In September 2010, UNC-Chapel Hill was embroiled in its worst athletic scandal in 50 years when one of its lawyers placed a call to Swahili instructor Alphonse Mutima.
The attorney was handling a matter related to that investigation, which involved football players who had taken perks from agents and improper help from a tutor. NCAA staffers had discovered the quagmire and had been digging for several weeks.
The attorney needed to get a syllabus and other materials for a summer class taken by one of the players. Mutima’s surprising response was a signal that there was more looming trouble, an embarrassment that would damage UNC’s academic reputation in a way not thought possible:
He said he didn’t teach the class.
Mutima was one of UNC’s two instructors in Swahili, a language class that was popular with athletes. The attorney consulted with a colleague, then followed up by looking at the grade roll for the class. On the document, the lawyer would have seen not only Mutima’s name, but what was purported to be his signature.
The lawyer emailed Mutima, who replied with the same message: He didn’t teach the class.
The attorney told the colleague about Mutima’s response. The attorney then turned to the chairman of the African studies department, Julius Nyang’oro, who didn’t respond.
And that’s where they stopped, UNC officials say. They believed the listing of Mutima’s name was a clerical error.
As it would turn out, the class was fake, one of 186 bogus classes created by a clerical employee and avid Tar Heel basketball fan named Deborah Crowder. There was no professor. She enrolled seven students, six of them athletes, including four football players and one men’s basketball player, just before she retired.
As in the other 185 classes, those enrolled had only to produce a paper that would get an automatic high grade. Crowder signed professors’ names – including Mutima’s – on the rolls. She often didn’t read the papers.
The lawyers’ lack of vigor in 2010 was representative of leaders at UNC and the university system, a review of tens of thousands of pages of records recently released to The News & Observer shows. That correspondence reflects a mindset that doubted or disputed information pointing to the athletic roots of the scandal – and reveals anger and frustration from some leaders directed at board members or reporters who pushed for more disclosure.
The disclosures about the bogus classes would turn out to be far more serious than the improper benefits that got the football program in trouble in 2010. Little more than three years after Mutima said he did not teach the Swahili class in question, with the threat of a criminal trial exposing more evidence and with national media rushing to the story, UNC system President Tom Ross and university Chancellor Carol Folt agreed to an investigation led by Kenneth Wainstein, a former top official at the U.S. Department of Justice.
The findings were so shocking they made network newscasts: 18 years of fake classes that had no instruction, automatic high marks for papers “graded” by Crowder, a scheme born to help maintain the eligibility of athletes in major revenue sports. Her boss, department chairman Nyang’oro, created three more bogus classes after Crowder retired in 2009.
The N&O requested the newly released records in late 2014. They divulge not only the discomfort and disbelief of some trustees, members of the board of governors and other university leaders, but also the seeds of strategies for containing the damage that played out in August when the university responded to major allegations of misconduct from the enforcement agency for college athletics.
UNC seeks to fight off sanctions by denying that the bogus classes constituted NCAA violations. Its sluggishness in revealing what had gone wrong aided another of its key defenses: That the NCAA should have known all about the impact of the fake classes in 2012, when it levied sanctions for the previous football transgressions. The university argues that if the NCAA didn’t penalize UNC for the classes then, it can’t do so now.
This story has unfolded slowly for six years. Now, as the NCAA’s latest enforcement case nears its end, The N&O has reviewed the newly released correspondence, looking for clues about why it took so long for one of the country’s top public universities to discover the full scope of its corrosive shadow curriculum.
No ‘eligibility issues’
In mid-August 2011, Wade Hargrove was the new chairman of UNC’s board of trustees. The last thing he wanted to hear about the unusual revelations in the African studies department was that they pointed to more problems involving athletics.
Hargrove, a Raleigh media lawyer, had taken the job of leading the board a few weeks earlier, just as Chancellor Holden Thorp tried to put to rest the messy football investigation. Thorp had fired a popular coach and accepted the early retirement of a longtime athletic director.
