Amid years of questions surrounding the relationship between athletics and academic fraud at UNC-Chapel Hill, the NCAA is reopening its investigation at UNC, the university announced on Monday.
UNC athletics director Bubba Cunningham said in a statement that the university had received a verbal notice of inquiry from the NCAA, and that the NCAA would investigate “academic irregularities.” A notice of inquiry is the first step in the NCAA’s investigative process.
The NCAA’s decision to reopen the UNC case comes amid longstanding questions surrounding the relationship between the university’s athletic department and no-show classes within the African and Afro-American Studies Department. The enrollments featured a high percentage of athletes, and questions have persisted about how and why they came to take those courses and whether athletic department personnel steered them there.
The NCAA decided to reopen the case, it said in a statement, after “determining that additional people with information and others who were previously uncooperative might be willing to speak with the enforcement staff.”
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“As with any case, the NCAA enforcement staff makes clear it will revisit the matter if additional information becomes available,” the organization said in a statement on Monday. “ The enforcement staff is exploring this new information to ensure an exhaustive investigation is conducted based on all available information.”
The NCAA’s decision to reopen the UNC case comes more than two years after it closed an investigation into impermissible benefits and academic fraud within the UNC football program. That case, which ended in March 2012, resulted in a postseason ban and a loss of scholarships for the football team, among other penalties.
Since then, more questions have emerged about suspect AFAM classes that disproportionately benefited athletes. UNC in summer 2012 announced the discovery of more than 50 “aberrant” AFAM courses, and subsequent investigations uncovered more than 200 confirmed or suspected no-show AFAM courses.
Those courses, dating to the 1990s, were advertised as lecture classes but never met and only required an end-of-semester paper, which usually received a high grade. UNC had maintained that the no-show classes constituted an academic scandal – and not an athletic one – because nonathletes filled the classes, too.
Still, a disproportionate number of the enrollments in the no-show classes were athletes. Of those enrolled in the hundreds of no-show AFAM courses, about 45 percent were athletes. They make up about 5 percent of the university’s student body.
University administrators expressed little concern in recent years that UNC would be subject to another NCAA investigation. The university, though, has repeatedly attempted to address concerns surrounding the AFAM department with various internal investigations, one of which is ongoing.
After a national search, UNC in February hired Kenneth Wainstein, a former federal prosecutor and Homeland Security adviser, to lead an independent investigation into what the university has described as “academic irregularities” within the AFAM department, which has since been renamed.
Wainstein’s investigation has focused on how and why Julius Nyang’oro, the former chairman of the AFAM department, and his assistant, Debbie Crowder, created hundreds of no-show courses. Wainstein is also investigating hundreds of unauthorized grade changes and independent studies courses that had little or no supervision.
Wainstein has said that Nyang’oro and Crowder, who didn’t speak with the NCAA during its original investigation, have cooperated with his inquiry. In a statement he released on Monday through his law firm, Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, Wainstein said he has already shared his findings to date with the NCAA Enforcement Staff.
“We will continue to provide the NCAA with any relevant information that we learn during the remainder of our investigation,” said Wainstein, who recently told the UNC Board of Governors that he hoped to have his investigative report completed by the fall.
Wainstein’s investigation is the third in three years that has attempted to uncover the root of the problems in the AFAM department. During his briefing with the UNC Board of Governors, Wainstein said he has interviewed more than 80 people and that he had reviewed records dating to the 1980s.
Academic transcripts that have emerged in recent years have raised questions about athletes’ reliance on suspect AFAM courses to remain eligible. A transcript belonging to Marvin Austin, one of the football players at the center of the NCAA’s first investigation, showed he took an upper-level AFAM course during his first semester at UNC.
Austin in summer 2007 received a B-plus in the class, which was later identified as one that featured little or no instruction. He took the course before his first full schedule of classes, which included a remedial writing course.
Later, a transcript belonging to Julius Peppers, the UNC All-American defensive end who played at the school from 1998 through 2001, showed he relied on several suspect AFAM courses to remain eligible. Peppers’ transcript had been posted on a publicly accessible page on UNC’s website.
Rashad McCants, a standout on UNC’s 2005 national championship basketball team, recently told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” that he relied on no-show AFAM classes to remain eligible, and two copies of his transcript, which ESPN obtained, backed up his claims.
McCants also alleged that tutors wrote his papers and that coach Roy Williams knew about the suspect AFAM classes. Williams in an interview with ESPN denied McCants’ allegations.
Amid all the revelations in recent years, and as more and more questions surrounded the no-show AFAM courses and whether they were designed, in part, to help athletes maintain their eligibility, the NCAA mostly remained silent – and UNC seemed confident that the NCAA would not come back.
In a 2013 email exchange between athletics director Cunningham and Don Curtis, a UNC trustee, Cunningham wrote that based on what he knew then, “there is no suggestion that the NCAA is coming back.” Another email exchange last September between an NCAA staff member and Vince Ille, a UNC senior associate athletics director who oversees compliance, indicated that the NCAA considered the UNC case closed.
That changed, apparently, when it became clear that formerly “uncooperative” individuals might be willing to speak with the NCAA. To some at UNC, the start of another NCAA investigation represents the beginning of another chapter in a long saga that UNC has been trying, for years, to escape.
To others, though, NCAA’s reopening of the case comes with the question of why it took this long. Jay Smith, a UNC history professor who has been an outspoken critic of the university’s response to its academic and athletic problems, wrote in an email that “embarrassment was the main motivator” for the NCAA.
“They stopped ignoring the UNC case because they couldn’t get away with it anymore,” Smith wrote.
Staff writers Dan Kane and Anne Blythe contributed to this report.