UNC Scandal

At UNC, no-show classes were mostly for athletes

Portrait of retired UNC prof. Julius Nyang'oro (cq), chairman of UNC-CH African and Afro-American studies.
Portrait of retired UNC prof. Julius Nyang'oro (cq), chairman of UNC-CH African and Afro-American studies. Harry Lynch

Students looking to enroll in a summer class at UNC-Chapel Hill taught by Julius Nyang’oro were likely to hit a roadblock as soon as they went online.

Of the 38 courses the university says he was responsible for over five summers, 26 of them listed a maximum capacity for just one student. For many students, that would be a sign to go look for another course.

But university records show more than one student enrolled in most of these courses. And often, a substantial share of those students were athletes.

Many of these courses and others are now under investigation by the university and the State Bureau of Investigation, as university officials say there’s little evidence Nyang’oro or anyone else actually taught them. Registration records show many of the courses had no classroom or class time.

University officials say the students were given an assignment, which they were to turn in at the end of the course.

There’s another wrinkle to all this. Nyang’oro, the former chairman of the African and Afro-American Studies department where all these courses were listed, did not get paid for 29 of these suspect summer classes. Typically, professors are paid per class because the work is considered beyond their normal nine-month work year.

Willis Brooks and Jay Smith, two UNC-CH history professors who are concerned about the case’s impact on the university’s academic integrity, said the enrollment and pay data suggest Nyang’oro had set up a system for athletes to get into classes they could pass.

“The only logic I can conjure is (Nyang’oro) was protecting seats,” said Brooks, a professor emeritus who served on the faculty athletic committee in the early 1990s. “And since the preponderance of people who took the seats are athletes, there is circumstantial evidence,” he said.

University officials, however, say the one-student maximum was not uncommon at the time and is not direct evidence of a scheme to protect seats in the no-show classes for athletes. That’s because a few of the classes – all with less than 10 students – did not have an athlete in them, while others with much larger class sizes also had sizeable numbers of athletes.

All told, 54 courses are considered suspect; all but nine had Nyang’oro as instructor or signer of the grade rolls.

“It’s important to note that we’ve already acknowledged that there were problems in how these classes were conducted,” said Nancy Davis, a university spokeswoman. “At the same time, maximum capacity is not an indicator of anything unusual in and of itself, and it would be hard to make a case that the max seats made any difference in the enrollment patterns with these 54 classes.”

As far back as 1999, some of the same class offerings were listed with a maximum of one student, a News & Observer review of archived Internet pages shows. The university said it would be difficult at this point to determine how many of the students in those classes were athletes.

Nyang’oro could not be reached. He stepped down as department chairman at the beginning of the 2011-12 academic year, just as university officials acknowledged “irregularities” in the department’s courses. The university allowed him to retire effective July 1.

Athletes in the majority

Current and former UNC-CH officials say they can’t recall a worse case of academic fraud at the university, considered one of the nation’s top public schools. The investigation started with a suspicious transcript belonging to a former UNC football player. Top leaders at UNC-CH and the UNC system, however, say athletics weren’t at the heart of the academic fraud, because nonathletes were in the suspect classes, too.

But athletes and former athletes made up a majority of those enrolled in the suspect classes. The university says that athletes and former athletes made up 64 percent of the enrollments.

The records show that among students who took suspect classes, athletes took more classes than nonathletes. Athletes averaged nearly two classes per student, while nonathletes averaged slightly more than one. UNC-CH officials have released little information beyond the enrollment numbers to back up their assertions that athletes didn’t receive special treatment. The university has released no information about its interviews with students regarding how they got into the classes; it also has revealed little from its interview with Nyang’oro.

At the recent UNC Board of Governors meeting, the N&O attempted to ask Chancellor Holden Thorp and others about what Nyang’oro said in his interview.

Davis interjected.

“You need to talk to (Nyang’oro) about that,” she said. “That’s not for us to answer.”

Another suspect class

The university’s internal review provides one detail: Nyang’oro denied teaching a summer Swahili class. That was the first clue something was amiss.

He said a former department manager may have helped set up that class and others. Other professors linked to the Swahili class and eight others have disowned them, and the investigation has found their signatures were forged on course paperwork.