Some UNC fans were furious. They wanted coach Butch Davis reinstated – and Thorp fired. Some boosters who helped finance Kenan Stadium’s expansion threatened lawsuits. The stadium expansion and Davis’ hiring in 2006 represented UNC’s ambition to build a football powerhouse.
But Thorp called Hargrove to his office shortly after The N&O notified the university about a transcript of one of the football players caught in the agent scandal. It showed that Marvin Austin received a high grade in an upper-level African studies course during the summer before his first full semester as a freshman.
Austin, a star defensive lineman, had been a big recruit for the program and signaled that football under Davis was headed for brighter days. But his 2010 tweet about partying in Miami triggered the NCAA investigation into agent perks.
Within a day of seeing Austin’s transcript, Thorp recalls, he learned of other problems within African studies. Nyang’oro had created a class shortly before the start of the summer semester and had no one but football players enrolled. Worse, Nyang’oro hadn’t run the class as a lecture, as it was listed, and hadn’t taught it at all. Nyang’oro also said Crowder was likely behind other classes that hadn’t met.
There were 18 football players in Nyang’oro’s class. They could have been ineligible to play for receiving a high grade in a class that had no instruction.
“Immediately we called the NCAA, because having been through everything we went through a year earlier, we wanted to make sure we didn’t play any ineligible football players the next weekend in our first football game,” Thorp said recently.
He said he also quickly informed Hargrove and UNC system President Tom Ross.
While UNC informed the NCAA about the suspect classes, it didn’t take the more serious step of reporting them as a possible violation. The NCAA cleared the players, and they were on the field for the first game against James Madison University on Sept. 3. Thorp didn’t know why the NCAA made that decision.
Thorp told Hargrove in the private meeting in the chancellor’s office there appeared to be significant academic issues in African studies. They talked about whether Thorp should hire an external investigator, Hargrove said in an interview.
But days later, when Hargrove broke the news to the board in an email about “academic issues” that led Nyang’oro to resign as chairman of the department, he signaled that the problems didn’t appear to involve athletes’ eligibility.
He got that information from Nancy Davis, then UNC’s chief spokesperson. In an email, she gave him “draft” paragraphs that included this: “Because the questions concern courses that included undergraduate students, some of whom were student-athletes, we are working with the NCAA to review these issues. At this point, we don’t believe there are eligibility issues with student-athletes.”
That information was not for the public, Davis said in her message. And it wasn’t made public as UNC announced Nyang’oro’s resignation the following day. UNC also was silent about Nyang’oro’s phantom summer class.
But the NCAA’s look into the bogus classes had barely started the morning in 2011 that Davis told Hargrove they didn’t appear to have implications for athletes’ eligibility. The NCAA interviewed Nyang’oro that same day. By Sept. 20, after interviewing Nyang’oro and 15 others, the NCAA had walked away from the classes.
‘OK, that’s enough’
Almost all of those classes were created and graded by Nyang’oro’s secretary, Crowder, who was close to the longtime tutor for the men’s basketball team, Burgess McSwain. Crowder had a bachelor’s degree from UNC, but it was in English. She had no standing to run a class or grade papers, and no noted expertise in African or Afro-American studies.
Two years before Nancy Davis’ message to Hargrove that the bogus classes didn’t appear to involve athletes’ eligibility, Crowder’s impending retirement had left academic counselors for football players near panic.
In the summer of 2009, a counselor urged in all-caps language that all football players should get their papers in on time so that they would be graded by Crowder before she left. That fall, two members of the counseling staff created a PowerPoint for the football coaches to drive home the point that the “paper” classes were no longer available to help players stay eligible.
The presentation explained the nature of the players’ classes:
“They didn’t go to class ...They didn’t take notes, have to stay awake...They didn’t have to meet with professors...They didn’t have to pay attention or necessarily engage with the material.”
