Deborah Crowder is a 60-year-old retiree from UNC-Chapel Hill who spent much of her career there in a supporting role as an administrative assistant for the African and Afro-American Studies Department. She never made more than $40,000 a year in a position that amounted to making sure records were kept, schedules followed and phones answered.
But as more and more problems with the department have gone public, it has become clear that Crowder developed an avid interest in Carolina athletics and an unusual closeness with UNC athletes. She has refused to speak about her role to university investigators.
On Thursday, UNC system President Tom Ross acknowledged that Crowder had a long-standing relationship with Warren Martin, a member of UNC’s 1982 championship basketball team, although he said the relationship wasn’t relevant to ongoing investigations. Crowder and Martin live next door to each other in a two-condo building near Pittsboro, real estate records show.
Crowder’s Facebook page lists as friends at least a dozen prominent Carolina athletes, including star basketball alums Tyler Hansbrough, J.R. Reid and Sean May, and football alums Cameron Sexton and Mahlon Carey. She also listed as friends at least two former academic advisers to student athletes, and the former longtime secretary to the Carolina basketball program, Kay Thomas.
Thomas appears to be the only one of the athletic-related group to trade messages with Crowder on her Facebook page. By Thursday afternoon, Crowder’s page was no longer available.
When Crowder finished her career in September 2009, she left a department with a reputation for academic rigor, with several professors considered top experts in their fields.
But a scandal was brewing in the years leading up to her retirement, with dozens of courses popping up that had little or no instruction. Student athletes, especially football players, were taking up the majority of those seats. Men’s basketball players were a small but significant minority – in at least two suspect classes a basketball player was the sole student enrolled.
An internal review shows that Crowder was in a position to know about the bogus classes, as well as several unauthorized grade changes for students taking those classes.
Crowder has not responded to phone or email messages for comment. When a reporter attempted to visit her home recently a neighbor threatened to call sheriff’s deputies.
One message Crowder wrote on her Facebook page also suggests she has had a close-up view of men’s basketball games. On Feb. 6, she comments on a Daily Tar Heel feature about a longtime security official whose job has been to keep unauthorized people from entering the tunnel that leads to the team lockers.
Crowder wrote: “We saw him all of the years when we used to come in through the tunnel. He is a very nice man and I miss seeing him.”
Relationship ‘not the issue’
Nancy Davis, a spokeswoman for UNC-CH, said it’s “common knowledge” that Crowder is in a relationship with Martin, who is now a teacher at McDougle Middle School in Chapel Hill. Davis said that Crowder would have had access to the tunnel through Martin’s status as a former player.
She downplayed the athletic connections, saying the investigation so far does not show a conspiracy to benefit athletes.
“We don’t think that Deborah Crowder’s long-term personal relationship with Warren Martin is the issue,” she said in a statement. “In our review, the evidence did not show favoritism to student-athletes in the courses...They were treated the same as other students in the courses.”
Crowder’s friends said she is a private person who loves dogs, particularly King Charles Cavaliers, and Celtic music, and shows a deep concern for friends who are suffering serious illnesses.
“The fact that she’s hard to get up with is not unusual,” said Cynthia Williams, who owns a high-end clothing consignment store in Chapel Hill. “She’s always kind of been a person that holds everything close to the vest.”