A week after the NCAA leveled five major allegations against UNC-Chapel Hill, an accrediting body has handed down 12 months of probation against the university for failing to meet seven accreditation standards, including academic integrity and control of athletics.
“It’s the most serious sanction we have,” said Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
The sanction was decided at a SACS board meeting in Portsmouth, Va. It followed a second review of the university’s academic and athletic scandal, in which 3,100 students took sham classes during a period of nearly two decades.
It’s unusual for a major U.S. research university to be sanctioned by an accrediting body. More typically, SACS issues serious sanctions in cases of small, financially troubled colleges. The University of Virginia was placed on a warning in 2012 following a governance crisis in which the board ousted the president; a warning is less serious than probation.
The only step more severe than imposing probation would be for SACS to revoke a university’s accreditation. That rarely happens, and because it means a loss of eligibility for federal funds, it typically ends with a college shutting down.
Last fall, after a report from former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein detailed the breadth of the scandal, SACS informed UNC that it had concerns about the university’s compliance with 18 separate accreditation standards.
The commission cited seven of those standards in its decision about probation: overall integrity; program content; control of intercollegiate athletics; academic support services; academic freedom; faculty role in governance; and compliance with provisions in federal financial aid law.
“Everybody understood the gravity of this case and they were inquisitive and careful,” said Andrew Westmoreland, board chairman and president of Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.
UNC Chancellor Carol Folt posted a message on a campus website Thursday, calling probation “an expected consequence” and stressed that the university remains accredited. She said there would be no impact on federal funding, including financial aid to students and research grants to faculty.
“It was clear from the discussion today that the Commission chose to impose a period of probation to acquire an additional year of data regarding the implementation and effectiveness of the University’s reforms and initiatives,” her message said.
“It was also clear that the Commission’s decision to extend its period of review was based upon the gravity and length of the past irregularities, as documented in the University-commissioned and independent report of [Wainstein].”
Numerous officials have left UNC in the wake of the scandal, including former Chancellor Holden Thorp, who resigned.
Nine others either resigned, were fired or placed under disciplinary review. The university has repeatedly cited its work to correct procedures and policies, implementing some 70 reforms in the past few years.
Westmoreland and Wheelan said the current administration, led by Folt, has made a good-faith effort to get to the bottom of the troubles.
“The board affirms the recent efforts of the institution to address problems that had been in existence for quite some time, while urging, in some of the strongest terms we have, that the damage must be repaired and repaired quickly,” Westmoreland said.
Failure to meet the institutional integrity standard is the most serious violation. Wheelan said it stemmed from UNC not providing full information on the bogus classes the first time the commission visited.
“It’s that they’re forthcoming and are honest and forthright in all of their dealings with us,” Wheelan said. “And the first time we went in, there was information to which we had no access. So it’s like, why not?”
On their website, whistleblower Mary Willingham and UNC history professor Jay Smith, had a similar reaction: “One can only assume that the decision in this case reflected SACS’s frustration with the University’s pattern of less-than-forthright testimony about its past failures,” they wrote. “Let’s all hope that UNC finally learns a hard lesson from this embarrassing punishment.”
Smith and Willingham are the authors of a book called “Cheated,” about the scandal.
Failure to stop classes
Wainstein’s report went much further than previous investigations and revealed an extensive pattern of academic fraud, which stretched nearly two decades and encompassed hundreds of fake independent studies and no-show classes in the African and Afro-American Studies department. Athletes were disproportionately enrolled in the sham classes, which helped them maintain sufficient grades to remain eligible to compete.
The investigation showed that athletic counselors steered players to the classes and documented that others at the university had some knowledge of the scheme.
After the release of the Wainstein report, SACS officials launched another review.
In 2012, SACS had required extensive monitoring reports by UNC after the scandal first emerged. The board found deficiencies in UNC compliance with its standards for academic policies, student services, student records and class credit hours. It required the university to offer students and graduates free courses to make up for the phony classes.
UNC officials have apparently kept in close contact with SACS officials during the most recent review, including personal visits to brief them. That may have been important, as a previous UNC liaison to SACS was taken to task by Wainstein for not acting when red flags emerged during the scandal.
Bobbi Owen, a former senior associate dean, knew in 2005 or 2006 that there were hundreds of independent studies under Julius Nyang’oro, the former AFAM chairman, according to the Wainstein report. The report said Owen asked Nyang’oro to lunch to crack down on the proliferation of independent studies and told him to “rein in” Deborah Crowder, the department manager who ran the scheme. Owen told the Wainstein team she did not remember such a meeting but did express concern about Crowder signing grade changes.
Wainstein’s report said Owen’s “inexplicable decision” not to press the issue about the independent studies allowed the paper class scheme to go on longer.
Owen had been a point person for UNC in assembling reports for SACS reviews for years; more recently she contributed to monitoring reports. She remains employed at the university as a distinguished professor of dramatic art.
In an interview, Folt said UNC will keep working to satisfy the accrediting agency’s questions. She said the university would ultimately be judged by how it acts during times of its greatest trial.
“I can’t do anything more than try to get it right,” she said. “That’s how we will move forward. This university has immense respect in the world, and our individual faculty do. We knew we were in for a marathon, and we really are pushing our way through it.”
Standards cited by SACS
▪ Principle of Integrity: 1.1
This standard expects an institution to operate with integrity in all matters.
▪ Core Requirement: 2.7.2 (Program Content)
This standard expects an institution to offer degree programs that embody a coherent course of study that is compatible with its stated mission and is based upon fields of study appropriate to higher education. Further, coherence should be a critical component of an educational program and should demonstrate an appropriate sequencing of courses, not a mere bundling of credits, so that student learning is progressively more advanced in terms of assignments in a field of study that allows students to integrate knowlege and grow in critical skills.
▪ Comprehensive Standard: 3.2.11 (Control of Intercollegiate Athletics)
This standard expects an institution's chief executive officer to have ultimate responsibility for, and exercise appropriate administrative and fiscal control over the institution's intercollegiate athletic programs, including the academic standards for athletes.
▪ Comprehensive Standard: 3.4.9 (Academic Support Services)
This standard expects an institution to provide appropriate academic support services. Further, the services are designed to strengthen academic programs and ensure the success of students and faculty in meeting the goals of the educational programs.
▪ Comprehensive Standard: 3.7.4 (Academic Freedom)
This standard expects an institution to ensure adequate procedures for safeguarding and protecting academic freedom.
▪ Comprehensive Standard: 3.7.5 (Faculty Role in Governance)
This standard expects an institution to publish policies on the responsibility and authority of faculty in academic and governance matters.
▪ Federal Requirements: 4.7 (Title IV Program Responsibilities)
This standard expects an institution to be in compliance with its program responsibilities under Title IV of the most recent Higher Education Act as amended.