DA Jim Woodall has served well in UNC investigation

March 6, 2014 

WILEY-THORNTON-NE-100313-CCS

District Attorney Jim Woodall arrives for court

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

At the heart of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s troubles with athletics and academics is the delusion that a university’s prestige is related to, and perhaps even dependent upon, its success in the most prominent sports: football and men’s basketball.

This delusion has led universities not to honors but disgrace. And yet it persists, arising with each new season, and it has ensnared a university that should have seen through it.

What ultimately distinguishes a university isn’t its teams, or even its campus, its professors or its research. A university’s greatness is measured by its fruit, by its graduates.

That truth is easily seen on the other side of UNC’s athletic-academics scandal. The man leading a criminal investigation into the matter is Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall. He earned both his undergraduate and law degrees from UNC-CH. He met his wife when she was a nurse at UNC Hospitals. He has served the surrounding communities of Orange and Chatham counties for 24 years in the district attorney’s office and as district attorney since 2005.

It has been uncomfortable for Woodall to investigate his alma mater. Woodall said in a recent profile by The N&O’s Anne Blythe, “The fact that this involved UNC, it didn’t cause me any difficulty going to the grand jury. Where it had an effect was, I was just a little generally upset that this involved a university that I attended and I loved.”

It takes integrity to push an investigation into the dominant institution and largest employer in a district in which he must stand for election. But where UNC’s leaders have come up short in pursuing the scandal to its roots, its alumnus has been diligent and thorough. His work may do the most to restore honor lost by a system of no-show classes and grade changes that kept players eligible.

“People who love that university want to see that it stands for something,” he said. “When all this is said and done, they will be closer to that than they are today.”

Woodall has overseen two recent investigations involving UNC athletics and academics. He’s carried out an investigation launched by the secretary of state into illegal contacts between sports agents and UNC football players that has resulted in five indictments. He also initiated an investigation into phony courses set up in UNC’s Department of African and Afro-American Studies. That has led to the indictment of the department’s retired former chairman Julius Nyang’oro, who is accused of obtaining $12,000 for classes he did not teach or require students to attend.

In the course of his investigations, Woodall has uncovered situations and actions at UNC that were not criminal but appear improper and long-running.

The district attorney could have ignored those findings. Instead, his work investigating Nyang’oro and Deborah Crowder, a former manager of the African studies department, led to the new independent investigation into what happened at UNC. Woodall’s findings will be turned over to the outside investigator hired by the university: Kenneth L. Wainstein, a 19-year veteran of the U.S. Justice Department. In addition, Crowder, who was not charged, has agreed to cooperate with Wainstein’s investigation.

The transfer of information and Crowder’s cooperation give a strong start and credibility to Wainstein’s effort. The odds are now much higher that he will accomplish his charge from UNC Chancellor Carol Folt to pursue this scandal to its roots, or, as Woodall likes to say of leads, “Follow this to ground.”

Woodall’s work is nearing an end. It won’t lead to a flurry of indictments involving academic abuses. But it has set a strong foundation for an inquiry that could reveal the extent of the problem, the people who initiated it and those who allowed it to fester by ignoring it.

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