Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall grew up a Carolina fan in the small Johnston County town of Princeton. He rooted for Phil Ford on the hardwood and Don McCauley on the gridiron.
He received his bachelor’s and law degrees from UNC, and learned criminal defense work from former UNC Athletic Director Dick Baddour’s brother, Phil. Today, Woodall, 55, handles cases before Dick Baddour’s son, state Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour.
When The News & Observer reported in May 2012 that the UNC African studies department chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, was paid $12,000 to teach a class that never met, Woodall jumped into the case without hesitation.
Nyang’oro hadn’t taught the 2011 class filled with football players, which he created a few days before the start of the semester. Like Deborah Crowder, his assistant who had created a system of fake classes to help athletes, he handed out high grades if papers were turned in.
He’d received the $12,000 in two payments over a period of a couple of weeks. Accepting one payment might be considered a misunderstanding. But twice suggested intent.
Still, it was a low-level felony. The money had been paid back. If convicted, Nyang’oro wouldn’t serve time as a first-time offender. If he fought the charge, jurors could acquit.
Nyang’oro talked with State Bureau of Investigation agent Blane Hicks, but he insisted he had committed no crime. He had a law degree from Duke and hadn’t sought legal help.
Meanwhile, Crowder was practically free of charges just through the passage of time. Her work to disguise the fake classes might amount to misdemeanor records alteration charges, but she had retired in 2009. The statute of limitations appeared to have shut down that avenue.
As Hicks gathered documents and talked to witnesses, Woodall watched former Gov. Jim Martin’s probe play out. He began to realize it was much like UNC’s review several months earlier – focused more on identifying problem classes than explaining how they happened. Neither probe explored the tight relationship between the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes and the two architects of the bogus classes.
Woodall and Hicks had found in the emails a troubling relationship between the academic support staff and Crowder and Nyang’oro. They saw papers written by athletes that received high grades despite being far below college level. They realized faculty leader Jan Boxill’s emails over the years showed she knew a lot more about the classes than she was letting on.
“I was disappointed at what I saw,” Woodall said in a recent interview.
Bringing their lawyers
As Woodall and Hicks scheduled interviews with roughly 10 football players, they were in for a surprise. The athletes showed up on Aug. 2, 2012, with lawyers who advised them not to talk. Their athletic eligibility was at risk if they did, the lawyers said.
It’s unclear who paid for the legal representation. UNC officials have declined to answer the question.
UNC general counsel Leslie Strohm also had an attorney present for her interview six months later, Woodall said.
The attorney, Ken Broun, a former UNC law school dean who served two terms as Chapel Hill mayor, asserted Strohm couldn’t answer many questions because she had an attorney-client relationship with UNC. That would make such information privileged under North Carolina legal rules. Strohm had participated in key interviews during UNC’s initial probe.
Much of the evidence gathered by Hicks and other agents troubled Woodall, but little of it amounted to a crime. There is no academic fraud statute on the books; no law against admitting students to a university who had little chance to survive academically; no criminal penalty for clerical staff taking on the role of professors.
He bristled when UNC system President Tom Ross and board of governors chairman Peter Hans said they were at a standstill because the SBI was still investigating. Woodall had repeatedly said his investigation focused on whether a crime had been committed, and not on the cause of the fake classes. Someone else needed to do that.
As 2013 drew to a close, that still hadn’t happened.
Woodall took the case to the grand jury in Hillsborough. Hicks presented the evidence the morning of Dec. 2. Before noon, the jurors indicted Nyang’oro on a felony charge of obtaining property by false pretenses.
The indictment had a profound impact. A criminal case meant discovery, with all of the SBI files turned over to Nyang’oro, who by then had hired attorneys. It also meant UNC officials potentially being called to the witness stand to be asked what they knew.
“Many of us here are anticipating with some dread what Julius will likely say if and when he’s on the witness stand,” James Leloudis, director of the James M. Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence, told trustee Peter Grauer in an email. It was among thousands of emails about the athletic and academic scandal released recently by UNC.
