UNC Scandal

Accrediting commission says UNC 'not diligent' in exposing academic scandal

UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham listens Friday as the Faculty Council speaks on the Wainstein report.
UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham listens Friday as the Faculty Council speaks on the Wainstein report. cliddy@newsobserver.com

The commission that accredits UNC-Chapel Hill is raising new concerns about its integrity, saying that the university “was not diligent” in providing information about an academic fraud scandal and that two UNC employees did not tell all they knew about “abnormal activity” during the commission’s first investigation last year.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges is embarking on its second investigation into academic fraud that started in 1993 and lasted 18 years. A letter from the commission released Friday by UNC listed 18 accreditation standards that are in question.

First on the list was “institutional integrity”:

“Since the time of the Commission’s Special Committee review April 2-4, 2013, the institution has undergone a more extensive and thorough collection and review of documents, leading the Commission to conclude that UNC-Chapel Hill was not diligent in providing information to the Committee during its review,” said the letter, written by commission Vice President Cheryl Cardell.

She added that in two cases, “people who were interviewed by the Special Committee appear to have had some prior concerns and/or knowledge of abnormal activity occurring in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies ... that was not revealed or discussed with the Special Committee.”

The letter did not identify the people interviewed.

Last year, after a review that lasted several months, the commission declined to issue sanctions or probation for UNC. At that time, the commission accepted UNC’s claim that only two people took part in the scandal: Julius Nyang’oro, the former chairman of the African and Afro-American Studies Department, and his longtime department manager, Deborah Crowder. He was allowed to retire in 2012; she had retired in 2009.

The commission had also accepted UNC’s contention that the bogus classes weren’t as numerous as much of the evidence showed. UNC had said in a report to the commission then that it was “simply not the case that hundreds of registrations by students were for anomalous courses.” The commission only required UNC to offer replacement courses for some of the students in what were described as 39 “confirmed” bogus classes.

A report last month by Kenneth Wainstein, a former top U.S. Justice Department official, found nearly five times that number – 188 lecture-style classes that never met – and hundreds of bogus independent studies. None had any instruction, requiring only a paper that drew a high grade from Crowder, who admitted she barely read them.

Questions about Owen

The new review by Wainstein and a team of lawyers from a Washington, D.C., firm found several others knew the classes didn’t meet, drew high grades and had no instruction, but did not report them to the administration. The investigation also found numerous others at UNC, including some coaches, knew the classes didn’t meet and were easy, but did not know they lacked a professor.

Wainstein said Bobbi Owen, a former academic administrator, was aware the AFAM department was offering many more independent studies than it could legitimately handle but did not investigate them or report them up the ladder. Owen told Nyang’oro to “rein in” Crowder, which caused her to cut back on them, Wainstein said, but did not put an end to the bogus classes.

Owen was one of the co-authors of UNC’s response to the accrediting commission last year. She has since returned to teaching, and she told Wainstein she didn’t remember hearing concerns about the number of AFAM independent studies.

UNC spokesman Rick White said in a statement that the university “will continue to cooperate fully” with the Georgia-based accrediting commission.

“When the independent investigation by Kenneth Wainstein concluded, SACSCOC immediately received a copy of his report,” White said. “The University expected SACSCOC to request additional information and documentation about compliance with accreditation standards.”

Accreditation is important to universities because, without it, they can’t receive federal funds, including student loans and research grants. A loss of accreditation usually leads to the institution closing its doors.

‘A lot of effort’

UNC has until Jan. 7 to provide a response to the commission’s concerns that the university had not been meeting a wide range of standards. Several standards pertain to athletics, including proper oversight by the chancellor, admission of athletes who can succeed academically and the operation of a tutoring program that has the expertise and integrity to assist athletes properly.

The commission also wants UNC to demonstrate that faculty and staff are properly reviewed, lecture classes are meeting as intended and independent studies have integrity. Faculty charged with watching over athletics to protect UNC’s academic integrity must have the authority to do so, Cardell wrote. Read the commission letter online at http://bit.ly/1xXFm3T.

It was unclear from the letter whether the commission will require the university to offer replacement courses to hundreds more students who have been identified as taking the classes.

At a UNC trustees meeting Thursday, Chancellor Carol Folt said the university has produced roughly 70 reforms that address many of the accrediting commission’s concerns. She said the process would allow a fresh look at changes they’ve made to see whether they’re working.

“Of course there’s so much work already accomplished in responding last time and going through three years of response,” Folt said. “But it does allow us to look at all those things, ask ourselves again – as we’re in the process of doing – are we being successful? How are they operating? And any additional reforms that we put in place, we will also be able to report to them.

“This will require a lot of effort from people but every single person here is ready to work on that as quickly as possible,” Folt said.

Staff writer Jane Stancill contributed.

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