Deborah Crowder, who orchestrated the now infamous “paper classes” at UNC-Chapel Hill, was well-known among students and athletes for handing out A’s and B’s for very little work.
They took to calling her “Professor Debby.”
She wasn’t a professor, of course. She was hired as a “student services manager,” a form of administrative assistant in the African and Afro-American Studies department. She worked there for three decades.
But Crowder masterminded the 18-year bogus class scheme that was laid out in breathtaking detail this week by Kenneth Wainstein, a former federal prosecutor whose team interviewed 126 people and plowed through 1.6 million electronic documents in search of the truth behind the scandal in Chapel Hill.
People were still reeling at week’s end from what Wainstein had revealed. They wondered: How could one office manager perpetrate a fraud that has dealt this punishing blow to the reputation of the nation’s oldest public university?
How could Crowder have set up hundreds of illegitimate independent studies and classes that never met? How could she have cultivated such a following that more than 3,100 students and athletes slipped into the fake classes? And how did she retire in 2009 without ever having been caught for such a spectacular scam?
The answer, Wainstein said, is a woeful lack of oversight. Her boss, department chairman Julius Nyang’oro, was often absent doing consulting jobs and delegated his authority to Crowder. He also approved of her instinct to help struggling students.
There were others – counselors for athletes – who took advantage of the setup. There were coaches and administrators who knew about some aspects of the classes but looked the other way.
UNC system President Tom Ross said that despite Crowder’s initial instinct to help students, she did horrible damage.
“It’s hard for me to believe that she didn’t know that what she was doing was really wrong,” Ross said. “And it has caused tremendous, tremendous pain and suffering for a lot of people, a lot of innocent people who have been branded with this.”
Wainstein extensively questioned Crowder for his report, but she has refused media interviews. On Thursday, her attorney, Christopher Browning, said Crowder cooperated with Wainstein, truthfully answering any and all questions, but would have nothing more to say publicly.
“Now that the Wainstein report has been released and the investigation closed, Ms. Crowder is looking forward to moving on with her life,” Browning said in an email.
Crowder, a UNC-CH graduate, had been unhappy with her undergraduate experience. She thought professors paid too much attention to the “best and brightest” but ignored other students, like herself.
Shortly after she graduated, she returned to her alma mater in 1979 and became student services manager in the curriculum of African and Afro-American Studies.
“From the very first day she was there, she looked for the opportunity to try to do something to take the pressure off these kids that she thought were struggling and might not be able to completely handle the very difficult, rigorous curriculum here at UNC-Chapel Hill,” Wainstein said.
For 13 years, Crowder didn’t act on those instincts because of two strong department chairmen who didn’t compromise on academics.
But Nyang’oro was different. He was happy to delegate when he became chairman in 1992.
Before long, using Nyang’oro’s signature, Crowder was running what Wainstein called “a shadow curriculum.” She used independent studies, and later lecture classes, as the vehicles.
“Crowder provided the students with no actual instruction,” Wainstein’s report states, “but she managed the whole course from beginning to end.”
She registered and selected students, assigned them paper topics, graded their papers and recorded grades on the grade rolls. Sometimes she added students’ grades to other professors’ grade rolls without their knowledge.
Crowder gave A’s or high B’s, and students only had to write an original introduction and conclusion. Most of the middle was “fluff,” the report states. She didn’t read the papers thoroughly.
Counselors for athletes would send Crowder lists each semester of athletes who needed to be enrolled in her “classes.” Some counselors went so far as to suggest their grades.
‘Good old girls’ network’
Word spread about the classes. Academic counselors for regular students steered those who were struggling or had some kind of personal crisis. A couple of those counselors were part of Crowder’s “good old girls’ network,” the report states.
Athletes came in disproportionate numbers, and Crowder was happy to accommodate them, Wainstein’s report states.
Crowder was a huge Carolina fan, who went into a funk and stayed home after any Tar Heels men’s basketball loss. Her office was a social hub and gathering spot for players, the report states.
Women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell told Wainstein’s investigators she knew her players were taking AFAM classes, but she thought Crowder was a faculty member.
In 2005, Crowder complained to an assistant dean that word about the paper classes had spread to “the frat circuit.” Some fraternity members even ended up with accidental AFAM minors because of the number of courses they took.
Keeping up with the system became difficult, and it prompted Crowder to want to retire in 2009. Her retirement announcement set off a panic among academic counselors for the football team, who warned coaches.
Chancellor Carol Folt said this week that the extent and duration of Crowder’s fraud is shocking.
It is hard to fathom, Folt said, how Crowder could so dramatically overstep her authority, make assumptions about students’ ability, and think she knew better than the faculty and administration.
Crowder’s system should have been stopped much sooner, Folt said. There were missed opportunities.
The report said Bobbi Owen, a senior associate dean, told Nyang’oro to reduce independent studies after seeing 300 under his name. She also told him to “get (Crowder) under control,” according to the report.
‘Swiss cheese with holes’
Folt described the oversight gaps at the university then as “Swiss cheese with holes.” Because AFAM didn’t offer graduate degrees, there was less scrutiny. Nyang’oro, as a department chairman, was never reviewed by his superiors.
Folt said this week that Wainstein’s findings explain how the deception unfolded and no one caught it. Though she can see how it happened, Folt said, “I still can’t believe it.”
Sarah Chen, a UNC-CH junior from Cary, said that although the scam started with the AFAM manager, there are plenty of other people who took advantage. The finger shouldn’t only be pointed at Crowder.
“People saw red flags and didn’t say anything about it,” Chen said.