John Drescher

May 2, 2014

Drescher: Why we're still covering the scandal at UNC

Some readers, understandably, are fatigued by our coverage of the UNC-Chapel Hill investigations. Why, two years later, are we still writing about this? Because some fundamental questions remain unanswered. To develop safeguards, the university needs to know what went wrong.

At 5:22 p.m. on July 15, 2010, we published on our first story about an NCAA investigation of improper benefits to UNC football players.

As the coverage continued to unfold a year later, we discovered some questionable academic practices involving Julius Nyang’oro, chairman of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies.

Eventually, a university-backed investigation reported that Nyang’oro was in charge of 200 lecture-style classes that were confirmed or suspected of having never met and required only a paper at the end. Of the students in these classes, 45 percent were athletes, well above their proportion of all students. The university acknowledged that the academic support staff had steered athletes to the classes. Nyang’oro retired, and Chancellor Holden Thorp, weakened and worn down, resigned.

Some readers, understandably, are fatigued by this story. Why, two years later, are we still writing about this? Because three basic questions remain:

1. How did the no-show classes get started?

2. Who knew about the no-show classes?

3. What did they do when they knew about the classes?

For much of the last two years, UNC showed little interest in answering these questions. The most extensive investigation into the wrongdoing was led by former Gov. Jim Martin. He and auditors did well in documenting the academic fraud back to 1997. But they barely attempted to answer the questions of how the classes got started and who knew.

Now UNC is attempting to answer these questions. It has hired Kenneth Wainstein, a former federal prosecutor, to get to the bottom of the academic fraud.

UNC also has created a website to report on its findings and reforms. That’s another step in the right direction, although could use fewer vague euphemisms and more straight talk.

John Shelton Reed, Kenan Professor Emeritus in the sociology department, pointed this out in a recent letter to Joel Curran, UNC’s vice chancellor for communications. “This catalog of reforms never even mentions any real problems, not even ones they’re supposedly addressing,” Reed wrote.

The website says the Faculty Athletics Committee “is following an established plan to ensure consistent, sustainable outcomes and practices as part of a fact-based approach to evaluating the alignment of the University’s academic mission with athletics.” It’s hard to know what that means, and, as Shelton pointed out, shouldn’t the goal be to align athletics with academics and not the other way around?

Some reforms in place

UNC has put reforms in place, including more oversight of professors’ teaching assignments and instructions for what should be included in a course syllabus.

But until UNC knows how the fraud got started and who knew, it can’t be confident it can prevent a recurrence. Chancellor Carol Folt knows that, and that’s why she and UNC system President Tom Ross hired Wainstein.

To earn the confidence of the public, UNC needs to get to the bottom of what went wrong; tell the public what it found; and move to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

That was true when the academic scandal was uncovered in 2012; it’s still true today. No amount of obfuscation and foot-dragging changes that.

UNC tried to skip the first step and move to reform. It appears finally to be making a serious effort to get to the bottom of the fraud. We will stay on the story and will report on Wainstein’s findings and the aftermath.

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