The News and Observer Publishing Co. sued UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt on Thursday, seeking access to a spreadsheet or database with information that could offer a link to the origins of lingering athletic and academic scandals.
The lawsuit was filed in Wake County Superior Court the same day that Folt publicly accepted the university’s responsibility for bogus classes benefiting student athletes that were offered through the African and Afro-American Studies Department. She also acknowledged a failure of academic oversight.
Internal and external investigations have shown that about 200 lecture-style classes were offered in that department, dating to the mid-1990s, in which there is little or no evidence of any instruction. Investigations also have found that roughly 500 grade changes were suspected or confirmed to be authorized through the department.
Since June, The N&O has requested data that UNC sent to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges about the bogus courses.
On March 8, a SACS report to UNC stated that 173 of the 384 students signed up for those classes were student-athletes.
The report further breaks down the athletes by teams. Eighty-eight were football players, according to the report, 22 were men’s basketball players, one of whom was on the junior varsity team, and 15 were baseball team members. Fifteen other sports were represented.
A chart in the SACS report also said that 118 of the 173 athletes have degrees.
The N&O has repeatedly requested that UNC provide it with “access to and/or copies of the record or records from which UNC extracted the information” provided to SACS in summary and “table form.” The university provided similar information about classes from 2006 to 2011. But as questions linger about when the classes started and how and why, The N&O has tried to probe further and requested data from the mid-1990s.
“The origin of the no-show classes remains a mystery, and these documents might shed some light on this,” John Drescher, executive editor of The N&O, said Thursday.
UNC officials contend that the spreadsheet contains information protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. “The information sought, even in a redacted form, would allow some students to be identified with reasonable certainty when linked with other previously available information about student-athletes,” Joel Curran, vice chancellor for communications and public affairs, said in an emailed statement.
“We respect the rights of the news media to seek public records,” Curran said. “However, in this case, we feel strongly that the records in question are protected by the federal privacy law, and we will vigorously defend the privacy rights of our students.”
Attorneys for UNC have said that the record in question consists of a database or spreadsheet broken down into 13 fields that include the name of the student, their sport, the course title, semester, degree date, majors, minors and cumulative GPA.
With the understanding that some of the information could lead to the identity of individual students, The N&O has requested a copy of the spreadsheet with the contents of all fields redacted except those titled “sport,” “course title,” and “semester.”
“Despite protracted attempts ... to negotiate with UNC, including face-to-face meetings with UNC officials,” the lawsuit states, “UNC has steadfastly refused, without just or proper cause, to provide the N&O with the redacted spreadsheet.”
The N&O has asked the court to set an immediate hearing on the matter and order UNC to bring the requested spreadsheet for a judge to review in private to show why, if there is a reason, the public should not have access to the record.