UNC Scandal

UNC quickly made Deborah Crowder’s interview public. Does it help, or hurt, the university’s case with the NCAA?

Carolina’s Blind Side

N&O investigation reveals why it took so long to get to the bottom of the UNC academic scandal.
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N&O investigation reveals why it took so long to get to the bottom of the UNC academic scandal.

For nearly five years, UNC-Chapel Hill has refused to make public what former academic chairman Julius Nyang’oro told university and NCAA investigators about bogus classes in his department that had no instruction and offered a high grade upon completion of a paper.

Not so with the NCAA’s recent interview with Deborah Crowder, who was Nyang’oro’s assistant. Two weeks after Crowder was interviewed for a full day, the university in late May made Crowder’s 117-page transcript public as part of its response to the enforcement agency’s allegations of multiple major violations.

Crowder had created and graded many of the classes, despite not being a faculty member and having no expertise in African and Afro-American studies. But she tried to drive a stake in the NCAA’s case by contending she showed no favoritism to athletes as she enrolled students in the classes.

“We accommodated them all,” Crowder told investigators.

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Deborah Crowder

But throughout the interview, Crowder showed an interest in looking out for athletes. She offered them something other students lacked when seeking to get into classes: No waiting in line to beg for an enrollment, and no explanations needed. Rather than have athletes crowding into her office each semester, she got lists of names from the academic support program for athletes.

“(W)hy single out student-athletes?” asked Kathy Sulentic, the NCAA’s associate director of enforcement.

“Um, this was me being lazy I guess,” Crowder responded.

Crowder sought to steer a football player away from a professor she viewed as “anti-athlete.” She said an academic adviser who commented on football and basketball players flocking to her department “had an attitude” about athletes majoring in African and Afro-American studies.

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Former UNC-CH faculty member Julius Nyang'oro. Staff 2013 News & Observer file photo

She viewed athletes’ travel and practice demands as worthy of enrollment in her “special arrangement” classes as a student needing flexibility while trying to take care of a mom with leukemia. She repeatedly expressed concerns that athletes weren’t being treated as well as other students.

The NCAA’s enforcement division has accused the university of five major violations, including a lack of institutional control. The NCAA has also accused Crowder and Nyang’oro of providing impermissible academic benefits to athletes by making it easier for them to enroll in the classes than the rest of the student body.

Crowder, who retired from UNC in 2009, admits creating and grading many of the classes, and that she didn’t read “every word” of the papers submitted. But she said they were legitimate because she was following Nyang’oro’s precedent – and his guidance.

She contends Nyang’oro was far more involved in the classes than was indicated in a report by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein. UNC included emails in its response showing him interacting with students in what appear to be classes that involved no class time.

Nyang’oro declined to be interviewed in the NCAA’s current investigation. He told Wainstein in his probe that Crowder began offering the bogus classes to athletes on her own after their academic counselors complained that independent study requirements were too difficult.

Nyang’oro said he became aware of what she was doing, but allowed her to continue because he also wanted to help athletes stay eligible to compete. He continued the classes after Crowder retired.

Nyang’oro was interviewed in the summer of 2011, when the NCAA was pursuing violations involving impermissible perks from agents and extra academic help from a tutor, all involving the football team. But former chancellor Holden Thorp has told the N&O that he told the NCAA then that Nyang’oro had launched a class with no instruction that was filled with football players. That was before the system of bogus classes had become more widely known.

Joanne Peters Denny, a UNC spokeswoman, said UNC could make Crowder’s transcript public because she is no longer an employee. They say Nyang’oro was still a professor at the time of his interview, which means he was protected by the state’s personnel law, which shields many employee actions from the public.

The law includes a provision allowing state agencies to make personnel information public to protect their integrity. UNC officials have chosen not to use that integrity exemption. Nyang’oro retired from UNC in 2012.

University of North Carolina system president Margaret Spellings refuses to release the transcripts of 2011 NCAA and UNC interviews with AFAM chairman Julius Nyang'oro and others involved in the academic scandal when asked by News and Observer rep

No special favors

Crowder’s transcript shows Sulentic taking the lead in asking Crowder about emails and other evidence in the case. Crowder’s attorney, Elliot Abrams, and attorneys for the university and former faculty leader Jan Boxill also asked questions or made comments. The NCAA has also accused Boxill of unethical conduct for the academic help she provided to women’s basketball players.

Sulentic brought up roughly 25 exhibits from the NCAA’s case. She wanted to know why Crowder had twice in emails to the academic support program raised concerns about athletes being the sole enrollees in one of her classes. In one of those emails, Crowder said it would raise red flags.

“It would look bad,” Crowder said in the interview. “It would (look) like we were ... trying to give an athlete special favors and we weren’t.”

