UNC Scandal

Board of Governors keeps hands off UNC scandal

Hannah Gage, left, Chairman of the Board of Governors, confers with UNC President Tom Ross during a meeting February 9, 2012, in Chapel Hill.
Hannah Gage, left, Chairman of the Board of Governors, confers with UNC President Tom Ross during a meeting February 9, 2012, in Chapel Hill. newsobserver.com

In January 1989, news broke about the looming publication of a book called “Personal Fouls” that promised to chronicle wrongdoing in Jim Valvano’s basketball program at N.C. State. The allegations on the book jacket hit like a bombshell.

Within days, the NCAA was looking into it. Within weeks, UNC system President C.D. Spangler Jr. launched what he termed “an impartial and complete investigation.”

A UNC system panel known as the Poole Commission brought in State Bureau of Investigation agents, interviewed 160 people and reviewed hundreds of documents during a six-month period. The probe set the stage for the resignation of NCSU’s chancellor, Bruce Poulton, and the departure of Valvano as athletics director. Valvano later stepped down as coach.

Fast forward to the recent trouble in UNC-Chapel Hill’s football program, and now, a burgeoning academic fraud investigation into the university’s African and Afro-American Studies Department. There has been no far-reaching investigation by UNC system leaders, who have supported UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp throughout the ordeal, including last year when he fired football coach Butch Davis in the wake of major NCAA sanctions and questions about academic integrity.

That hands-off approach stings the Wolfpack faithful, who see a double standard. Grover Gore Sr., an attorney from Banner Elk and a former NCSU trustee, said system leaders are “sticking their heads in the sand.”

“It’s absolutely incredible that the president or Board of Governors have made no attempt to even investigate,” said Gore, who also served on the board of the system when it consisted of fewer campuses. “It clearly, clearly shows and proves that the president of the system and the Board of Governors, they have two rules – one rule for UNC-Chapel Hill, and another rule for N.C. State and everybody else.”

UNC system leaders say they have taken the Chapel Hill case seriously. They have attended multiple briefings, sometimes behind closed doors, by campus officials. They point to two system-led reform efforts. A task force last year recommended changes in tutoring programs and more oversight of athletics. Another group is coming up with best practices of handling coaches’ contracts.

“We haven’t been turning a deaf ear, and there have been hundreds of conversations about it, private and public,” said Brent Barringer, a Board of Governors member from Cary. “So, for anyone to say that we’ve been ignoring it or trying to ignore it, that ignores reality.”

Now, the State Bureau of Investigation is looking at the African and Afro-American Studies Department to determine whether criminal conduct occurred.

“Bringing in the SBI is about as independent a look as one can get,” UNC system President Tom Ross said. “So I think what we’re trying to do is look at this carefully, and we’ll see where the SBI comes out, and if we learn more than we already know, then there may be further steps necessary. But based on what we know I think this is a much more confined circumstance than I understand was the case previously at State.”

Issues beyond athletics

Who should police college athletics when a university’s reputation is at stake?

Typically, athletic misdeeds are handled by the NCAA, which has the power to yank scholarships, ban teams from postseason play or worse. The UNC system has long delegated decisions about athletics to campus chancellors, who report information annually to the campus boards of trustees. But the system board also does some monitoring of athletic programs, including reviews of data on graduation rates and other academic measures of student-athletes.

The latest findings transcend athletics.

Last month, an internal investigation on the Chapel Hill campus revealed academic fraud in the African and Afro-American Studies Department, including 54 classes in which there was little indication of instruction, as well as unauthorized grade changes and forged faculty signatures. Thirty-nine percent of students in the irregular courses were basketball and football players, but the university said there was no evidence the classes were designed to give athletes an easy pass.

The former department chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, is retiring effective July 1 and another employee linked to the problems left the university in 2009. At the time the internal review was released, Ross called it “an isolated situation” and said the campus had new safeguards to prevent a recurrence.

But then The N&O reported that Nyang’oro had received payment for a summer school lecture course that he instead taught as an independent study course that did not meet and did not have exams. Orange-Chatham District Attorney Jim Woodall asked the SBI to investigate for possible fraud. Ross and Thorp joined in, asking campus police to request the SBI’s involvement.

Board of Governors Chairwoman Hannah Gage said the board will discuss developments at its meeting next week, but she hopes that the SBI probe will be the final chapter.

“We’ve had three investigations, and if I thought for one second that a fourth investigation would return some balance, then it would be the first thing I would push for with the Board of Governors,” she said. “I don’t that think it would necessarily uncover anything or resolve anything because the challenges are so much bigger than just what’s going on at UNC-Chapel Hill.”

Gage, whose tenure as chair ends this month, said she wants to consider requiring campuses to be more transparent about their spending on athletics, including disclosing per-student expenditures of student-athletes versus regular students.

One more investigation by the board won’t change the landscape, she said, but a focus on costs could.

“The culture and pressures that accompany college sports now are driving the cost to the point where it’s destabilizing lots of campuses, and they’re forcing a set of priorities that are certainly not what we say our top priorities are,” Gage said.

A deeper probe?

System leaders say it’s difficult to compare the NCSU and UNC-CH situations. In the late 1980s, Gage said, there was a sense that the trouble could be traced to the top administrative ranks.

“We had complete confidence in (Thorp’s) integrity and his separation from the scandal,” she said.

Some are uneasy about unanswered questions.

Gerry Hancock, a Raleigh lawyer recently chosen for UNC-CH’s General Alumni Association Board, said the university needs to get to the bottom of what happened in the African and Afro-American Studies Department. That includes making sure that athletic department staff neither had a hand in the lack of instruction and grade changes nor became aware of those problems and failed to report them.

“Whether or not this was orchestrated for the benefit of athletes, it’s something that must be determined because only when you have that information can you prevent this kind of thing in the future,” he said. “ ... That would be the best way for any of us to serve the university we love. Any institution will make mistakes. Great institutions become great by the way they respond to those mistakes.”

Some UNC system members want more assurance that the mess is cleaned up once and for all, said Burley Mitchell, a board member and former chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court.

“I do see a great deal of concern by individual members, and I think they’re pretty freely expressing it among each other,” he said, “that this needs a lot more looking at, and not by the university – in other words, not by the Chapel Hill campus.”

There have been various briefings by campus leaders for the last year or so, but the whole affair has been “like Chinese water torture,” Mitchell said. “Each time it comes back, it seems to be worse.”

Old problems at State

Mitchell holds degrees from both NCSU and UNC’s law school, and he is a well-known N.C. State supporter. Looking back to the Poole Commission probe, he said, the UNC board “got stampeded by the press.”

“It wasn’t done in the best manner possible in hindsight looking at it, and it wound up pretty much being a tempest in a teapot,” Mitchell said.

The probe of NCSU found no evidence to support the sensational charges in the “Personal Fouls” book, including players receiving cars. But the Poole Commission did identify misuse of academic processes to benefit players, including grade changes and abuse of the university’s withdrawal and readmissions policy. Players did not attend classes regularly and did not show up for voluntary drug tests.

At the time, Spangler said: “The spirit, not the letter of the law, has been broken.”

Spangler declined to talk about how the current situation is being handled by Ross or the board.

In 1989, the board adopted Spangler’s 14 recommendations for changes to athletics, “to the end that academic integrity be assured.”

“I had a strong Board of Governors, and I talked with them frequently,” Spangler recalled. “I felt that they were in tune with what the needs of the university were at that time and I was comfortable with what they approved to be done.”

Staff writer Dan Kane contributed to this report.