The presentation, Wainstein’s investigation would later find, was forwarded to Robert Mercer, head of the athletes’ academic support program, and senior associate athletic director John Blanchard. Coach Davis has said he didn’t know about the bogus nature of the classes.
The reliance on African studies had also been noticed by men’s basketball coach Roy Williams. He said he had learned that basketball star Rashad McCants had taken three or four independent studies in the spring 2005 semester, when the team made its successful NCAA championship run. Williams’ players had flocked to the major, but he said he had trusted that the classes were legitimate.
As it turned out, of the 3,100 students enrolled in the classes, roughly half were athletes, with football and men’s basketball leading the pack. There were 189 classes (186 created by Crowder, three by Nyang’oro) that had been disguised as lecture-style but never met, and roughly 1,300 students were in independent studies that had no instructor.
More than 100 athletes had taken between five and 20 of the fake classes. Some of them graduated with African studies degrees built from them.
Hargrove, however, had been told little of this in August 2011. His message went out to his trustees.
Consequently, the correspondence shows, many officials downplayed, disputed or sometimes mocked reports that peeled off layers of the scheme. UNC or UNC system spokespersons sometimes fed that mindset in messages to trustees, UNC system leader Tom Ross and members of the board of governors.
The one countervailing official who spoke loudest – former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Burley Mitchell, who spent decades as a prosecutor and judge – was treated dismissively by trustees and some of his own colleagues on the board of governors. He may have earned his law degree from UNC, but they knew that he sat on the N.C. State Wolfpack Club’s board of directors.
Mitchell, 75, is a Raleigh lawyer. He is one of the few officials who publicly says the university tried to cover up the depths of the scandal to protect athletics.
At every stage, he said in a recent interview, “There was a desire to (say) ‘OK, OK, that’s enough. No more, no more, you know, everything’s been looked at.’ ”
A belated interview
In June 2011, the NCAA had delivered its notice of allegations involving the football program. Later that summer, it learned about some of the fake classes, including the one started that summer by Nyang’oro that was filled by football players.
But the NCAA would not learn of the mystery surrounding the Swahili class that carried Alphonse Mutima’s name until the start of the fall 2011 semester. A year after he spoke with the UNC attorney, Mutima took questions from UNC general counsel Leslie Strohm, faculty athletic representative Jack Evans, senior associate dean of the college of Arts and Sciences Jonathan Hartlyn, and an NCAA investigator.
It was then, Strohm said, that she first learned two of her attorneys knew that Mutima had said the year before he never taught the class that was part of the NCAA’s look at improper football benefits.
Michael McAdoo, a defensive end on the football team, was one of four football players in that class. He saw his UNC playing career end because he accepted too much help from a former tutor on a paper for the class. His story had flared up that summer when a separate plagiarism issue became public.
But even with that publicity and with The N&O’s report on Marvin Austin’s transcript, the two lawyers remained silent to their boss. Former UNC interim general counsel David Parker, who retired this month, said the lawyers involved in corresponding with Mutima in 2010 didn’t connect the dots. UNC officials declined to identify the lawyers.
UNC’s first investigation of the African studies classes took eight months. It was done within the university, led by Hartlyn and Bill Andrews, another senior associate dean in the Arts and Sciences college. In the interim, the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions heard the football case and delivered sanctions. The NCAA didn’t mention the fake classes.
The Hartlyn-Andrews review came in early May of 2012. It soberly reported finding 54 classes that were “aberrant” or “taught irregularly” in the African studies department that appeared to have little or no instruction. The review only looked at classes as far back as the summer of 2007, when Austin received his high grade in an upper-level class.
“No evidence indicated student-athletes received more favorable treatment than students who were not athletes,” Hartlyn and Andrews wrote.
The authors offered no explanation for how a freshman football player could show up on campus and be placed in one of these classes. Nor did they show that a non-athlete received the same placement. There was no mention of the 2011 class Nyang’oro had created at the start of the summer semester that gave 18 football players a high grade.
Stories about the classes kept coming.
