Education

Former UNC-CH faculty leader Jan Boxill refutes NCAA allegations against her

Jan Boxill, former chair of the UNC faculty, teaching professor of philosophy and academic adviser to the UNC women's basketball team, was accused of giving impermissible academic assistance to student athletes. In an exclusive interview with The News & Observer, she says she had no knowledge of the bogus class scheme that went on for 18 years in the African and Afro-American Studies department.
Jan Boxill, former chair of the UNC faculty, teaching professor of philosophy and academic adviser to the UNC women's basketball team, was accused of giving impermissible academic assistance to student athletes. In an exclusive interview with The News & Observer, she says she had no knowledge of the bogus class scheme that went on for 18 years in the African and Afro-American Studies department. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Jan Boxill is reeling.

The former UNC-Chapel Hill faculty leader and counselor for women’s basketball is at the center of NCAA allegations against the university in the academic and athletic scandal that has dragged on for years.

Two weeks ago, the NCAA issued its latest allegations, which point with laser focus at Boxill, accusing her of giving “impermissible academic assistance and special arrangements” to women’s basketball players in 18 instances.

Gone from the amended document are last year’s specific references to football and men’s basketball, though the NCAA alleged an overall loss of institutional control at the university. Women’s basketball is clearly in the crosshairs as the process grinds toward a hearing and possible sanctions.

Boxill, 77, who was forced to retire last year, has kept quiet since she was first accused of wrongdoing in the 2014 report on the scandal by Kenneth Wainstein, a former federal prosecutor hired by UNC. But she agreed to speak with The News & Observer after she had read the latest allegations against her in the NCAA report.

“I was stunned and devastated, to put it mildly,” she said. “I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’ 

Boxill answered questions for more than three hours at the Chapel Hill home of her lawyer, Randall Roden. She talked about decades of service at the university, where she took on many high-profile roles – teaching professor in philosophy, chair of the faculty, academic counselor for women’s basketball and director of UNC’s Parr Center for Ethics. A former women’s basketball coach at the University of Tampa, Boxill also was a radio color analyst for the women’s games at UNC, where former players describe a special kinship with her.

In reports on the scandal and interviews with those who know Boxill, a contradictory picture emerges. Investigators accuse her of misdeeds that are antithetical to someone whose scholarly work centered around ethics. Friends and former students say Boxill was utterly devoted to her students, whether they were athletes or not.

Boxill maintains she was not part of the fake class scheme in African and Afro-American Studies, led by former department chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, though she often recommended AFAM courses to her students. She said she had no idea the office manager, Deborah Crowder, was grading students’ papers, though Boxill emailed Crowder about students’ work and Crowder referred to “favors.”

The accusations against Boxill largely were based on emails between her and women’s basketball players. The emails paint a picture of a faculty member who had frequent exchanges with her students, providing content and ideas while they were writing papers.

Boxill, though, said the emails were taken out of context – snippets from what were typically lengthy back-and-forth interactions with discussions, drafts and rewrites. She said she gave students ideas to get them thinking, or sample paragraphs to show them what they needed to do for themselves. It is simply, she said, an instructional approach she finds effective.

“I certainly never consciously crossed the line. But secondly, I can see why some people might say that they would do it differently,” she said. “I see this as a good teaching technique. I think most philosophy professors do, but I can see people thinking that it’s not the right way to do things. And some people might even say it’s wrong.”

Roden said the ultimate evidence – students’ papers – no longer exist, and the emails have been grossly misinterpreted by investigators who speculated about their meaning. “Everyone thinks they’re just self-explanatory,” he said.

For example, he said, in one instance she is accused of providing a bibliography for a player. Roden said the lengthy annotated bibliography was something she gave to all students, and left copies outside her door as a reference for anyone.

“She corrected honors students’ papers the same way,” Roden said. “She gave them the same prompts, gave them the same suggestions, gave them the same materials.”

First and foremost, Boxill sees herself as a teacher who threw herself into working with students, many from under-served, minority and economically disadvantaged backgrounds who overcame obstacles to get to Chapel Hill.

“That’s what resonates with me,” she said. “That’s who I work with. Athletes are a part of that. Athletes are probably 10 percent of what I did. But what it looks like is that’s all I did.”

