Carol Folt arrived in Chapel Hill last year from the Ivy League, excited about her new job as chancellor, but unable to get people to focus on the future.
A cloud hung over UNC-Chapel Hill: The crisis that had enveloped academics and athletics for three years still carried unanswered questions – how did the bogus classes for athletes start, and why?
Within months, she started examining emails of Deborah Crowder, a former manager in the African studies department, that hadn’t previously surfaced. Not far away, District Attorney Jim Woodall was wrapping up an inquiry that involved Crowder and her boss. There was scant criminal conduct, Woodall decided, but there was a lot of troubling activity.
In both cases, Folt and her boss, UNC system President Tom Ross, decided they had to know more. Their solution: Hire former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein.
Wainstein’s report, delivered Wednesday, shook the UNC campus and made news around the country. The classes had existed for nearly 20 years; they involved more than 3,100 students; and they were pushed by academic counselors trying to keep athletes eligible to play ball.
Folt said Thursday that to get to the future, the university had to clear up its past.
“I certainly learned from the day I arrived in North Carolina that this was an issue and that the lingering doubts were really hurting the institution,” she said in a meeting with News & Observer reporters and editors.
At the time of Folt’s introduction, Woodall was encountering the primary perpetrators of the academic mess, Crowder and former department chairman Julius Nyang’oro.
Woodall was directing a State Bureau of Investigation inquiry that had turned up a morass of unethical behavior – with more than Crowder and Nyang’oro involved. Woodall told Ross that a high-level investigation would be necessary to bring closure, and they wouldn’t like what they would find.
“You’re going to find things that surprise you,” Woodall said he told Ross. “You’re going to find things that go much deeper than you think.”
And, he said, he was pretty sure that Crowder and Nyang’oro were ready to cooperate.
An outsider looks in
That gave Wainstein plenty to work with. His report detailed a massive academic and athletic scandal that started in 1993, with athletes making up nearly half of the enrollments in the classes that were listed as lectures but had no class meetings and no faculty instruction.
The scheme was masterminded primarily by Crowder, with Nyang’oro going along. The athletes only had to write a paper, and the papers were often heavily plagiarized. Along the way, some administrators, coaches and faculty knew aspects of what was happening but failed to stop it.
Folt said she knew that the university could not conduct the investigation.
“There was a lot of cloud and suspicion, and it was clear to me that if we were going to go deeper into emails, we would need to bring in somebody else to do that,” she said. “I chose very intentionally not to get involved in it at that point because I wanted to make sure that when it did happen, it would have full independence.”
And, she said, she took the UNC-CH job knowing full well that if new information came to light, she would have the responsibility to find the truth.
Ross said Woodall provided a crucial link.
“I think the real key was getting access to Deborah Crowder and then subsequently to Nyang’oro,” Ross said. “It’s like any other crime, or scheme or whatever you want to call it. You can’t get to the bottom of it sometimes without access to key witnesses. We just didn’t have that access until Mr. Woodall made it possible.”
Woodall said he met with Wainstein, giving him a verbal report – a kind of road map of where to look. “We literally sat down with them and said, ‘You need to look at this person, this person and this person.’ ”
Who knew what?
Wainstein, Ross, Folt and Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham talked with N&O reporters and editors, outlining the genesis and results of the investigation and their thoughts about the findings. Among them:
• Wainstein said the toughest part of the investigation was figuring out how much different people knew about the misconduct. Some knew there were independent study classes that were too easy – knowledge of that, he said, “is not a federal offense.” But others knew that Crowder – who was not a faculty member – was running the sham classes and grading the papers.
“That’s the critical knowledge that we tried to get to,” Wainstein said, “because then anyone associated with the university should step up and say, ‘This is wrong.’ ”
• Cunningham said he expected that NCAA investigators, in their second round of work in Chapel Hill, would examine transcripts of players in the bogus classes.
• Folt said she won’t disclose the nine employees facing termination or disciplinary action because she wants to do things right, to make sure everyone has their due process rights. Ross said it was complicated. Some employees are governed by the State Personnel Act, while others are covered by university rules and faculty rights.
• Folt and Ross said they believe the university can excel in both academics and athletics. Sports, they said, have real value for bonding alumni and giving students opportunities. But they both acknowledged that major issues face U.S. college athletics and that big changes are ahead in the next five years.