University of North Carolina officials declare that the Wainstein investigation at UNC-Chapel Hill has finally gotten to the bottom of the athletics-academics scandal.
Perhaps. But what the university has not done is get to the top of it.
Former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein’s report on his eight-month investigation into phony courses that kept athletes, especially football and basketball players, eligible puts the blame squarely on a former administrative assistant in UNC-CH’s Department of African and Afro-American Studies and her boss who failed to intervene.
The report maintains that Deborah Crowder, acting out of sympathy for athletes who struggled with academics, set up a network of bogus classes that endured for 18 years and attracted more than 3,000 enrollments, nearly half involving athletes. Crowder, the report says, was able to pull off this broad and long-running deception because the department’s now retired chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, was a hands-off supervisor who gave Crowder wide sway.
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The Wainstein report is fine, as far as it goes. It tells what happened. It does not, however, fully explain how it could happen for so long on such a broad scale.
In that, the investigation remains incomplete despite declarations that everything is out, that the guilty parties have been identified and that it’s time for the university to turn the page. Unfortunately, that was the message before when the NCAA initially concluded that there was no athletic involvement in the fraud and after former Gov. Jim Martin oversaw a report that said the same. Now the athletic involvement is documented, but the blame is still largely confined to two individuals in the AFAM department who conducted what Wainstein calls “the Crowder-Nyang’oro scheme.”
The Wainstein report notes that the process of generating fake grades was fed by pressure from academic counselors in the athletics department who were aware of the scheme and participated in it. They were among nine people disciplined or fired as a result of the report’s findings. But, most significantly, Wainstein found no evidence that current coaches were involved in initiating or sustaining the bogus courses.
This is where the report becomes troublesome. The public is asked to believe that this abuse occurred without the knowledge of coaches who are or were the keepers of the university’s most precious athletic asset, its men’s basketball program. The proposition is that a succession of head coaches connected by the close bonds of the Carolina family – Dean Smith; his longtime assistant and successor, Bill Guthridge; Matt Doherty, and now Roy Williams – were not aware of sham classes that helped keep basketball players eligible.
Williams says he was “dumbfounded” by the report’s findings. The numbers in the report suggest that such cluelessness among the basketball coaches would have required utter indifference to what their players were doing academically. Under Smith, there were 54 enrollments in AFAM independent study classes; under Guthridge, 17 in three years; under Doherty, 42 in three years, and under Williams, 136 since he took over in 2003. Ten players on the 2005 national championship team were AFAM majors.
It is the head basketball coach’s job to know what his players are doing academically. A coach makes that promise to the parents of the players he recruits and tells the players themselves that their athletic efforts will be compensated with a valuable education. The head coaches are responsible for protecting their institutions from the taint of academic scandal related to their athletes. If they didn’t know of the phony classes, they should have known. Plenty of others did. Crowder once complained in an email that even “the frat circuit” had found out. Some former football coaches knew. The report says the former chairwoman of the faculty, Jan Boxill, knew. Players in the courses knew.
Either the basketball coaches turned a blind eye to academic abuses that benefited them professionally and financially or they failed in a basic obligation to serve their players and their university.
The report says Williams noticed the high AFAM enrollments for the 2004-05 school year and asked his assistant coach, Joe Holladay, to make sure players weren’t being steered to those courses. The AFAM enrollments of basketball players eventually declined, but Williams did not take his concerns to academic officials. That this scandal, at least on the university’s part, seems about to be resolved without any reckoning for Williams or his predecessors suggests that UNC is flinching at assigning responsibility where it could hurt.
That unwillingness reflects the reluctance of senior administrators to admit fault. Former Chancellor Holden Thorp initially dismissed problems in the AFAM department and called Nyang’oro “a great colleague.” UNC Provost James Dean attacked the credibility of whistle-blower Mary Willingham, whose charges were confirmed by Wainstein. The university was consistently resistant to efforts by The News & Observer’s Dan Kane to expose the extent of the fraud. He did it anyway.
UNC system President Tom Ross and UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt have inherited this mess. Both are sincerely trying to get the university through it. But they’ll need to look higher than an administrative assistant and a negligent professor to understand why this scam flourished and took so long to come to light.