Rashad McCants was not the only UNC men’s basketball player from the 2005 national championship team who relied heavily on African studies classes that didn’t meet, according to whistleblower Mary Willingham, who tutored athletes during that period.
Data she provided to The News & Observer show that five members of that team, including at least four key players, accounted for a combined 39 enrollments in classes that have been identified as confirmed or suspected lecture classes that never met. The data also show that the five athletes accounted for 13 enrollments that were accurately identified as independent studies.
Those classes are also suspect because for much of the last decade, the department offered far more independent studies than it could properly supervise, previous reviews have shown.
The revelation of the classes, plus McCants’ interview broadcast Friday by ESPN, are the strongest links between the basketball program and the academic scandal that has stretched into its third year.
Enrollment in the 52 classes averages out to 10 no-show or independent studies per student during their time at UNC. That’s a quarter of the classes it typically takes to earn a bachelor’s degree.
All of those enrollments resulted in nothing less than a B for the players. They accounted for 34 grades of A-minus or better.
Willingham said she obtained the data from student enrollment records to which she had access as an adviser. She did not provide names to match to the grades and classes.
She said she became aware of the heavy use of the no-show classes while working as a learning specialist for the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes from 2003 to 2010.
“Not only did we have a paper class system ... but we used that system as a model for eligibility,” Willingham said Friday. “Those were the classes that helped their GPAs so they would stay academically eligible and NCAA eligible.”
Since at least the early 1990s, the university has had a policy on “special studies” courses that allows no more than 12 hours of such classes toward graduation. The high numbers of no-show enrollments and independent studies raise questions as to whether that limit was exceeded.
Efforts to reach key players and others on the 2005 team over the past few weeks were unsuccessful. Several on the team carried majors from the African studies department.
One of those players, Sean May, told the Indianapolis Star four years ago that he chose African studies over communications because it involved less class time.
African studies, May said, offered “more independent electives, independent study. I could take a lot of classes during the season. Communications, I had to be there in the actual classroom.”
Waiting for Wainstein
On Friday, ESPN reported that one of the stars on that teams, McCants, confirmed being in many no-show classes during his time on the team and that they were used to help keep him eligible to play.
In one case, the data obtained by The N&O show one athlete took three independent studies and one no-show class in the spring of 2005, while the team was making its run for a national championship. That athlete received straight A-minuses for the classes. McCants told ESPN he took nothing but “paper” classes that semester and made the Dean’s List.
The N&O reported in 2012 that the men’s basketball team in 2004-05 accounted for 15 accurately named independent studies enrollments.
UNC-Chapel Hill officials and UNC system President Tom Ross could not be reached for comment about the team’s reliance on no-show classes and other suspect independent studies. Spokespeople for both issued statements reminding the public that they had hired Kenneth Wainstein, a former top U.S. Justice Department official, to investigate the fraud.
Joel Curran, UNC-CH’s vice chancellor for communications and public affairs, also said that federal privacy laws prevented the university from commenting on an individual student’s academic record.
“We also cannot speculate on the accuracy or completeness of what others are saying about individual transcripts,” Curran said. “We have recognized that legitimate questions have been raised about academic and athletic irregularities, which is why in February we asked former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein to conduct an independent investigation and follow the facts wherever they lead.”
Wainstein said in a statement that McCants’ claims are “directly relevant” to his investigation.
Violation of privacy?
The News & Observer contacted Willingham about the enrollments after she had tweeted on April 6 that five starters plus another player from the championship team had been in a combined 69 “paper” classes.
“(T)ruth=transcripts=transparency,” Willingham said in the tweet.
That action drew criticism from UNC officials who said she had violated the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. It keeps most student education records private, and it has repeatedly been cited by the university in withholding information related to the scandal.
The Faculty Athletics Committee issued a statement 11 days later calling for an investigation of Willingham’s tweet for potential student privacy violations.
Willingham blew the whistle on the no-show classes in 2011. But she has run into trouble at the university since; her research into athlete literacy was halted in January because she had access to identifiable student records, and her findings were faulted by a three-member panel hired by UNC. She resigned from the university at the end of the academic year after a stormy meeting with Chancellor Carol Folt.
A review of Willingham’s data shows that she is including several classes that were not identified in previous investigations as no-show classes. She said she counted them because she did not recall athletes having to attend the class to obtain credit.
One of the players was only in one of the classes that Willingham listed, so The N&O removed him from its count.
Willingham’s data and McCants’ claims are reminiscent of the transcript of football and basketball player Julius Peppers, which turned up on the university’s website in 2012. Peppers’ transcript showed that he was in five confirmed or suspected no-show classes, plus an independent study also determined to be bogus. He also had taken three other classes the university identifies as independent studies in the African studies department.