondence has been withheld because of student privacy concerns or because it is a personnel matter.

The university could release additional correspondence with redactions to protect student identities, or make the personnel information public under a provision in state law that allows its release to protect the integrity of the institution.

SACS investigation

Other investigations continue into the academic fraud, including an SBI probe and a review by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits UNC’s academic programs.

The accreditation association’s president, Belle Wheelan, said its investigation is complete and would be presented to its board later this month. She did not know whether the group’s investigators had received Nyang’oro’s and Crowder’s emails.

The NCAA has said it is monitoring the academic fraud case. Its regulations require athletic programs to report instances in which staff participated in academic fraud that benefited athletes.

The NCAA did not respond to questions about the newly released correspondence, and UNC officials did not comment on their correspondence with the NCAA.

Kane: 919-829-4861

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