A system of no-show classes pushed by academic counselors for athletes and employed by coaches eager to keep players eligible at UNC-Chapel Hill produced an “inexcusable betrayal of our values,” Chancellor Carol Folt said Wednesday.
The latest investigation into a long-running academic scandal laid bare the stresses of trying to compete in revenue-producing sports while maintaining the academic standards of the nation’s oldest public university, which has for decades taken pride in winning “the Carolina Way.”
The report, produced by a team of lawyers led by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein, said the bogus classes were hatched by a manager in the Department of African and Afro-American studies, Deborah Crowder, who had a rough time as a student and who wanted to help others, particularly athletes. She was enabled by her boss, Julius Nyang’oro, a department chair seemingly more interested in consulting abroad than running his shop.
The report showed counselors sending student-athletes to the bogus classes, which required only a paper and no classroom attendance. It showed football coaches worried about what might happen when the classes disappeared. And it showed a leader of the faculty, Jan Boxill, pushing for certain grades for female athletes she had steered to the classes.
The findings made UNC system President Tom Ross visibly angry.
“The Crowder-Nyang’oro scheme marks a horrible chapter in the history of this great university,” Ross said.
Since the scandal broke three years ago, growing evidence has connected the classes to the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes. It was supposed to be supervised by the College of Arts & Sciences, but Wainstein found that it was really run by the athletics department, which paid the bills and provided a home.
Folt said that she was firing four employees and that five more face disciplinary reviews. She would not identify the employees, citing personnel laws. The state’s personnel law does allow officials to report personnel matters when an institution’s integrity is at stake.
The university has sent the report to the NCAA, which reopened its investigation this summer. An NCAA spokeswoman said there would be no comment on Wainstein’s report.
Oklahoma University professor Gerald Gurney, a past president of an academic advising association for college athletes, said the findings pointed to numerous NCAA violations, including one of the most serious, for a lack of institutional control.
“The facts describe a widespread and well-coordinated cheating scandal to maintain the eligibility of athletes,” Gurney said. “Far more than I originally imagined.”
A two-decade scam
The 18-year scheme generated inflated grades through lecture-style classes that had been quietly converted into bogus independent studies. A prime beneficiary was the academic support program, which needed easy classes to help keep struggling athletes eligible.
The report said academic counselors had pushed for the easy classes and embraced those started by Crowder. The report describes a fairly broad group of academic and athletic officials who knew about athletes getting better grades in classes that required only papers, yet took little or no action.
“Between 1993 and 2011, Crowder and Nyang’oro developed and ran a ‘shadow curriculum’ within the AFAM Department that provided students with academically flawed instruction through the offering of ‘paper classes,’ ” the report said. “These were classes that involved no interaction with a faculty member, required no class attendance or course work other than a single paper, and resulted in consistently high grades that Crowder awarded without reading the papers or otherwise evaluating their true quality.”
Wainstein called the “paper classes” that Crowder initiated “watered down” and “corrupted” versions of legitimate forms of teaching. Crowder, an administrator, not a professor, assigned high grades to student papers without reading them in full, he said.
At least five academic counselors for athletes leaned heavily on Crowder to help struggling athletes remain academically eligible to play, the report says. Before Crowder retired in 2009, athletics counselors urged athletes to turn in their papers quickly so that she, rather than a professor, could grade them.
Folt said Wainstein’s findings definitely show that the fraud was both an academic and athletic problem.
“The bad actions of a very few and inaction of many more failed our students, faculty and staff and undermined our institution,” Folt said.
Wainstein said at a news conference that his team found a “glaring” lack of oversight by university administrators. For instance, the performance of Nyang’oro wasn’t reviewed for more than 20 years. Wainstein did say, however, that he found no evidence that coaches were involved in initiating the bogus classes.
Ross said Wainstein’s findings revealed the depth of the problem in both academic and athletics circles.
“From the beginning, I think the university has taken the position that these classes started in an academic department by a person employed in the academic side of the university,” Ross said. “Subsequent to that, athletics took advantage of that.”
It’s a blow to learn that pockets of people around the university knew about the bogus classes for years, Folt said.
“Like everyone who reads it, I feel shocked and very disappointed,” said Folt, who became chancellor in 2013. She said the fake classes should have been detected and stopped much sooner.
Academic and athletics officials had opportunities to stop the bogus classes but took limited action. Bobbi Owen, a senior associate dean for undergraduate education who stepped down to return to teaching this year, learned roughly nine years ago that the department was offering far more independent studies than it could manage, and she told Nyang’oro to reduce them, the report said. But she never investigated why there were so many in the first place.