Former basketball players describe Boxill as someone they could lean on, someone who cared about their well-being off the court.

Dawn Bradley Cooper, who played at UNC from 1988 to 1992, graduated with an AFAM degree and went on to earn a master’s in education from Emory University. Now she’s an administrator with the University System of Georgia. She called Boxill an adviser, mentor and “mother” away from home.

Cooper said she never heard or witnessed Boxill doing anything outside of established rules and procedures. She remembers Boxill pushing athletes to go to class, occasionally spying on them and reporting them to coaches when they didn’t.

“She never wrote a paper for me or encouraged me to have someone write it for me. She never enrolled me in a paper class or encouraged me to do so,” Cooper said in an email. “She emphasized at all times that we were students first before athletes.”

Cooper was blunt in her assessment of the latest developments, calling Boxill the “most wonderful human being you will ever meet.”

“I am deeply saddened that she has been chosen as the ‘fall-guy’ for this scandal.”

‘Facts don’t really matter’

Wainstein, the investigator, drew starkly different conclusions about Boxill.

His 2014 report largely focused on Nyang’oro and Crowder’s “shadow curriculum” from 1993 to 2011, in which 3,100 students – disproportionately athletes – enrolled in AFAM classes where they earned high grades for little work. The classes didn’t meet, and students only had to turn in a final paper. Evidence showed football counselors relied on the classes to keep players eligible, and they fretted about the pending retirement of Crowder.

The report included emails from Boxill to Crowder. In one exchange, Crowder said a paper appears to be recycled and asks Boxill, “Did you say a D will do … ?” Boxill replied, “Yes, a D will be fine; that’s all she needs.”

Boxill said the email was not about a so-called paper class, but an online course taught by a professor, Eunice Sahle, who was out of the country. The student, a female basketball player, had good enough grades, Boxill said, but needed to finish the course for credit to graduate. Crowder was the go-between to get the paper to the professor, Boxill said.

“It never occurred to me that Debby was grading it, at all,” she said. “I never brought up a D. I brought up what is minimally required.”

Boxill said she communicated with Crowder because Crowder, as student services manager in AFAM, was the one responsible for scheduling classes. She said the “favors” were not about grades, but reserving spots in classes for students.

Wainstein concluded that there were 114 enrollments of women’s basketball players in the paper classes during a 10-year period, and many were “likely steered” by Boxill. His report said Boxill used the courses as “cushion” when a player needed additional credit hours or a grade boost.

“Jan Boxill was fully aware of the lax work requirements and grading standards in the paper classes and that Crowder played substantive and substantial role in the classes and the grading,” the Wainstein report said.

The interviews with Wainstein were grueling, Boxill said. She spent about 10 hours during two days being questioned by Wainstein and another lawyer. On the table were two notebooks filled with her emails – some that were 10 years old. She was expected to answer questions about the emails, she said, and Wainstein would not give her copies. Roden calls it an “ambush.”

She didn’t take an attorney with her, she said, because people advised her it would change the dynamic. “I went in by myself in good faith,” she said.

Boxill said there’s one thing she can’t forget about those two days. It’s something Wainstein said.

“From the very beginning, he said, ‘Just keep in mind, at the end of this investigation, I will be writing my impressions,’ ” Boxill said. “When somebody says it’s their impressions, it’s a way of saying, ‘The facts don’t really matter.’ 

Wainstein, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment for this story, saying the report addresses Boxill in detail.

On Oct. 22, 2014, the morning the report was to be released, Boxill was called to the office of UNC’s provost, Jim Dean. She went, expecting to be able to give her side of the story. She typed up a statement, describing when she learned of the paper classes.

“The answer is that I learned about the problem with those classes when it was made public by the N&O and then by the university,” the statement said. “The courses I recommended to students were all listed in the official catalogue. In my role as counselor to the women’s basketball players and other students, I often encouraged them to consider AFAM classes. I did that because I thought the subject matter was important, and because I had found that those classes inspired and engaged minority students in a very positive way that few other classes did.”

Boxill never had a discussion with Dean. He handed her a letter saying her career at Carolina was over.

