Alston Gardner fits the profile of a university trustee: a wealthy alum who gives to the university, its athletic department and to election campaigns. A 1977 UNC graduate and Durham native, Gardner, 60, made a fortune creating a successful consulting company and later founded a venture capital firm, both in Atlanta.
Gardner was satisfied when former Gov. Jim Martin told the UNC trustees in December 2012 that the “phantom” classes in the university’s African studies department stretched back at least as far as 1997 but were not built around helping athletes.
Less than two months later, Martin’s report was under fire from Burley Mitchell, a former state Supreme Court chief justice who sat on the UNC Board of Governors, which oversees all 17 campuses.
Mitchell had learned that Martin had backed away from one of his report’s important findings: that athletic officials had raised questions about the classes in 2002 and 2006 to the faculty committee that oversees athletics. But committee minutes did not reflect those concerns and several faculty members didn’t recall a discussion. It turned out Martin hadn’t interviewed them.
Mitchell said Martin’s data – pegging athlete enrollments in the classes at 45 percent – suggested knowledge of the bogus classes beyond African studies department chairman Julius Nyang’oro and his assistant, Deborah Crowder.
Mitchell told The News & Observer that the NCAA should return to investigate. “Hell, yes,” he said.
The story with Mitchell’s comments was emailed to Gardner.
“What an ---hole,” Gardner emailed in response.
Mitchell’s push for a full investigation of the bogus classes heightened the tension between the Raleigh lawyer and his colleagues on the board of governors and the university’s trustees. Correspondence from that period, recently released to The N&O, reveals a board eager to move past the long-running scandal – and frustration with those who didn’t agree.
Mitchell had spent 43 years in the legal system as a prosecutor, judge and private lawyer. But his comments did little to persuade others on his board or UNC trustees to press further. Though he had his law degree from UNC and regularly gave money to the university, his undergraduate degree came from N.C. State, where he had served as a trustee and an executive member of the Wolfpack Club. Mitchell believed some of his colleagues and the trustees were focused on a rivalry, not the truth.
UNC system President Tom Ross wanted to know if Mitchell had indeed suggested that the NCAA should return. Ross, too, had signed off on the Martin report, which he called an important milestone in restoring trust in the campus’ academic integrity.
“Has Burley said this?” Ross asked his chief spokeswoman, Joni Worthington, in an email. “I haven’t heard him say this. Do we know if he did?”
Louis Bissette, who led the board of governors’ review of UNC’s handling of the scandal, chimed in with sarcasm.
“Why did we spend so much time looking at the evidence when Burley had the answer the media was looking for all along without looking at anything?” he wrote to Worthington, Ross and others.
“A good question indeed,” Ross responded. “But, whatever he or they think, I deeply appreciate the time and effort you and your colleagues on the panel invested in reviewing this matter. I feel better knowing there has been a thorough, careful review conducted with integrity. Thank you!”
Many on the board wanted to move on. The members of the special panel overseeing UNC’s handling of the scandal agreed with Martin’s findings. Mitchell was the only member of either board who, in public, called Martin’s failure to check out the athletic officials’ claims a major flaw.
“The report from Baker Tilly, which (a representative) said was exhaustive and intensive and thorough, never went and asked anybody,” Mitchell said at the board meeting. “They just apparently relied on statistics.”
A push for records
Martin’s report had also convinced Wade Hargrove, the UNC Board of Trustees chairman. It was time to close the book on this painful chapter of the university, Hargrove believed.
But Hargrove took the state’s public records laws seriously. As a media attorney, he had a hand in drafting them. He had used them on behalf of clients to obtain records the public had a right to see.
The N&O occasionally had turned to Hargrove to persuade UNC to release documents. Now, The N&O was developing a story showing how many long-standing records requests it had pending at UNC.
One of the oldest: correspondence involving Nyang’oro, Crowder and academic advisers for athletes and other students. The request had been lingering for nine months.
Perturbed by UNC’s public records performance, Hargrove advised the university to provide the records.