Meanwhile, John Blanchard, a former senior associate athletics director who supervised the tutoring program, missed an opportunity to expose the depths of the bogus classes after inquiries from faculty about independent studies and athletics in 2002 and 2006 that were related to media reports of problems at other universities. Wainstein’s report suggested Blanchard was not fully informed of what was going on in the tutoring program by the director, Robert Mercer.
Blanchard retired last year, and Mercer left the university after being transferred out of the director’s job.
Wainstein’s report is in many respects a reversal from what two previous investigations concluded – that the academic fraud lacked an athletics motive. Those investigations, one led by former Gov. Jim Martin, drew that conclusion because nonathletes had also gotten into the classes and received the same high grades. Martin also could not find any connection between athletics officials and the classes, or any kind of financial incentive for Crowder and Nyang’oro to create the classes.
Wainstein and his team concluded that pressure from the tutoring program in the early 1990s helped prompt Crowder to create the classes.
She told investigators that she had long sought the opportunity to help students who struggled academically for various reasons. She said when she was a student at UNC, she resented that professors often focused on the best and brightest students, leaving the others adrift.
Student-athletes were one group that Crowder thought received a raw deal from the university. Many came to UNC unprepared for college work, yet athletics officials expected them to spend long hours on their sports.
After a dozen years working for two leaders who wouldn’t tolerate slipshod academics, Crowder saw her chance to launch the classes when Nyang’oro became chairman in 1992. Nyang’oro had little interest in running the department, and he gave Crowder wide latitude as manager, even allowing her to sign his name to various academic records, the report said. She would use that authority to create the classes under his name.
Nyang’oro told investigators when he sought to create legitimate independent studies, Crowder chastised him. “On one occasion, Crowder told him that the ... academic counselors believed he was ‘being an ass’ for demanding so much from the players and were rethinking whether they should be steering student-athletes to AFAM classes,” the report said.
That “push-back” from the counselors led Crowder to “improvise with AFAM’s independent study classes.”
For six years, Crowder merely created accurately named independent studies as vehicles for classes that only required a paper. But as more students took more of the classes, she realized they were bumping up against a limit the university had in place – no more than four such classes toward an undergraduate degree.
That prompted the guise of lecture-style classes, the investigation found. Crowder started creating those for the fall 1999 semester. Athletes were the heaviest repeat users of the classes.
Plenty of plagiarism
Crowder admitted she did not read the papers beyond the openings and conclusions. Students quickly learned they could get away with submitting papers that had “fluff” in the middle. The investigation found that of 150 papers written by students, well over half contained plagiarized passages that accounted for at least 25 percent of each paper’s content.
Wainstein’s investigation also found two other methods for placing students – predominantly athletes – into paper classes. At least five classes actually met, but Crowder and Nyang’oro allowed some students to take the class as a paper class. In a “handful” of other cases, Crowder added student-athletes, who would turn in a paper to her, to grade rolls without a professor’s knowledge.
Nyang’oro said he allowed Crowder to create the classes, and he later created some after she retired, because he also thought student-athletes were in a difficult position. He said early in his career he had seen what had happened to two athletes who flunked out: One was murdered in his rural hometown; the other ended up in jail.
Nyang’oro and Crowder had not cooperated in previous probes but sat down with Wainstein and his team after facing a criminal investigation by Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall. In December, Nyang’oro had been indicted by a grand jury for accepting payment for a summer class he did not teach in 2011. On Wednesday, Woodall said the criminal case was closed.
National coverage of the indictment prompted UNC leaders to hire Wainstein in February. UNC officials said the total cost has yet to be tallied, but they acknowledged it will be expensive.
“We wanted to get to the truth, and we found the right investigator,” Ross said. “And we’ll pay the bill for it, in many ways unfortunately.”
UNC has drawn criticism for the way it has handled the scandal. Officials long insisted the fraud was not related to athletics, and The N&O’s requests for records and information were often denied or fulfilled after long waits. Folt vowed at the news conference to be more responsive to public records requests, including launching a website to track requests.
But Wainstein’s report found the university was not trying to cover up the fraud or muzzle the news media.
“To the extent there were times of delay or equivocation in their response to this controversy, we largely attribute that to insufficient appreciation of the scale of the problem, an understandable lack of experience with this sort of institutional crisis and some lingering disbelief that such misconduct could have occurred at Chapel Hill,” the report said.