One showed athletes made up close to two-thirds of the enrollments in the classes UNC had reviewed, with football and basketball players sometimes the only students enrolled. Another prompted the criminal investigation of Nyang’oro after a public records request exposed the 2011 class – and showed Nyang’oro received $12,000 in special summer teaching pay. A third showed Crowder’s ties to athletics, including her relationship with a former men’s basketball player.
Trustees were bewildered. Nancy Davis and UNC system spokeswoman Joni Worthington waved off the newspaper reports. That 2011 class? Nothing new, Worthington said. And Davis said it was “common knowledge” that Crowder was in a longtime relationship with the former player.
Davis and others repeatedly said the misconduct was limited to Crowder and Nyang’oro, who was retiring. That meant both were gone, and so were the classes. They insisted that student-athletes received no special treatment.
Trustee Sallie Shuping-Russell of Chapel Hill worried that there was more to the story. But she also attacked The N&O’s reporting, claiming the paper was playing to “subtle racism within their readership” because the classes were in the African studies department.
“I think we are letting the newspaper control the rhetoric here and that needs to shift back to us,” she wrote in June 2012 to other trustees and academic officials. She wanted to see a better effort at crisis management.
Pushing for a probe
Ross, the UNC system president, hadn’t expected he’d be dealing with college athletics when he took the job at the start of 2011. A former state judge best known for pushing through sentencing reforms, he didn’t recall being asked about athletics when a search committee interviewed him for the job.
By then, Ross was Davidson College’s president, and had also spent seven years leading the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, one of the state’s top philanthropic organizations. He received his bachelor’s degree from Davidson and his law degree from UNC.
Ross, who for years worked on chain crews at high school football games, was also a big college sports fan. When UNC’s men’s basketball team played Davidson in Charlotte in 2014, Ross showed up in a t-shirt that was one-half Davidson red and the other Carolina blue.
Ross initially saw no need for his office to get involved, drawing an angry response from the public, emails show. He then said his office needed to stay out while the SBI and Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall looked into the actions of Nyang’oro and Crowder.
Mitchell, the former chief justice, wanted an independent investigation, but he told two board members that “if only those of us from NCSU say so I’m afraid it will be painted as us just picking on Chapel Hill.”
At the time, the 32-member board had 21 UNC alums, by far the biggest presence of any university.
Ross said he shared additional information about the university’s actions with Mitchell. Ross believed that Mitchell understood “that an independent investigation may not be necessary.” Eventually, the board of governors created a review panel to oversee UNC’s handling of the scandal.
But the likelihood that either effort would expose the depths of the scandal was slim. The SBI probe was never intended to uncover how the fraud started and for what purpose. Woodall focused on whether a crime had been committed, and he could not share his findings until his investigation concluded. The review panel was left to look at what UNC had already done, and that review often took place behind closed doors.
But a new story was brewing, and it would come from an unlikely source: UNC’s own website.
Tomorrow: A transcript changes the story
Part 1: Who taught the class?
Part 2: Refusing to believe
Part 3: ‘Has Burley said this?’
Part 4: A prosecutor shows the way
What is the NCAA?
The National Collegiate Athletic Association is a 110-year-old nonprofit organization made up of the roughly 1,100 colleges and universities that participate in college sports across three divisions. UNC-Chapel Hill competes in Division I, the highest level, and is in one of the division’s major athletic conferences.
On its tax returns, the NCAA says its “primary purpose” is to “maintain intercollegiate athletics as an integral part of the educational program and the athlete as an integral part of the student body.” It brings in roughly $1 billion in annual revenue, most of it through the “March Madness” men’s basketball tournament; the majority of that money goes back to the member schools.
The NCAA is perhaps best known for policing college sports, but it lacks tools other investigative agencies have. It cannot subpoena people to testify, making it difficult to collect evidence from former athletes, coaches or university officials. Much of its power derives from its ability to withhold eligibility to current athletes, which puts pressure on athletes and universities to comply.
