New probe launched into academic fraud at UNC-CH

jstancill@newsobserver.com dkane@newsobserver.comFebruary 21, 2014 

TRAVEL UST-UNCDUKE 10 OC

The Old Well, seen here in this 2005 file photo, is the iconic symbol of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For years, the Old Well served as the sole water supply for Old East and Old West dormitories. Its current design, added in 1897, was derived from the Temple of Love in the Garden of Versailles

LEONARD ORTIZ — MCT

CHAPEL HILL After two years of probes that couldn’t uncover the cause of a long-running academic scandal at the state’s flagship university, UNC leaders on Friday announced that they are bringing in a high-profile investigator to “follow the facts where ever they might lead.”

UNC system President Tom Ross and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol L. Folt announced Friday that Kenneth Wainstein, a 19-year veteran of the U.S. Justice Department will begin the “independent inquiry” of academic irregularities at the campus.

The probe is based on new information that emerged in the criminal investigation of fraud in the African and Afro-American Studies department, where bogus classes disproportionately benefited athletes. Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall has agreed to provide information gathered through the State Bureau of Investigation probe involving the former African studies department chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, and a department manager, Deborah Crowder. Nyang’oro was indicted in December. His attorney says Nyang’oro is innocent.

It also comes as the university has faced a wave of national coverage on the scandal since the beginning of the year.

Wainstein, a partner with the firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft in Washington, has served as general counsel and chief of staff to the FBI, and served under President George W. Bush in leadership positions in the Justice Department.

He prosecuted white-collar crimes after his appointment as U.S. attorney in Washington in 2004. In 2006, he was first assistant attorney general for national security, and in 2008, he was named homeland security adviser by Bush.

More recently, the NCAA hired Wainstein to look into its botched investigation into improper benefits offered by a booster to University of Miami athletes. Wainstein’s highly critical report led to leadership changes within the NCAA’s enforcement program.

‘Get the job done’

Wainstein will take steps necessary, the university said in its announcement, “to address any questions left unanswered” during previous commissioned probes. The university said it would cooperate fully with the new investigation, and the findings will be made public.

“We – the UNC Board of Governors, UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, Chancellor Folt and I – have said all along that we would re-evaluate next steps once the SBI had completed its investigation,” Ross said in a statement. “Thanks to the cooperation of District Attorney Woodall, the University may now have access to additional information needed to address any remaining questions and bring this matter to closure. Chancellor Folt and I felt strongly that this would best be handled by bringing in the outside, independent perspective of an experienced professional like Ken Wainstein.”

Folt also issued a statement, saying: “We have directed Mr. Wainstein to ask the tough questions, follow the facts wherever they lead, and get the job done. I have quickly grown to admire the extent to which the Carolina community has encouraged me to look within the University, to identify challenges, and to take strong actions to address them. I believe these efforts will accelerate the University’s capacity to achieve the meaningful academic and athletic reform that our entire community expects.”

Wainstein said in a statement that he looks forward to providing “an independent and comprehensive assessment of those facts for the University and the public.”

The UNC-CH campus has done its own internal reviews of the academic irregularities, but could not compel those involved to cooperate.

Now, Wainstein will have access to perhaps more revealing information gathered as part of a criminal investigation.

Woodall, the DA, has focused only on criminal conduct in his work, not the more than 200 confirmed or suspected no-show classes, which in and of themselves did not constitute a crime. Woodall commended Ross and Folt for bringing in a high-profile, experienced attorney to conduct the probe.

“I have met with Mr. Wainstein and I was impressed with him,” Woodall said. “I think he’s a man of great integrity and his record would indicate that he could do a very good job.”

Others who have sought to learn more details of the scandal also delivered praise.

“I applaud the university for taking this step,” said Richard Southall, director of the College Sport Research Institute that recently moved from UNC to the University of South Carolina. “I hope Mr. Wainstein is given access and takes advantage of the many sources of information available.”

‘In the transcripts’

Mary Willingham, the UNC learning specialist who blew the whistle on the no-show classes in 2011 and has come under fire for her recent research into the literacy skills of some athletes, urged Wainstein to look at the transcripts of the athletes who took the no-show classes.

“The evidence is in the transcripts, for God’s sake,” she said.

Woodall said he cannot turn over the entirety of his investigation, which involves thousands of pages of evidence and dozens of interviews, “but I can certainly help them in some areas so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

His investigation is completed, Woodall said, but he still has to decide whether to bring a second person before the grand jury. He has not identified that person except to say it is someone who is not a current UNC employee. He has also said the criminal conduct in the case is limited to two people.

In December, an Orange County grand jury indicted Nyang’oro, 59, of Durham, on one felony charge of obtaining property through false pretenses. The charge stems from Nyang’oro accepting $12,000 in the summer of 2011 for an African studies class that the grand jury found he did not teach. Nyang’oro created the class within days of the start of that summer session, and it was filled with 18 football players and a former player.

‘Academic irregularities’

Nyang’oro resigned his chairmanship a few weeks later, just as the university announced “academic irregularities” within the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. That investigation was prompted by The News & Observer’s discovery of a football player’s transcript that showed Nyang’oro had given him a B-plus for an upper-level class he had taken before his first full semester as a freshmen – one in which he was slated to take remedial writing.

UNC officials and a UNC-backed investigation led by former Gov. Jim Martin determined that Nyang’oro and Crowder were solely behind the academic fraud. That probe found it was not athletic in nature because non-athletes had also enrolled in the classes and received the same high grades. Martin said he also found no direct connection between athletic officials and Crowder and Nyang’oro.

Records and other correspondence obtained by the N&O showed that the athletes were disproportionately enrolled in the classes, ultimately accounting for almost half of the enrollments. The records showed the athletes’ tutoring program was steering them to the classes.

One counselor told a tutor working with football players: “Just remember, guys are in this class for a reason – at-risk, probation, struggling students.” Another asked Nyang’oro to create a no-show Swahili class for athletes.

Other correspondence showed Crowder’s role in creating the classes and approving topics for the roughly 20-page papers that were often assigned. Crowder is not a professor. In one email, academic counselors outside of the athlete tutoring program said Crowder had told them too many students were showing up seeking to be placed in independent studies. One of the counselors wrote that Crowder was concerned that knowledge of the independent studies had “sort of gotten into the frat circuit.”

Martin and UNC system officials had never seen the emails until they were produced as part of an N&O public record request. The NCAA asked for them at that time, UNC correspondence shows, but would not say whether its investigators had known about the emails.

Crowder, 60, retired from UNC in September 2009. She has close ties to athletics and has been in a longtime relationship with a former basketball player, Warren Martin. Her Facebook page listed many friends within the program, including star athletes and former athletic department staff.

Jim Martin’s investigation found the classes stretch at least as far back as the fall 1997 semester, but he acknowledged that some suspected classes go back to 1994, which was as far back as the university’s electronic records would provide. Nyang’oro had become chairman of what was then the African and Afro-American studies curriculum in 1992, and he stayed on as chairman when it was renamed a department in 1997.

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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