Correction: This story could have left the impression that UNC-Chapel Hill professor Reginald Hildebrand suspected prior to the discovery of an academic scandal that Deborah Crowder, the now-retired manager of UNC's African and Afro-American Studies department, was improperly helping athletes. Hildebrand says he didn't suspect anything until he read a university report on the matter.
When academic adviser Jonathan Weiler sat down with Deborah Crowder a decade ago, he knew football and basketball players at UNC-Chapel Hill weren’t showing up in his office for help on what classes to take as most other students did. He also knew that many of the athletes were seeking degrees offered by the African studies department that she had been running since its inception.
He ventured a comment about the athletes’ preference for that major. It brought an uneasy silence among the small group of advisers and departmental staff that unsettled him enough that he offered an emailed apology a short time later.
Crowder, the department manager, wrote back with a response that today is likely to be parsed as a new set of investigators try to determine her role in an academic scandal that spanned at least 14 years and potentially more than 200 classes. Many of those enrolled were athletes.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
“I did worry a bit about what you said, fussed some and then got over it,” Crowder wrote. “It is no huge deal, really. We do have a fair number of athletes who are majors and many more who take our classes. By and large, I believe, that is because we try to treat them as regular students.”
That treatment included making room for them in dozens of lecture-style classes that never met and typically required one term paper that usually received a high grade. In some cases, no professor was involved; in others, students had a one-time meeting with the department chairman, Julius Nyang’oro.
Non-athletes also got into the classes, but the disproportionate numbers of athletes enrolled have caused many to suspect Crowder and Nyang’oro created at least some of the classes to help keep athletes eligible to play sports. Of the more than 4,200 enrollments in these confirmed or suspected no-show classes, nearly half were of athletes, with football and men’s basketball players leading the pack.
In the nearly three years since news of the scandal broke, Crowder has yet to say anything publicly about her role in the classes. But now she is emerging as a key witness in a new investigation set up by the university and the UNC system of the biggest academic scandal in the university’s history.
What she says could have ramifications for hundreds of wins and numerous championships by UNC’s athletic teams. If she says she helped create the classes so athletes struggling academically could stay eligible to play sports, her actions could trigger serious NCAA violations. If she can show she paid no attention to who sought to get into the classes, and simply helped anyone who showed up at her door, the NCAA might stay away.
Nyang’oro has been charged with a felony fraud count in the scandal because he took special summer pay for a class that never met. That 2011 class was filled with football players. His attorney, Bill Thomas of Durham, said Nyang’oro is innocent and will fight the charge.
Some of the information produced so far suggests Crowder acted outside of Nyang’oro’s knowledge in creating some of the classes. Nyang’oro had given her broad authority to run the department.
Link to basketball
What’s surprising to those who grew up with her is how someone who often sought to stay out of the limelight – a bookish teenager from Charlotte who dealt with tragedy at a young age – would take part in a broad scheme of academic misconduct.
“The whole thing seems incredibly weird to me,” said Tabitha Hall, a former high school classmate.
Crowder, 61, grew up in a one-story brick home in what was a rural crossroads in eastern Mecklenburg County, not far from UNC Charlotte. Her father, Marshall, was a secretary for a business equipment company; her mother, Dorothy, worked for the county tax office.
On Nov. 9, 1966, shortly after Deborah Crowder’s 14th birthday, her father died of a heart attack. He was 56.
“She continued to miss him every day of her life,” said Elizabeth Cruse, a close friend from the neighborhood, “because there’s something special about a father-daughter relationship versus a mother-daughter relationship.”
Independence High School was entering its third year when Crowder enrolled as a sophomore. She stood just over 5 feet tall, with long curly black hair she often straightened, which was the style back then.
The school was much smaller in those days and had a reputation for cutting-edge instruction, including courses known as independent studies. Such courses there, however, meant rigorous research, said Jane Barnes, a graduate of the school and now a Cumberland County school district administrator.
Crowder’s goal was to gain acceptance to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While UNC was a fit for her academically, she was also a big fan of Carolina’s basketball team, which by then had become a national power under coach Dean Smith.
Crowder majored in English at UNC, and graduated in 1975. Four years later, she landed a clerical position with the university. She was the secretary and sole employee for a professor leading a program in African and Afro-American studies.
The job did not pay well, starting at less than $10,000 a year. But she was back at the university she loved – and working for a program that some athletes embraced.