Three months later, in the spring of 2013, The N&O received 47 pages of emails and other correspondence. It showed much closer connections between Crowder, Nyang’oro and the academic counseling staff for athletes than had been previously revealed.
Nyang’oro had set up a “research paper” class at the request of an academic counselor to the football team. A tutor asked Crowder to approve topics for papers for athletes. Two academic advisers for non-athletes discussed how Crowder didn’t want students from “the frat circuit” coming to her to enroll in the paper classes.
The emails contradicted key assertions made by UNC and Martin. Academic counselors to athletes had helped create a class. Crowder, an administrative employee, was performing the work of a faculty member. And Crowder didn’t want to make her classes available to everyone.
UNC again sought to downplay the story to trustees, members of the board of governors and system leaders.
“There is nothing substantially new in these emails and they were previously reviewed as part of the university’s investigation of this matter,” Erin Schuettpelz, chief of staff to the chancellor, wrote to trustees.
Worthington relayed a similar message to Ross, his chief of staff, two system attorneys and two members of the board of governors after the story was published. UNC asserted that the “Nyang’oro and Crowder email correspondence was considered during past investigations about this issue.”
Board didn’t know
That would have been news to members of the board of governors’ special panel, which had reviewed UNC’s initial investigation. None on the panel could remember seeing the Nyang’oro emails. In subsequent messages, three of them said the correspondence needed to be checked out.
Hari Nath, a board of governors member from Cary who founded an information technology business in Research Triangle Park, said the story reported “a case of collaboration” between Nyang’oro and the academic support program.
“I think we should investigate this asap,” Nath, who has since been appointed to UNC’s Board of Trustees, wrote in a June 9 email to his colleagues on the panel and a UNC system lawyer.
Jim Deal, a Boone attorney, downplayed the correspondence. Deal said he was “not surprised.”
The panel did not investigate the emails. It would wait for the State Bureau of Investigation, which was looking for criminal conduct.
Martin would later admit he never saw the emails. He and Baker Tilly had not examined correspondence for the investigation. He said he simply didn’t have time.
UNC officials said that those 47 pages of emails contained all the relevant correspondence between Crowder, Nyang’oro and the staff in the athletes’ academic support program. There were, however, several dozen more such emails that would be revealed in Kenneth Wainstein’s investigation.
The board would learn other embarrassing details in the newspaper, including faculty chair Jan Boxill’s meddling in a faculty review of the scandal. An email showed that she acted in an attempt to avoid the attention of the NCAA by removing a reference to Deborah Crowder and her support of UNC athletics.
Bissette complained about the story in an email to fellow board members Nath, Peter Hans and Ann Goodnight, saying new policies and oversight would likely prevent anything similar from happening again.
Goodnight, an NCSU alum and former NCSU trustee, told Bissette she understood his frustration. But The N&O had again found something the panel hadn’t seen.
“I worry that these revelations...not only make UNC-CH look bad, but also our review panel and the Martin Report,” she wrote.
Peter Hans, the board of governors chair, told Ross he feared UNC’s administration was holding something back.
Citing a column by NCInsider’s editor Scott Mooneyham that bemoaned the lack of response to The N&O’s stories, Hans wrote: “this is one reason I’ve asked (several times now) about Chapel Hill doing an assessment of whether people in the athletic departments that the emails PROVE were involved in fake classes are still there – their inability or unwillingness to answer this basic question undermines their credibility with me.”
Ross reacted with alarm. He forwarded Hans’ message to his chief of staff, Kevin FitzGerald, and Schuettpelz.
“FYI!,” he wrote. “Are there any plans to do some reassignment, even on a temporary (6 month) period?”
The university provided Ross a list of staff in the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes that noted four new hires in 2013. It was something Ross had asked for four days earlier. Ross forwarded it to Hans. But they made no move to investigate the new revelations. They waited on the SBI.
