Six years ago, the head of the tutoring program for athletes at UNC-Chapel Hill paved the way for a valued employee to have her retirement party at a spacious, climate-controlled luxury box in Kenan Stadium. He persuaded the athletic department to waive a $1,000 rental fee and offered to pay the $575 tab for wait service and cleanup.
But that employee did not work for the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes, then run by Robert Mercer.
She was Deborah Crowder, the longtime clerical employee at the Department of African and Afro-American Studies who had been providing athletes fake classes for high grades for the previous 16 years.
The correspondence setting up the retirement party is among 215,000 pages of emails and other records UNC released nearly two weeks ago in response to public records requests by The News & Observer and The Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s student newspaper, for all documents provided to former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein. His legal team produced the most comprehensive investigation into the fake class scandal.
Released a year ago, the report found that Crowder and her boss, African studies department chairman Julius Nyang’oro, had run a “shadow curriculum” of classes that had no instruction and offered a high grade for students who simply turned in a paper.
Crowder began the classes in 1993 after complaints from counselors in the athletes’ tutoring program about independent studies that were too rigorous. Athletes – particularly those in the money-making sports of football and basketball – made up roughly half of the 3,100 students who took at least one class before they were halted in 2011.
The 215,000 pages are a small portion of the roughly 5 million pages of records provided to Wainstein. An initial review – based on searches for the names of some of the people involved in the scandal – gives a view into how dependent the athletes’ tutoring program was on Crowder’s fake classes and how slow UNC officials were in coming to grips with what experts now call the worst academic scandal in NCAA history.
The records also show evidence of athletes cheating in classes outside of African studies.
The first sign of the fake classes came in July 2011, when rival N.C. State fans found a former football player’s Swahili paper filled with plagiarism. He listed Nyang’oro as the professor.
The News & Observer confirmed the plagiarism in a front-page story. The next day, Nyang’oro’s boss, Jonathan Hartlyn, a senior associate dean in the arts and sciences college, sent him an email giving little more than a heads up that the story had been published.
“Dear Julius,” Hartlyn wrote in the July 18 email, “Fyi only, in case you did not see it, story on page 1 of Sunday News and Observer. No need to reply.”
It wasn’t until a second N&O story, about an incoming freshman football player who received a high grade in an upper-level class, that the university decided to take a deeper look.
Numerous other records show academic officials dismissing or downplaying evidence showing the athletic connections to the scandal, the possibility that the fake classes involved others beyond Nyang’oro and Crowder, or that other departments might be involved.
Several faculty scoffed when the N&O reported in May 2013 on former faculty leader Jan Boxill’s successful effort to remove language in a faculty report suggesting a motive for her friend Crowder’s actions – that she was an athletics supporter with close ties to athletics staff. A second story two months later uncovered an email Boxill wrote showing she suggested the change to keep the NCAA away.
Among the skeptics was Kevin Guskiewicz, an exercise and sports science professor recently named dean of UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences.
“I think he’s running on empty and this article most certainly won’t help him win a Pulitzer,” Guskiewicz wrote of the N&O reporter in an email on May 19, 2013.
Wainstein later found that Boxill, the longtime academic counselor to the women’s basketball team, knew the classes had no professor and steered players to them. Wainstein also determined Boxill sought the changes to the report to “insulate” the athletic department from further scrutiny.
The newly released emails further confirm the tight connection between Crowder and the tutoring program that relied on her to help keep athletes eligible.
One email shows Wayne Walden, the counselor for the men’s basketball team, making arrangements to provide her four tickets to a home game against Rutgers University in December 2008. Another from Mercer, the former tutoring program director, shows Crowder and Nyang’oro being named “guest coaches” for a 2005 football game.
Harold Woodard, the associate dean who was Mercer’s boss, went to him to reserve the luxury box for Crowder’s retirement, the emails show.
“Debby has been a very valuable resource for a large number of our students, and is most deserving of this recognition,” he wrote.
Woodard could not be reached for comment. He told Wainstein he was aware athletes were heavily enrolled in independent studies from the African studies department, but he did not know many of those and others disguised as lecture classes were fake.
Rick White, a UNC spokesman, said in an email the university would not comment on the records.
“While you’ll find references to past events or actions ... Carolina has acknowledged and accepted responsibility for the past and has committed to meaningful, long-term reforms that strike the right balance between academics and athletics,” he said.
Boxill and other faculty were also dismissive of Jay Smith, the history professor who publicly and repeatedly pushed for the university to fully investigate the fake classes.
Noting that Smith was on a panel at UNC talking about the scandal, Boxill told another professor in an April 24, 2013, email: “That wouldn’t be so bad if he actually knew what he was talking about.”
The records also show several instances of professors reporting evidence of athletes cheating in classes outside of the African studies department, none of which had become public.
One faculty member, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, sought to keep two cases out of the public eye. The university’s student-run honor court had rejected both cases to the dismay of the two distinguished religious studies professors – Bart Ehrman and Jodi Magness – who reported them.
Noting that two top professors were making the allegations, Maffly-Kipp wrote to Boxill on Feb. 21, 2013: “On the face of it, reading their accounts, I have to agree that something is deeply broken here. Worse still, both cases involve athletes-and given the larger context in which we are now operating it would be folly not to address these concerns in some way. ... Suffice it to say that Jodi Magness also volunteered that she would take this to the media if something was not corrected. None of us needs that, to be sure.”
It is unclear what sports the athletes played. Magness said she did not recall what sport, and Ehrman said he wouldn’t talk about his case out of student privacy concerns.
Magness said her concern wasn’t over the fact an athlete was involved. She saw a dysfunctional and inexperienced honor court and launched an online petition among faculty to press for reforms. A review had already been underway; two months later, the university announced that the faculty and students had reached agreement on changes to the honor court to include faculty and graduate student oversight.
Maffly-Kipp and former Chancellor Holden Thorp left UNC at the end of the 2012-13 academic year. Both now work at Washington University in St. Louis.
Maffly-Kipp said in an interview she was not trying to protect athletics in her comments to Boxill.
“Jodi volunteered that she would take this to the media if this was not corrected,” Maffly-Kipp said. “My point was to try to press for something to be corrected. We don’t need this coming out as a scandal of another sort. We need this to be corrected. It was to pressure Jan to do something.”
‘Zero allegations’ of fraud
Nyang’oro’s former boss, Hartlyn, co-authored UNC’s first report into the fake classes. Released in May 2012, it found no evidence of an athletic scandal because non-athletes had also enrolled and were treated the same. It did not disclose the disproportionate numbers of athlete enrollments in the classes, nor did it explore the athlete tutoring program’s assistance in enrolling them. Wainstein found several tutoring staff knew Crowder ran and graded the classes.
Hartlyn could not be reached.
The NCAA is investigating the fake classes, but in a notice of allegations it sent to UNC in May it did not cite them as evidence of academic fraud. The NCAA instead is calling them impermissible benefits. Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham told Faculty Athletic Committee members in a recent meeting there were “zero allegations” of academic fraud from the NCAA, according to The Daily Tar Heel.
The NCAA has not explained its notice of allegations, but President Mark Emmert and others have said in general that the association does not have the jurisdiction to determine the legitimacy of classes. That is left up to the member schools.
UNC’s reports into the fake classes have typically labeled them “irregular,” “aberrant” or “anomalous.” White, the UNC spokesman, recently declined to answer if the university saw them as fraudulent.
But the newly released records show at least one official – Thorp – called them that.
In a July 20, 2012, email to faculty, Thorp wrote: “We disclosed this academic fraud, and we are fixing it.”