Reporters flock to story
The strange story – a professor indicted because of phantom classes that aided athletes – had national appeal. A few days later, Sarah Lyall, a veteran reporter for The New York Times, began looking into the case.
She told UNC officials she expected that her story would run in the sports section. But the editors liked it so much they moved it to the front page on New Year’s Day, college football’s day of gluttony with six games stretching from noon till midnight.
Within days, NPR, Bloomberg Businessweek, CNN and ESPN were reporting on the scandal. Some of them relied heavily on Mary Willingham, the insider from the academic support program who told The N&O about the classes in August 2011, and then went public in The N&O 15 months later.
In an email, UNC system President Tom Ross had used one word to describe Willingham when she went public in November 2012: “Mole?”
In the interim, Willingham had been researching scores on reading tests administered to incoming athletes whose high school academic profiles suggested they might struggle at Carolina. Most of them were in the revenue sports of football and men’s basketball.
In campus appearances, she said her research showed that a majority of those tested were not reading at a high school level. CNN coupled her findings with a broader report about Division I athletes’ SAT and ACT scores, but her comments about UNC athletes reading at an elementary school level were like gasoline on a fire. They were featured on “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central.
UNC Provost James W. Dean blasted Willingham’s research. After demanding she turn over her data, he contended she hadn’t interpreted the tests properly and had greatly overstated the number of poorly scoring athletes. Willingham defended her findings.
Some UNC fans saw the pushback on the news coverage and Willingham as evidence the university was fighting back. Trustees joined in. They didn’t understand why the national media was “suddenly alighting on this 3 year old piece of news,” as trustee Sallie Shuping-Russell wrote.
When Bloomberg Businessweek senior editor Paul Barrett took a tough stance on UNC in blog posts, trustees complained to their colleague Peter Grauer, Bloomberg’s board chairman and former CEO. He told them he had asked for a report from the magazine’s editor-in-chief.
“This is a one-day story at best,” he wrote. “But we should get to the bottom of it.”
His inquiring into editorial matters didn’t stop the coverage. Bloomberg Businessweek later published a scathing cover story on the bogus classes.
As trustees, the provost and other officials tried to tamp down the flames, Ross, Hans and UNC Chancellor Carol Folt were assembling a new investigation with Woodall’s encouragement. Nyang’oro’s attorneys, Bill Thomas and Butch Williams, had suggested a way out of his legal jam.
They produced a proffer, a document in which Nyang’oro admitted to key facts in the case. They expressed a willingness to cooperate with a new UNC investigation if Woodall would drop the felony charge, Woodall said.
Crowder was willing to cooperate too. Hicks, the SBI agent, had some success talking to her and her lawyer during his investigation.
In February 2014, Folt and Ross announced that Kenneth Wainstein, a former top U.S. Justice Department official, would lead a new investigation. They said it would take advantage of new information developed during the SBI probe.
UNC trustees were told about the new investigation shortly before the announcement. Grauer wasn’t enthused.
“What preparation have we done for the bombardment of questions that will come from our good friends in the press?” Grauer asked Joel Curran, UNC’s newly hired chief spokesman. “What we will say as to why now?”
Over the subsequent eight months, Wainstein and a team of lawyers would question Nyang’oro and Crowder for hours at a time over several days, interview 120 witnesses, search through several million pages of emails and other documents, and analyze hundreds of student transcripts. They would hire experts to review papers that had been turned in for Crowder’s classes.
During that time, ESPN and The N&O reported heavy use of the bogus classes by the 2005 men’s basketball team that won the NCAA championship. The editorial page editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, who knew Crowder, wrote that she was such an avid basketball fan that some losses left her so distraught she couldn’t go to work the next day.
The NCAA didn’t wait for Wainstein’s report. It returned to UNC’s campus four months into Wainstein’s investigation.
