With UNC-Chapel Hill potentially facing major NCAA sanctions over scores of classes that never met, one of the key figures in the paper class scandal said in an affidavit released Thursday that the classes were legitimate and not created to specifically help athletes.
Deborah Crowder, a former department manager for the African and Afro-American Studies department, called the classes “customized educational opportunities for students to solve problems created by the institutional bureaucracy.”
“That is what these courses were about – they were about educating students, irrespective of whether they were athletes; all students were treated equal,” she said in the affidavit.
Crowder’s affidavit was obtained and first reported by Inside Carolina, a site that covers UNC sports. It comes just days before UNC is to respond to a third notice of allegations from the NCAA that accuses the university of a lack of institutional control and providing impermissible academic benefits to athletes, particularly in the revenue sports of football and men’s basketball. The allegations also accuse Crowder and Julius Nyang’oro, the former chairman of the AFAM department, of unethical conduct for creating the classes and making them available to athletes.
Crowder and Nyang’oro are also accused of not cooperating with the NCAA’s investigation, as the NCAA said neither consented to interviews. Crowder’s attorney, Elliot Abrams, in a letter to the NCAA called her affidavit a “first step” in cooperating with the NCAA’s investigation.
“Ms. Crowder has decided to respond and potentially to cooperate with the NCAA’s investigation in order to stand up for the thousands of those students – athletes and non-athletes alike – whose reputations have been harmed and whose degrees have been devalued based on these false allegations,” Abrams wrote.
The offer of cooperation could further lengthen the NCAA’s probe into a scandal that erupted after The News & Observer in 2011 reported a high grade in an unusual class for an incoming freshman football player. NCAA investigators could seek more time to interview her before a hearing is held.
Stuart Brown, an attorney who handles NCAA infractions cases, said the NCAA’s enforcement staff and infractions committee are likely to give Crowder an opportunity to be heard.
“They want to get more information, and they don’t want to be seen as excluding somebody from the system and then ruling against them,” he said. “But on the other hand, just because you participate at this late a date is no guarantee you are going to get allegations of either failure to cooperate or substantive underlying unethical conduct dropped against you.”
Emily James, an NCAA spokesperson, said the Committee on Infractions can’t comment on cases as they progress.
Crowder, who retired in 2009 after 30 years as a clerical employee in the AFAM department, had not cooperated with UNC’s internal investigation in 2011, or a second led by former Gov. Jim Martin the following year. In 2014, she cooperated with former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein’s investigation, as part of an agreement with Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall to end a criminal investigation into the classes.
Wainstein’s report, released in October 2014, found the classes began in 1993 with Crowder first creating independent studies courses that had no professor. Several years later, she began disguising them as lecture-style classes, the report said.
Wainstein’s report identified 189 lecture classes that never met. Roughly 1,300 students took independent studies that had no instructor. All told, 3,100 students – half of them athletes – had enrolled in at least one class over an 18-year period. Athletes make up less than 5 percent of the student body.
Wainstein reported that several counselors in the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes knew Crowder was creating the classes and grading the papers.
Abrams said in his letter Nyang’oro offered the first such class to a nonathlete, but doesn’t say when that happened. Crowder said he continued to offer the classes to all students, but she took over grading them because Nyang’oro was busy traveling.
Abrams said in his letter to the NCAA that while Crowder “often skimmed the papers,” she made sure they were the proper length, addressed the assigned topic, and had footnotes and a bibliography. Abrams and Crowder could not be reached. Joseph Jay, the lead attorney on Wainstein’s team, declined to comment on Crowder’s affidavit.
The Southern Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Colleges, which accredits UNC, found the classes to be in violation of several standards and called them fraudulent. In 2015, it placed UNC on probation for a year, the most serious sanction short of pulling accreditation.
Joel Curran, UNC’s vice chancellor of university communications, said he did not learn of Crowder’s affidavit until Thursday. He said he couldn’t comment on the substance of her written statement.
UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham said in an interview with CBSSports.com published last month that the classes constituted academic fraud “by a normal person’s standards.” But he said it didn’t meet the NCAA’s definition.
Woodall said he was unaware of Crowder’s affidavit and her attorney’s letter to the NCAA, and said he could not look into them until he finishes a murder trial that is likely to run through next week.