Sulentic brought up a 2005 email with Wayne Walden, then an academic counselor for the men’s basketball team. Walden wanted Crowder to find a course to enroll a basketball player who needed help with his “reading and writing skills.”

Crowder told Walden the department was getting “pressure from on-high” to scale back the “independent study type” courses. She also noted the athlete hadn’t taken an introductory course, which made his enrollment “hard to justify.”

But she agreed to enroll the athlete. In the interview, Crowder told Sulentic that Nyang’oro had relayed a request from Bobbi Owen, a senior associate dean, to reduce the number of classes.

“I said, each one of ‘em I’ll send to you so that you can listen to their sad stories,” Crowder said she told Nyang’oro.

‘Think middle school’

Crowder objected to evidence that the classes were easy. Amy Kleissler, a learning specialist in the academic support program, said in one email that she advised a tutor working with football players to “think middle school” when it came to the quality of paper required.

Kleissler had also notified athletes that Crowder was retiring to urge them to get their papers done in time for her to grade them.

Crowder said she couldn’t explain their comments. Nyang’oro, she said, routinely offered high grades, which she used as a guide for her grading.

“I asked him did he ever give any grades other than A’s and B’s and he said no,” Crowder said. “He said you have to work to get a C.”

She said Nyang’oro graded many papers in the classes, but she was not specific as to how many or when. She said Nyang’oro launched the first “special arrangements” classes at the request of Betsy Taylor, a longtime academic adviser to all students, who was trying to help students shy of a required class as graduation approached. Crowder didn’t specify when that happened.

Taylor, in a 2013 interview with The News & Observer, said she thought the classes Crowder provided were being run by professors. She also said that in Wainstein’s report.

Crowder confirmed that she was close with Burgess McSwain, the longtime academic counselor for men’s basketball who died in 2004, but Crowder said that didn’t mean she provided academic favors.

The “special arrangement classes” were not advertised in student handbooks. How did students hear about them? Crowder said word of mouth, but she also acknowledged she may have told athletic advisers about them.

“We talked about it a lot, at the . . . advising level, that how well the word of mouth works at the University amongst the student population, um, and then, you know, after a certain point, but…I don’t know, I cannot tell you if I told…I’m going to where I think you’re after, I don’t know if I mentioned it first to athletic advising or if academic advising mentioned it to athletic advising – cause there was communication between those two,” Crowder said.

Randall Roden, Boxill’s attorney, asked Crowder if she had told Wainstein that Boxill knew Crowder was grading papers. Crowder said she may have told Wainstein that Boxill “must have known.”

“Well sitting here today do you think she must have known it at the time?” Roden asked.

“I don’t think she thought that I did,” Crowder said.

The numbers game

UNC’s response to the NCAA’s notice of allegations offers significantly reduced percentages of athletes enrolled in lecture classes that had no instruction and independent studies than were reported by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein in his investigation. UNC reports that athletes made up 37.2 percent of the lecture class enrollments, and 17.7 percent of the independent study enrollments.

“The combined percentage of the active student-athletes that took the Courses was 29.4%,” the response said. “Whether counted by numbers of students or enrollments, over 70% of enrollments in the Courses were not by student-athletes.”

Wainstein reported athletes accounted for 47.4 percent of the enrollments in the lecture classes. He did not report percentages for independent studies, but his enrollment numbers show athletes accounted for 25.3 percent.

This is an argument over interpretation, not facts.

Kenneth Wainstein, a former top U.S. Justice Department official, found that the academic counselors had pushed for the easy classes and embraced those started by Deborah Crowder, a longtime manager for the Department of African and Afro-American

UNC is not counting athletes who were no longer competing when they took one or more of the bogus classes. That would include athletes who left early to turn pro, but then took more classes to complete their degrees. Wainstein included students who had been an athlete at any time. His investigation found that being an athlete meant students were more likely to have been exposed to the classes.

UNC also appears to be treating all of the AFAM independent studies as suspect, when they weren’t. It’s unclear how many of the 2,707 independent studies were bogus. Wainstein said Nyang’oro and Crowder reported “most” of the independent studies were bogus but couldn’t identify them all individually, so Wainstein offered a conservative estimate of more than half.

That means athletes, as Wainstein defined them, could have accounted for anywhere between 25 and 50 percent of the independent study enrollments. Were athletes more prone to being in bogus independent studies? Wainstein found that athletes accounted for half of the 30 students who took four or more. They also accounted for 71 percent of the students who took five or more bogus lecture classes.

Athletes make up 4 percent of the UNC student body.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was extensively investigated by the NCAA for a system of fake classes taken by thousands of students, roughly half of them athletes, that spanned three decades.

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