Academics and athletics
At 1 p.m. on Oct. 22, 2014, Wainstein, Folt, Ross and UNC Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham conducted a news conference in an auditorium in UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. National and local media took up many of the seats. It was a much bigger media turnout than for Martin’s report nearly two years earlier.
The findings were staggering. In sheer numbers alone, the scandal had lasted 18 years, involved more than 3,100 students, roughly half of them athletes. The investigation found 189 lecture classes that never met. All but three were created and graded by Crowder. Nyang’oro admitted providing high grades for athletes in the rest without regard for the quality of the work.
Roughly 1,300 courses characterized as independent study also had no instruction, no meetings, no drafts of papers required. Anyone who turned in a paper got a high grade; plagiarism was rampant.
The investigation found Crowder wanted to help struggling students, but she and Nyang’oro specifically sought to help keep athletes eligible. Wainstein’s team said 169 athletes would have failed to maintain a C average for at least one semester without the paper classes, potentially rendering them ineligible. Athletes also dominated the subgroup of students who took multiple classes.
Several counselors in the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes knew Crowder was grading the classes, the report said. Among them: Jan Boxill, who would later retire in the face of dismissal proceedings. (She has disputed having any such knowledge.)
The report said the NCAA apparently didn’t take action on the classes in 2011 because they were available to non-athletes, echoing UNC spokeswoman Nancy Davis’ message to trustees chair Wade Hargrove at the time.
Given Wainstein’s description of how the classes started, it made sense that those in the athletes’ academic support program would be in the know. Nyang’oro told Wainstein the fake classes began after counselors in the program complained to Crowder about required meetings and drafts of papers for Nyang’oro’s independent studies. Crowder confirmed Nyang’oro’s version to Wainstein.
After more than three years of explanations from university officials that suggested athletics weren’t at the root of the scandal, Folt acknowledged that academic and athletic interests had been responsible.
“Clearly it was an issue in both areas,” she said.
Media interest peaked in the next 24 hours, with at least four national TV networks broadcasting reports.
“The story was the second story on CBS’s Evening News at 6:30 – ahead of Ebola,” trustee Shuping-Russell wrote to her colleagues that night.
“Read the report and prepare to barf,” trustee Alston Gardner wrote to an acquaintance a few days later. “Then google UNC and see the great press we’ve gotten.”
‘Shocked and humiliated’
Reaction from members of the board of governors ranged from little surprise to shock. Louis Bissette and Jim Deal, both lawyers on the special review panel, said the findings weren’t much beyond the Martin report. But Brent Barringer, a Cary lawyer and former board of governors member, told Ross he was “shocked and humiliated by the scope and longevity of this conspiracy of academic fraud.”
“UNC-CH should have listened to Erskine, Peter, u & others much sooner & we could already b in the second year of recovery rather than just now hitting bottom & recognizing our instinctual addiction to defensiveness/arrogance,” Barringer wrote. “AA would suggest we have only 9.5 more steps to go.”
Some trustees continued to assert athletics played no role, other than athletes being in the classes. Charles Duckett told one writer: “The student athletes did not create this problem. They not create a single course. They did not grade a single paper. They did not cover up administrative failure to monitor their own work.”
But Gardner, after outlining all UNC had done to try to tackle the problems, abandoned that defense in an email to an alum. He asked that it be kept private.
“Of course, the ultimate root cause is big time college athletics,” he wrote. “It is easy to say we should immediately terminate athletic scholarships and withdraw from intercollegiate sports, but it’s just not that simple.”
Gov. Martin would eventually back away from his central finding, that the bogus classes didn’t involve athletics. It was both, he said, and he’d given too much credence to athletic officials who said they had raised questions about the classes. The commission that accredits UNC returned and levied a one-year probation.
Ross heard from Western Carolina University Chancellor David Belcher, who was serving on an NCAA advisory group. It provided Ross, the system president and UNC fan, an opportunity to plead UNC’s case through an intermediary. He did.