The UNC case has raised serious questions about the NCAA’s ability to police academic scandals tied to athlete eligibility. Member schools contend the NCAA has no authority to pass judgment on the way a class is taught, and UNC has used this argument to say the NCAA has no jurisdiction. But the classes at UNC that have led to the current investigation weren’t taught. They were fake; nearly all had no professor.
Sources and interviews
For this series, reporter Dan Kane reviewed tens of thousands of pages of emails and other documents that have been released by UNC-Chapel Hill and the UNC system during the past several months; some are among five million pages that were provided to Kenneth Wainstein for his investigation in 2014 and that are still being released periodically in large batches.
Kane also sought to interview dozens of people connected to UNC-Chapel Hill. Those interviewed:
▪ Former Chancellor Holden Thorp; former UNC trustee chairman Wade Hargrove; former interim general counsel David Parker; spokesman Rick White; former general counsel Leslie Strohm; attorneys Kenneth Wainstein and Joseph Jay of the Cadwalader law firm; former board of governors members Burley Mitchell and Brent Barringer; former system president Tom Ross; current system president Margaret Spellings; system spokeswoman Joni Worthington; Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall; board of governors chairman Louis Bissette; and former Gov. Jim Martin.
In some instances, those interviewed gave brief remarks, declined to answer some questions or did not respond to requests for follow-up information. Ross, for example, declined to comment on much of his correspondence or when he learned about a bogus 2011 summer class that was filled with football players.
Those who declined to speak or who could not be reached:
▪ NCAA officials; several current and former attorneys in UNC’s general counsel office; Swahili instructor Alphonse Mutima; Chancellor Carol Folt; former board of governors chairs Peter Hans, Hannah Gage and John Fennebresque; former board of governors members Hari Nath, Ann Goodnight, Jim Deal and Walter Davenport; former and current trustees including Dwight Stone (chairman), Lowry Caudill (past chairman), Alston Gardner, Sallie Shuping-Russell, Peter Grauer, Charles Duckett; former chief spokeswoman Nancy Davis; former chief of staff Erin Schuettpelz; associate athletic director Vince Ille; former athletic tutor Whitney Read; UNC history professor James Leloudis; and former tennis player Joe Frierson.
▪ UNC officials declined to release a UNC lawyer’s emails with Alphonse Mutima, despite repeated requests from The N&O. They cited the state’s personnel law and the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. UNC and UNC system officials declined to provide the transcript of Mutima’s interview with the NCAA and Strohm, who now works at the University of Louisville.
Cast of characters
Alphonse Mutima has taught Swahili at UNC since 1999. A native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he received his bachelor’s degree from the National University of Zaire, master’s degree from Indiana University and his doctorate from Northern Illinois University. He was accused by the university of having knowledge of the bogus classes, but was cleared because he had previously told a university lawyer that he didn’t teach a Swahili class that turned out to be fake.
Nancy Davis was UNC’s associate vice chancellor for university relations until she retired in early 2013. A UNC alum who grew up in Raleigh, Davis worked 23 years in communications for the university.
Wade Hargrove of Raleigh was a trustee at UNC from 2009 to 2013, spending the last two years as chairman. He is a well-known media lawyer at the Brooks Pierce law firm, which is assisting The News & Observer in defense of a current libel lawsuit not related to UNC.
Holden Thorp was UNC-Chapel Hill’s chancellor from 2008 to 2013. He is a Fayetteville native and UNC alum who returned to his alma mater in 1993 and rose through the ranks to become one of the youngest chancellors in UNC’s history. He is now the provost at Washington University in St. Louis.
Leslie Strohm was the general counsel at UNC for 11 years until she left in early 2015 for a similar job at the University of Louisville. She had been the acting general counsel at Washington University and in private practice before coming to UNC.
Tom Ross was UNC system president from 2011 until early this year, when the Democrat departed after being forced out by GOP-controlled board of governors. In July, he became president of the Volcker Alliance, a nonprofit that works to rebuild trust in government.