University officials say the former manager, Deborah Crowder, and Nyang’oro are the only two people in the department suspected of improper behavior. The university says that Crowder had responsibility for scheduling classes.

Records released last month showed that one class – AFAM 280 – was launched two days before the start of a summer 2011 semester and immediately filled with 18 football players and a former player. Academic advisers to the football players knew the class did not meet and only involved a term paper, but still placed the athletes in the classes.

The advisers told university officials they were not aware something was wrong with the class. It did not have a one-seat maximum; by then, the university had changed to a more refined enrollment system that provided professors other options to allow control over who gets into classes.

The AFAM 280 class took place a year into an NCAA investigation into impermissible financial gifts and tutoring help to football players that so far appears unrelated to the academic fraud case.

At least one other suspect class had a similar profile, according to archived registration records. It had eight football players and a basketball player among 13 students.

The data show that 44 of the suspect classes listed the maximum seating at one student. Other university records show that 31 of these one-seat-maximum classes had majorities of athletes. Some of the information was first spotted by an N.C. State fan who posted it on a Wolfpack chat board.

Davis and others said there are several legitimate reasons why department chairmen and other faculty would list a class as having only one seat available. They might, for example, be trying to protect seats for students who need the classes to complete their majors.

“That maximum seat of one was used across departments as a way of controlling enrollment,” Davis said.

But the enrollment data for other African, Afro-American and Swahili classes show few examples of one-seat classes beyond the ones listed by the university as suspect.

Going further back

Some of the registration data comes from Archive.org, a website that copies web pages to preserve information before it disappears or is altered. The site had captured no web pages for registration data pertaining to 18 of the suspect classes, but university officials later provided it.

Older information the site captured suggests the suspect classes go back years beyond what university officials have documented. Registration data from 1999 through 2001 show 12 classes that have a one-seat maximum and no classroom or class time listed.

For example, Nyang’oro was listed as the professor for AFRI 066, Contemporary Africa, in the first summer semester of 2001. The class was not on the calendar as of April 4, but was on it seven weeks later as the semester got underway. It shows maximum seating for one student, though five enrolled, and lists no class time or classroom.

Many of the suspect classes were held during summer semesters. UNC-CH has held two five-week summer semesters each year. They are popular with athletes who are often on campus in the summer for workouts or to try to make up for class time lost when they are competing during the season.

Summer School Dean Jan Yopp, who has held the role since 2008, said in an interview the only contact she recalls with Nyang’oro was about the AFAM 280 class. She said individual departments have the authority to offer courses through the registrar and can set seating limits without contacting summer school officials.

“We don’t approve classes,” she said. “We don’t sit down with the department and say, ‘You need to teach this. You need to teach that.’ They don’t come to us and say, ‘We’re going to teach this – will you sign off on it?’ ”

Yopp said she only knew about the AFAM 280 class because it was added late, and she authorized the typical $12,000 payment that professors receive for teaching a summer course. Email correspondence between Yopp and Nyang’oro suggest that Yopp offered the payment because 19 students had signed up.

That payment is now part of a criminal investigation because university officials say Nyang’oro did not teach the class as expected. University officials say they have gotten the money back by docking Nyang’oro’s pay in June, his final month of employment before being forced into retirement.

Yopp said Nyang’oro likely wasn’t paid for the other 29 classes because faculty are only allowed to be paid for two courses each summer. University records show Nyang’oro received payment for teaching one class in the summer of 2007 and two classes in each of the summers of 2008 through 2011. University officials say the AFAM 280 class is the only one of those in which no instruction took place.

UNC records show that in addition to the courses he taught, Nyang’oro supervised independent studies without pay for another 60 students during those summer semesters; at least 22 were football players. The independent studies are also academically suspect, according to an internal review UNC-CH officials released last month.

The summer courses are among 75 linked to Nyang’oro over a four-year period. University officials said that is an extraordinary number for a professor, let alone a department chairman, to have responsibility for, but no one noticed until the fraud investigation began.

“It didn’t occur to us, really, to think about that we should be focusing on whether a faculty member is teaching more students than expected,” said Jonathan Hartlyn, the senior associate dean who supervised Nyang’oro.

That, too, is now being monitored, one of the many reforms launched in the wake of the scandal.

Follow more of our reporting on UNC Scandal on Academic Fraud and College Sports

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