Amid the hundreds of emails made public in federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein’s investigation into the academic fraud at UNC-Chapel Hill, one stood out for its mention of a basketball player with reading and writing difficulties who was put into a fake class.
Deborah Crowder, the former academic department manager who was the architect of the fake classes, said in the email she would enroll the athlete in an “independent study type” class because a tutor named Janet “assures me that she can work with the student.”
The News & Observer asked the university for the qualifications of that tutor, Janet Huffstetler, who worked with the UNC men’s basketball program for more than a decade. UNC officials declined, citing the state’s personnel law, which doesn’t make public hiring information for employees such as resumes, educational backgrounds and past employment outside of the agency.
The personnel law does allow public entities to release this information under what is known as the “integrity exemption,” which gives them the opportunity to respond when their actions are questioned. But UNC Chancellor Carol Folt declined to exercise the exemption.
Huffstetler is an office manager of an architectural firm that does business with the athletic department at UNC. Her confirmed college education consists of one year at Meredith College in the mid-1960s, and one semester as a part-time student at UNC in 1995. (UNC officials provided her academic attendance, a public record.)
Four years ago, state lawmakers passed reforms to the personnel law to make public all pay received and positions held by employees in state and local government. The reforms also made public disciplinary actions.
But lawmakers stayed away from making public hiring information. As a result, it’s difficult for the public to find out about the qualifications of people hired by a public agency.
Huffstetler is an office manager for Corley Redfoot Architects, a Chapel Hill firm that has worked on several UNC athletic facilities, including the Dean Smith Center, as well as athletic buildings at N.C. State and East Carolina University. She said in a telephone interview that Burgess McSwain, who lived two blocks away and was the academic counselor to the men’s basketball team, hired her to help the players with organizing their studies.
“I was never hired as an academic,” said Huffstetler, 68, of Chapel Hill. “My role was to organize and make sure that the kids got their stuff in on time. Now they put me as a tutor because I worked with the kids.”
Classes not recorded
Huffstetler and her attorney, Wade Smith, said she took classes at UNC and Duke University over the years, but officials at both universities could not confirm that information. Smith said she may have taken them without credit.
Gerald Gurney, an education professor at Oklahoma University, and the former director of its academic support for athletes, said tutors typically have a college degree or are at minimum students with extensive course work in the subject area they are tutoring.
“Someone who doesn’t have an education, or one or two semesters of college education, that doesn’t make any sense, especially to work in a high-profile sport,” said Gurney, a leading critic of big-money college sports.
Wainstein found that from 1993 until Crowder’s retirement in 2009, she created classes that never met and issued grades for papers that she barely read. Athletes accounted for roughly half the 3,100 students in the classes.
Huffstetler worked part-time for UNC from 1997 to 2009, leaving at about the same time Crowder retired. Huffstetler’s pay ranged from $10 an hour at the start to $15 an hour in her final five years.
‘You have life experience’
It’s unclear what the requirements were for tutors at UNC two decades ago. Since at least the 2008-09 academic year, UNC has required athlete tutors to have much more college experience. A tutor handbook from that year says tutors must be graduate students enrolled at UNC, or “exceptional seniors/juniors or non-students who have already graduated with a bachelor’s degree or advanced degree.”
Huffstetler said that at one point on the job, she was concerned about her credentials being questioned, but McSwain told her “there's a grandfather clause, you have life experience. This is why you were hired.”
Wainstein’s team of lawyers questioned Huffstetler with her attorney present, but they never delved into her educational background. She told them she thought the classes were legitimate independent studies.
An email in September 2005 shows Huffstetler twice pressed Crowder to place the learning-disabled basketball player in one of what Crowder called her “independent study type” classes. Wainstein confirmed it was a fake class designed to look like a lecture class.
Facing pressure from “on-high” to reduce the number of those classes, Crowder initially declined Huffstetler’s requests, but then relented when basketball academic counselor Wayne Walden asked if she could help. Walden, who had replaced Burgess McSwain in 2003, said the basketball player was “getting a little overwhelmed” and needed a class in which he could work on his reading and writing skillls.
Crowder told Walden in the email that “Janet assures me that she can work with the student and that it will be in his best long term interest to take this class.”
Huffstetler did not explain why someone with a writing disability should be placed in an independent study that required written assignments.
Folt had pledged more transparency in the wake of Wainstein’s report but chose not to release information about Huffstetler under the integrity exemption.
“The Chancellor does not exercise this discretion lightly and releases confidential information only when the circumstances warrant,” UNC spokesman Rick White wrote in an email, “which does not appear to be the case with your request.”
This is Sunshine Week, when journalists, librarians and other advocates of open government celebrate freedom of information. Look for more coverage in print and online this week.