A state judge will review UNC-Chapel Hill records showing athlete enrollments by sport in fraudulent classes to determine if that is information the public should have.
The News & Observer filed suit for the records in January after UNC denied numerous requests for the information. State Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins of Wake County on Friday denied UNC’s request to dismiss the suit, and agreed with a request by The N&O to review the records in private to determine if any athletes could be identified in them, as UNC officials maintain.
It’s unclear how soon the judge could decide whether the records should be made public.
The N&O is not seeking the names or other identifying information about the athletes in the classes other than what sport they participated in.
Collins made his decision from the bench after an hour-long hearing Friday that was heated at times as a special counsel to the state Attorney General’s office, Thomas Ziko, sought to also introduce an affidavit in support of keeping the records secret without allowing an attorney for The N&O to review it.
“The irony of this is this is a proceeding about public records, and they want you to turn it into a Star Chamber proceeding where only you and they know what the evidence purports to be” said Hugh Stevens of Raleigh, the N&O’s attorney.
Collins declined to accept the affidavit. He said if he is unsure about releasing the records, he would allow Stevens to depose the UNC official who attested to the information within the affidavit. That official is Steve Kirschner, the Athletic Department’s senior associate director for communications. Ziko said Kirschner contends the public could use the enrollment information in conjunction with other public information to potentially identify athletes.
UNC created the enrollment records to satisfy a request from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits UNC and was investigating the academic fraud scandal that emerged in 2011. The association requested a list of all athletes by sport that were found to have been enrolled in what have been confirmed as no-show classes within the African studies department since 1997.
These were lecture-style classes that never met, in which a paper was typically assigned for a high grade. Athletes made up a disproportionate percentage of the enrollments, but UNC officials have repeatedly said the fraud did not have an athletic motive because nonathletes were also enrolled and received the same access and high grades.
Ziko contended the information was protected by the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which shields many education records.
“It is up to the judgment of the university to produce information that, one, protects the students and, two, protects the university, so in this case we are protecting the students,” Ziko said.
Stevens cited other cases in which UNC had released similiar education records – including enrollments of football and men’s basketball players in the most recent five years of the scandal – without raising FERPA as an issue.
Collins asked Ziko about that athlete enrollment record. Ziko said he “didn’t know exactly what that record is.” That information has not resulted in the disclosure of any athlete who had been enrolled in bogus classes.