UNC-Chapel Hill is expected to argue at a special NCAA hearing Friday that it shouldn’t be hit with infractions over the long-running academic fraud case because NCAA investigators took no action five years ago when it began to surface.
At that time, the NCAA was pursuing violations of impermissible perks from agents and impermissible academic help from a tutor, all involving the football team. The NCAA says it didn’t know how significant the scheme of bogus classes was at the time, in part because UNC didn’t produce all the information it could have then.
It’s an argument that the public would find hard to assess. That’s because the university has refused numerous times to produce the bulk of information obtained in the summer of 2011 – in particular transcripts of those interviewed jointly by the university and the NCAA.
Open-government advocates say it’s possible UNC could prevail before the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions, while continuing to create the perception that the infractions process is flawed.
“If they are successful, they have put themselves in a position where there’s going to be continued doubt whether UNC is getting special treatment, or this was a valid argument,” said Jonathan Jones, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition at Elon University.
Julius Nyang’oro, the former African and Afro-American Studies department chairman at the heart of the scandal, was among those interviewed in the summer of 2011. The News & Observer has repeatedly asked for a transcript of that interview and others interviewed at that time. UNC-Chapel Hill officials and UNC system officials have declined to make the interviews public.
They both cited the state’s personnel law, which keeps many details of employees’ performance a secret, and the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which keeps private any education records that identify particular students.
But the personnel law grants agencies an exception to make those records public when the integrity of those agencies is in question. And in a settlement of a lawsuit in 2012, UNC released transcripts of athletes’ interviews with the NCAA related to the football investigation.
“If there has ever been a situation that has justified the release of personnel information from a university, it’s this,” Jones said. “What other incident has caused the public to seriously question the integrity of the university in any way comparable to what happened here?”
A summer class
The academic fraud involved more than 3,100 students, roughly half of them athletes, during an 18-year period. Nearly all of the classes were created and graded by a clerical employee, Deborah Crowder, who provided a high grade if a paper was turned in.
In 2012, Holden Thorp, then the chancellor, invoked the integrity exemption to talk about the actions of Nyang’oro and Crowder when the university released its first report about the bogus classes.
NCAA enforcement officials disagree with UNC’s claim they can’t revisit the classes, along with other due-process arguments the university has made to try to avoid infractions. The hearing in Indianapolis, closed to the public, will determine whether the part of the case related to the fake classes should stop over the due-process issues or continue for the committee to consider penalties later.
The NCAA enforcement staff’s response released this week said UNC had not provided “the entire body of pertinent information” in the early months after the bogus classes became publicly known. The staff also says Kenneth Wainstein’s report in 2014 revealed far more information about the case than was previously known, and exposed serious misconduct worthy of two major infractions: failure to monitor and lack of institutional control.
But the clues given to the NCAA in 2011 were substantial. Last month, Thorp told the N&O that he had shared with the NCAA back then that Nyang’oro had launched a class with no instruction that was filled with football players. Thorp said he was concerned those players might not be eligible to play in the upcoming season, but the NCAA cleared them to play.
Thorp’s information wasn’t part of the correspondence made public between UNC and the NCAA. But UNC’s attorney, Rick Evrard, identified several UNC employees who had been interviewed in 2011, including tutoring program employees Beth Bridger, Jaimie Lee and Jan Boxill, who was also the faculty leader at the time. Boxill is facing an NCAA violation involving the help she provided some women’s basketball players.
Bridger and Lee lost their jobs after the completion of the Wainstein report, and Boxill retired after being targeted for dismissal.
Jane Pinsky, director of the NC Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform, said there’s some irony in UNC arguing to the NCAA that it should walk away from the case over information that the university won’t let the public see. She has been disappointed in the university’s handling of the case.
“I think that the problem is the cover-up,” she said. “In the end, it always comes down to if you don’t let people know what’s going on, they may think there’s even more there than there is.”
The Ohio State link
The precedent for Friday’s NCAA preliminary hearing involving UNC stems from a 2003 lawsuit a woman filed against two Ohio State University boosters.
She claimed the boosters hadn’t paid her for taking care of living expenses for an Eastern European recruit who played on the 1999 Final Four men’s basketball team. She said she did much of that athlete’s academic work, according to news reports, and she was aware of a $6,000 payment from then-Coach Jim O’Brien to another Eastern European recruit who was later ruled to ineligible to play and never made it to Ohio State’s team.
Despite the passage of time, the lawsuit led to internal and NCAA investigations that ultimately cost Ohio State the Final Four recognition, and cost O’Brien his job.
That’s the case the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions referenced in calling for a special hearing in the academic scandal case at UNC-Chapel Hill. The hearing will take up UNC’s due-process claims that the NCAA has no jurisdiction, and can’t use key evidence turned up in an extensive probe by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein.
The committee had to deal with a due-process issue involving Ohio State: O’Brien and an assistant coach claimed they were being treated unfairly because the university had redacted information they needed to know for their defense. The committee handled the issue in a preliminary hearing, ultimately ruling the coaches should have access. The committee delayed the infractions hearing until the two coaches had time to review the information.
Ohio State didn’t raise a statute of limitations defense. But the committee said the statute – which typically gives the NCAA a four-year window to find a violation after it happened – didn’t apply because the evidence showed an established pattern of serious misconduct.