One of them was Warren Martin, a 6-foot-11 center from Axton, Va., who entered the university in 1981 on a basketball scholarship. They struck up a relationship that continues to this day. They live next door to each other in a two-condo building near Pittsboro.
“He started hanging around her office, and he became a permanent fixture, just hanging around her office at times, kind of like boys with any girls,” Cruse said. “That’s the way it was.”
Martin, now a teacher at McDougle Middle School in Chapel Hill, was also a catch for a fervent supporter of the basketball team. Over the years, Crowder would have special access to basketball games through Martin, and she made many friends in the athletic department, including Smith’s secretary, Kay Thomas, and Burgess McSwain, a longtime academic adviser and tutor to the basketball team who died in 2004.
McSwain’s father died in 2008, and the will indicated Crowder was in line to receive $100,000 and a set of Hummel figurines in exchange for taking care of his dogs, but Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said the money and valuables went elsewhere.
Despite Crowder’s athletic connections, UNC officials and a UNC-sanctioned investigation determined she was not specifically aiding athletes with the bogus classes. Former Gov. Jim Martin, who led that investigation, said Crowder was a kind of “Lady Liberty” for all students, letting into the classes anyone who asked.
Crowder’s friends say Martin’s characterization fits her personality – always seeking ways to help others. When Crowder couldn’t make her 40th annual high school reunion, she quietly gave her ticket to another graduate that she knew was struggling financially.
“She’s a really good person, and she’s always thought of others,” Cruse said.
UNC correspondence and an interview with a former adviser not affiliated with the academic support program for athletes show the advisers sent Crowder students in need of a class to graduate or to keep their full-time status. But the advisers did not show the level of awareness about the classes that the athletes’ tutoring program had.
Other evidence indicates Crowder wasn’t willing to help everyone get into the classes. One email suggested Crowder was struggling to manage all the students enrolling in independent studies classes and sought to ramp them down. An academic adviser said in the email that Crowder was concerned knowledge of the independent studies had “sort of gotten into the frat circuit.”
Two professors in the African studies department said in correspondence that they suspected Crowder favored athletes. Kenneth Janken told a special faculty review that Crowder was an athletics “booster.” Reginald Hildebrand, in an essay titled “Anatomy of a Scandal,” chastised The N&O and other media over their coverage of the scandal, but he also suspected Crowder had overstepped her authority to help athletes in ways that should have been called out by athletic officials.
“Over a thirty year period, our former department administrator accumulated far too much power, in part because the former chair was often disengaged,” Hildebrand wrote. “She used that power to become a major supplier of academic wiggle room, but she also helped all kinds of students in legitimate ways.”
Mary Willingham, the former learning specialist for athletes who blew the whistle on the no-show classes, said the academic support program for athletes used Crowder routinely to enroll athletes in the classes. When an athlete struggled academically or would be away from the university for long periods of time, such as a baseball player participating in a summer league, they contacted Crowder to get the athlete in a no-show class.
Crowder’s 2004 email to Weiler, the former academic adviser, suggests she sought to help those in need, but she particularly defended athletes. Weiler, who left advising in 2005 and is now a professor, said he knew nothing about the no-show classes until the scandal was exposed.
“Some of all of our students come in for advising, or cause us problems, or are wonderful, or whatever, but sometimes I think the athletes get too much scrutiny in relation to the average student population,” Crowder wrote. “That being said, we try to accommodate their schedules, just as we do the single moms, or the students who have to work two jobs to stay in school.”
By the time Crowder retired in September 2009, the department had grown to 22 faculty members, nearly all of whom taught legitimate classes and said they were unaware of the no-show classes. University investigations found the frequency of no-show classes declined after Crowder retired, and at that point no basketball players were taking them.
On Aug. 7, newly hired Chancellor Carol Folt wrote a letter to Crowder seeking to talk to her about “the problems” that were in the department. Her lawyer responded in a Sept. 5 email that Crowder wouldn’t meet. UNC forwarded the response to the NCAA’s enforcement division four days later.
Roughly three weeks ago, Crowder spent a day in a local legal office explaining her role in the scandal to Kenneth Wainstein, a former high-level U.S. Justice Department official who is leading the new probe. He has also handled a probe into NCAA misconduct.
Her attorney, Brian Vick, said Crowder “is a kindhearted person. She’s a really good person who just really hasn’t deserved any of this.”
News researchers Peggy Neal and David Raynor contributed to this report.