“You have been a well-regarded teacher, mentor, colleague and leader in the University community for many years,” Dean’s letter said. “However, your record of outstanding service does not outweigh your profoundly flawed and unethical acts recounted in the Wainstein Report.”

UNC officials declined to comment for this story.

Tough road to college

Boxill gravitated to helping students who had traveled a tough path to college, perhaps because her road was difficult, too.

She was raised in upstate New York on a dairy farm with no indoor plumbing and no electricity when she was a young child. Her parents were immigrants from eastern Europe and she was the 10th of 12 children. Her mother died in childbirth when she was 3, and her father died when a tractor tipped over on him when she was 13.

The children stayed on the farm and tried to make it work without adult supervision. To occupy their time, they played sports with other farm families’ children, and they learned to play music. Eventually the farm was sold, and each child got $25 in inheritance.

Six of the children went into the military. Boxill ended up in the Marines, where she played saxophone, bassoon and drums in an all-female Marine band.

When she got out of the service, she started college at UCLA at age 26, where she studied political science and philosophy and played basketball with the “Bruin Dolls.” She married another philosophy student, Bernard Boxill, who is of Caribbean descent. It was the late 1960s, and the interracial couple encountered problems with their landlord.

“He would spit on me every day. Every day. To this day it makes me cringe,” she said. “So that’s how I would go to school every day at UCLA.”

Those experiences, she said, stuck with her, and spurred her to reach out to students who had their own struggles.

“I was a person who listens, because when you listen to what some of these students have gone through to get here, you’d be amazed how they even got here,” she said.

‘Lack of logic’

Boxill said basketball was irrelevant to the larger issues her students faced. “They were students, generally women, who I wanted to see succeed,” she said. “People helped me succeed.”

Kit Wellman said his experience with Boxill changed his career trajectory from business to philosophy. In the late 1980s, when he was a young undergraduate without much confidence, she directed his independent study on the aesthetics of sports. The two met at Breadman’s restaurant on the weekends, and discussed multiple drafts of his work in the wooden booths there.

Wellman now is chairman of the philosophy department at Washington University in St. Louis, where he said he has tried to emulate Boxill. “She’s one of the most generous teachers I’ve ever worked with,” he said. “She’s a model for me as a teacher.”

Tanya Lamb, a former player from Kennewick, Wash., attributes her survival in college to Boxill. Lamb, far from home, flunked out her first year, and Boxill gave her support after she left and took courses elsewhere. When Lamb returned to UNC, there were more problems, including an eating disorder and a weight issue that meant she was off the team for a season. After counseling, she rejoined the team for her senior year in 1992.

Lamb joked that she was coach Sylvia Hatchell’s worst nightmare.

“I struggled. I was just a kid 3,000 miles away from home,” Lamb said. “I had a lot of issues and I didn’t have support. I didn’t have a family. I think that’s where Jan, really, you know, she filled a big void in my life.”

Lamb said Boxill’s helping hand had nothing to do with basketball. “Sometimes you can cross that line as an academic adviser or teacher, but I’m not talking in a bad way, it’s just, ‘How do I help this kid not fail? How do I help this kid not fall through the cracks?’ 

Jean DeSaix, UNC teaching professor in biology, said there are some things that don’t add up about the accusations.

“On the one hand, Jan is accused of helping people too much with papers. I’m going to guess that some of those papers were for the very courses that she’s accused of knowing they weren’t really getting graded,” DeSaix said. “So why would she be spending all this time helping these students with all these papers, if she knew it wasn’t going to matter what they wrote? The logic there is just bizarre – or the lack of logic.”

Roden said he would defend Boxill before the NCAA, and if necessary, in the courts. “In the new allegations, an entire 18-year scheme of fake classes disappears from view, but Dr. Boxill’s academic guidance of a handful of athletes becomes the focal point of a six-year debacle involving academics and athletics at the university.”

Boxill knows her career and her reputation are irreparably harmed. She chokes up when asked about her life in the past year. She has lost three sisters in six months; she’s planning a memorial service for them in June.

“I don’t know what I feel, to be honest,” she said. “I don’t know. It’s hard for me to even digest it.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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