A prosecutor’s choice
The questions raised following the Martin report had little impact on the NCAA, or the commission that accredits UNC. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges’ special review did not lead at the time to probation or sanctions against UNC. The NCAA confirmed in an email to Vince Ille, UNC’s associate athletic director in charge of rules compliance, that it wasn’t investigating further and didn’t plan to issue additional violations.
By the end of summer 2013, the SBI probe led by Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall was the last remaining to weigh in on the scandal. Over the past 15 months, the SBI had collected several thousands of pages of records and interviewed dozens of witnesses to determine if a crime had been committed.
If Woodall chose not to indict, there was a good chance little more would happen.
Joe Frierson, a former UNC tennis player who graduated in 1992, had blasted The N&O’s coverage in emails to trustees and a letter to the editor. Like some UNC fans, he saw the scandal as an academic mess created by two academic employees who weren’t bent on providing extra help to athletes. Trustees and athletic officials welcomed his perspective.
Privately, he worried to trustee Dwight Stone that Woodall’s probe could open the door to new information that Frierson would rather not see.
“I am praying the DA doesn’t go after Nyang’oro,” Frierson wrote. “Would be another year of drama and potentially new info discovered.”
Stone, a Greensboro developer who sat on the Rams Club’s executive committee, didn’t give Frierson much hope. His response about Woodall was terse:
“He is,” Stone wrote.
Tomorrow: The $12,000 mistake
Part 1: Who taught the class?
Part 2: Refusing to believe
Part 3: ‘Has Burley said this?’
Part 4: A prosecutor shows the way
Cast of characters
Burley Mitchell is a former state Supreme Court chief justice who served on the UNC Board of Governors from 2009 to 2013. He is a former state prosecutor and Navy veteran now in private practice for the Womble Carlyle law firm. Mitchell grew up in Raleigh and earned his bachelor’s degree from N.C. State, where he later served as a trustee, and his law degree from UNC. He also served on the Wolfpack Club’s board of directors.
Louis Bissette is a lawyer in Asheville who is the current chairman of the board of governors. He was appointed to the board in 2011. A former Asheville mayor, Bissette earned his bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest and his law degree from UNC. He also has an MBA from the University of Virginia.
Erin Schuettpelz was chief of staff to UNC chancellors Holden Thorp and Carol Folt until she left in 2014 to serve in a similar role for Thorp, who is now provost at Washington University. A UNC alum, she served as a UNC system liaison to the state legislature for seven years before returning to Chapel Hill.
Joni Worthington has been the UNC system’s vice president for communications since 2007. She joined the system office as director of information services in 1987. She earned her bachelor’s degree from St. Andrews University in Laurinburg (formerly St. Andrews Presbyterian College) and her master’s degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.
Dwight Stone is a Greensboro developer and current chairman of UNC’s board of trustees. He is a 1973 alum who first joined the board in 2013. At the time, he was chairman of the board of the Rams Club. He served on the search committees that led to the hiring of UNC’s current chancellor and athletics director.
Sitting on the boards
The UNC Board of Governors oversees the state’s 17-campus university system. It has long been dominated by UNC-Chapel Hill graduates, as it was in May 2012 when the depths of a long-running academic scandal were starting to emerge.
Of the 32 voting members (the board also had three non-voting members at that time), 21 had received a degree or attended the university. The second most-popular university was N.C. State, with five members.
The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees advises the UNC system Board of Governors and the UNC chancellor. It has 12 members plus the student body president, who is an ex-officio member. In 2012, all 12 members were UNC graduates.
From 2013 to the present, the board has been led by a member of the Rams Club’s executive committee. The Rams Club, also known as the Educational Foundation, raises money for UNC athletics.
It’s not uncommon for members to jump to and from the board of governors and the trustees.
The legislature appoints members to the board of governors. The board, in turn, appoints eight of the university’s trustees, with the governor selecting the remaining four. Consequently, those who contribute to election campaigns or are close to elected officials often have an inside track.
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; associate athletic director Vince Ille; 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.
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; former athletic tutor Whitney Read; UNC history professor James Leloudis; and former tennis player Joe Frierson.