My friend, Debbie Crowder, and her role in the UNC scandal

April 21, 2014 

A profile last week in The News & Observer of Raleigh paints former UNC-Chapel Hill administrator Deborah Crowder as selfless and kind-hearted.

“She’s really a good person, and she’s always thought of others,” a longtime friend from her hometown in Charlotte told the newspaper.

So far as I can recall, that’s about right.

When I was in school in Chapel Hill, I knew her simply as “Debbie.” We all did. And we all liked and appreciated her as a person and a model employee.

I majored in English as an undergraduate and in journalism in graduate school. Somewhere along that path, I taught a class on the black press. I also coordinated a series of cultural events for Afro-American Studies. That’s how I got to know Debbie.

She had friendly eyes and a broad, thin smile. She was impeccably organized but always managed to appear relaxed. If you had a problem, she’d help fix it. Your crisis was hers.

Now, she’s in the middle of an unprecedented academic scandal at Carolina – as both the star witness and a key player.

She helped to enroll students, many of them athletes, in “no-show” classes that were billed as independent studies but rarely, if ever, met and required minimal work.

The story has made national headlines. Until nearly a month ago, Crowder, 61, had not spoken to any investigators about the scandal, which may span 14 years and as many as 200 classes.

With her lawyer at her side, she spent several hours with Kenneth Wainstein, a former U.S. Justice Department official who is leading a new investigation into the issue. His new witness is my old friend.

To my recollection, Debbie was the first white employee in the African and Afro-American Studies program at UNC-CH. She had taken a secretarial job there after receiving her English degree from Carolina in 1975. And she had fit right in immediately.

It was a chore climbing four flights of stairs to the Af-Am offices on the south corner of Alumni Hall. But Debbie always made you feel so welcome. She was one of the most genuinely considerate people I’ve ever known.

An earlier News & Observer story reported: “Crowder’s friends said she is a private person who loves dogs, particularly King Charles Cavaliers, and Celtic music, and shows a deep concern for friends who are suffering serious illnesses.”

Actually, she seemed outgoing to me, way back when, but the “deep concern” part is spot-on. When she asked how you were doing, she genuinely wanted to know.

I also got to know her boyfriend, Joe, who managed a record store on Franklin Street.

Nearly 40 years later, I don’t know what to think.

How could this happen? How could she be a part of it? And how could so many Carolina administrators and fans remain in denial about the breadth and seriousness of this debacle?

This scandal hurts on so many levels.

It taints the name of an institution that had seemed above such cheap and sordid business.

It undoes much of the work over the years to build African and African American Studies into a strong and viable department. And, unfairly, it casts a shadow over African-American studies programs throughout the country, feeding the claims of skeptics that they are not a legitimate academic pursuit.

The News & Observer profile suggests Debbie considered what she was doing a good thing – that she was helping people. She wrote in a 2004 email to an academic adviser that students of all types “come in for advising, or cause us problems, or are wonderful, or whatever, but sometimes I think athletes get too much scrutiny in relation to the average student population. That being said, we try to accommodate their schedules, just as we do the single moms, or the students who have to work two jobs to stay in school.”

Maybe I’ll understand better what clouded Debbie’s judgment once the results of her interview are known. But I suspect her zeal for Carolina basketball played a role. My, how she adored her Tar Heels. I remember how she loved talking hoops and glowed in anticipation of a big game.

I remember that she eventually broke up with Joe and began dating a nearly 7-foot-tall basketball player named Warren Martin, with whom she remains in a relationship today.

And I remember that, almost always, if the Tar Heels lost a basketball game, she would call in sick the next day.

MCT Information Services

Allen Johnson is editorial page editor of the Greensboro News & Record.

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