“My two requests of the NCAA are that (1) The NCAA realize that UNC commissioned the Wainstein investigation to find the truth. In my experience, it is unusual that an institution seeks the truth knowing it may well bring the NCAA back to town. I believe UNC should get some credit for doing the right thing. To do otherwise will send exactly the wrong message.
“(2) If additional punishments are to be imposed, I hope the NCAA will remember that it has been nearly 4 years since the irregular classes ended and the current student/athletes were barely in high school when the bad conduct ended. Fairness should prevent them from suffering for the sins committed well before they ever enrolled.”
In the coming months, the NCAA’s enforcement division returned with allegations of five major violations against UNC. They include the biggest violation of all – lack of institutional control.
UNC now contends that the key information in the Wainstein report is forbidden fruit for the NCAA. In a spirited written defense in August, UNC’s attorneys said the damaging interviews of Nyang’oro and Crowder weren’t done in accordance with NCAA standards.
It is part of a defense that says little about the nature of the classes and focuses heavily on due process. UNC’s main argument: The NCAA has no jurisdiction, because it has no say over the content and rigor of classes. UNC did not self-impose sanctions, choosing to wait for any NCAA punishment.
Hannah Gage of Wilmington, a retired broadcast executive, was chairwoman of the board of governors when the scandal first broke. Months before the Wainstein report, she worried over what had gone wrong at her alma mater and how to deal with it.
Shortly after the report’s release, she sought to put her feelings into words to Lowry Caudill, then trustee chairman. She found them by linking the scandal to the cycling world’s most infamous competitor.
“I’ve always felt that Lance Armstrong made a fatal mistake by sitting back and waiting for actions to be taken against him since he clearly had broken the rules,” she wrote in an email. “If he had stepped forward and taken responsibility, forfeited his Tour de France wins, and apologized, he would have continued to be thought of as a winner who stumbled, acknowledged his errors, returned his awards and re-established his integrity...
“...Instead, he did the opposite; waited for it to be done to him, not by him, and thus changed the course of his life. I don’t know if this analogy works in UNC’s case but sometimes the thing that you perceive to be the worst, is actually the door out.”
Part 1: Who taught the class?
Part 2: Refusing to believe
Part 3: ‘Has Burley said this?’
Part 4: A prosecutor shows the way
Sources and interviews
For this series, reporter Dan Kane reviewed tens of thousands 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.
Cast of characters
Jim Woodall has been Orange County’s district attorney since 2005. A Johnston County native, he received his bachelor’s and law degrees from UNC. He launched a criminal investigation into the sham classes at UNC after The N&O found that Nyang’oro had received additional pay to teach one of them.
Peter Grauer is chairman of the board at Bloomberg, the global financial media company. He graduated from UNC in 1968 and served on the board of trustees from 2011-2015.
Carol Folt became UNC’s first female chancellor in July 2013. A former provost and interim president at Dartmouth, Folt’s expertise is in environmental science. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of California at Santa Barbara, and her doctorate from the University of California at Davis.
Kenneth Wainstein is a former top U.S. Justice Department official who has held several high-ranking positions, including Homeland Security adviser to President George W. Bush. He is a partner in the Cadwalader law firm and works out of its Washington, D.C., office. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and his law degree from the University of California at Berkeley.
Sallie Shuping-Russell is a managing director at the BlackRock investment firm. A 1977 alum, she lives in Chapel Hill and was a trustee from 2007-2015. UNC’s alumni association gave her the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2011.
Hannah Gage is a 1975 UNC graduate and retired broadcast executive appointed to the board of governors in 2001; she served as chairwoman from 2008 to 2012. She lives in Wilmington.
About the reporter
Dan Kane, 55, has been a staff writer at The News & Observer since 1997, covering city, higher education and state government beats before joining the investigative team in 2009. Since 2011, he has broken dozens of stories about the UNC athletic and academic scandal, receiving state and national recognition; in 2015, he won the Frank McCulloch Award for Courage in Journalism. He is a native of upstate New York and a graduate of St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y.