UNC Scandal

Martin report: Suspect UNC classes stretched back to 1997

UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp, left, former Governor Jim Martin, center, and UNC-CH Board of Trustees Chair Wade Hargrove leave the room after Martin his report on UNC athletics at a UNC-CH Board of Trustees meeting held at the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, NC on Dec. 20, 2012
UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp, left, former Governor Jim Martin, center, and UNC-CH Board of Trustees Chair Wade Hargrove leave the room after Martin his report on UNC athletics at a UNC-CH Board of Trustees meeting held at the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, NC on Dec. 20, 2012 cseward@newsobserver.com

No-show classes and poorly managed independent studies within UNC-Chapel Hill’s African and Afro-American studies department stretch back to 1997, former Gov. Jim Martin said in a report released Thursday.

The review found 216 courses with proven or potential problems, and included up to 560 suspected unauthorized grade changes. But the report did not find that athletics were at the heart of the misconduct.

“This was not an athletic scandal,” Martin said. “It was an academic scandal, which is worse; but an isolated one.”

Martin released his report to university trustees and a special panel of the UNC Board of Governors after he and a national management consulting firm, Baker Tilly, spent more than three months compiling nearly 20 years of enrollment data, reviewing records and interviewing dozens of students, staff and officials connected to an academic fraud scandal that emerged in May.

That’s when UNC officials reported that 54 lecture-style classes within the African studies department over the past four years never actually met and required only a paper turned in at the end of the semester. Their report also found that independent studies in the department, which are designed to require only a paper, were not properly tracked.

Those classes were heavily populated with athletes.

Martin’s report expanded the number of irregular courses substantially, to 216, but didn’t address how many athletes were involved in those classes. It laid the blame on Julius Nyang’oro, the former department chairman, and his assistant, Deborah Crowder.

“No evidence from our review points to anyone else’s involvement beyond Ms. Crowder and Dr. Nyang’oro,” the report said. “While we cannot definitively conclude regarding the degree of Ms. Crowder’s responsibility for the academic anomalies noted in this report, both this review and (an earlier report) found a dramatic reduction in academic anomalies after Summer 2009, which coincided with the time of Ms. Crowder’s retirement.”

The report found no problems beyond the African studies department.

Wade Hargrove, chairman of the Board of Trustees, said Thursday morning that portions of the report were “painful.”

“The indiscretions, failures, and irregularities strike at the heart of the core values of the university,” he said. “In facing and correcting these lapses, we honor more than 200 years of commitment by members of the faculty, the staff, and the administration – past and present – to assure that every student who comes here receives a rigorous, challenging and meaningful academic experience. These irregularities must never be allowed to occur again.”

Several on both boards praised Martin for the thoroughness of his report.

“I think we have dug up enough information,” said Hari Nath, a Board of Governors member who sits on the special panel looking into the scandal.

While many bemoaned the mess that had been created and operated quietly for nearly 15 years, they said they believed it was now time to “move forward.”

“It’s a disturbing report. It is astonishing,” said Jan Boxill, chairwoman of the faculty. “But I think the policies we have in place allow us to move forward, but just always to be vigilant. I think that is the key. We’ve got enough faculty who want to do that, so we’re here.”

Numbers rise, then fall

Boxill was satisfied that the report did not find a broader athletic scandal, but others said that’s because Martin and the Baker Tilly staff did not look in the right places. Jay Smith, a university history professor who has been outspoken about the scandal, said Martin should have been scrutinizing how athletes in the big-money sports of basketball and football got into the suspect classes, and how they benefited from them.

“It’s a stunner,” Smith said. “I mean, I just can’t believe that they had such a blind spot for athletics.”

The report made mention of athletes enrolled in the no-show classes and independent studies, but said their enrollments were not an issue because the athletes had similar representation in all the courses offered by the African studies department.

Martin also speculated that since African-Americans have a disproportionate representation on basketball and football teams at UNC-CH and other competitive universities, it stands to reason they would be represented in African studies in higher numbers.

But he was hard-pressed to explain why those numbers plummeted for basketball players in the last five years.

Only one basketball player took an independent study out of the department during that time. A spokesman for the athletic department, Steve Kirschner, has said the players during those years had different interests, but the drop coincides with the disclosure of an independent study scandal at Auburn University, which was discussed by UNC-CH’s Faculty Committee on Athletics.

Martin said the first no-show class in the fall of 1997 coincides with African studies becoming a department. It had operated as a curriculum prior to then. Nyang’oro had been appointed to lead African studies in 1992, and largely got away with the no-show classes because he had poor supervision, Martin said.

The number of no-show classes and suspect independent studies grew slowly for the first five years, but then began to shoot up by the 2002-2003 academic year. The independent studies dropped dramatically by the 2006-2007 academic year, but the no-show classes didn’t drop off significantly until the fall of 2009.

That is when Crowder retired. Martin said he thinks her retirement shows she was heavily involved in setting up the suspect classes. As department manager, Crowder would have had the ability to enroll students and report grades.

Martin said some within the university described Crowder as if she were a living “Statue of Liberty,” willing to help any struggling student. But he said any students she put in suspect classes suffered a loss because they did not receive an education.

Nothing from Nyang’oro

Martin theorized that Nyang’oro, the former chairman, may have used the no-show classes and independent studies to boost his enrollment numbers, and thereby make the case for additional instructors. He said he and Baker Tilly representatives could find no evidence that Nyang’oro or Crowder benefited financially from the suspect classes.

They did find, however, that Crowder had received $100,000 and some Hummel figurines in 2008 from the estate of the father of a long-time academic tutor and adviser for the men’s basketball team. The payment arose from a “close” friendship Crowder had with the adviser, Burgess McSwain, who died in 2004. The money and items were in exchange for taking care of the father’s dogs.

Nyang’oro resigned in August 2011 when the irregularities were first discovered, then was forced into retirement in June. Martin said he tried to reach Nyang’oro and Crowder by phone but was unsuccessful.

Martin defended academic support staff, saying supervisors raised questions about independent studies twice, in 2002 and 2006, to the faculty athletics committee. Both times, no one saw a problem, minutes show. Martin said that may be because the enrollment numbers had not shot up when the academic support officials first went to the committee, but had subsided when they revisited the issue four years later.

“In part,” he said, “the trick had been shifted to … lecture courses that did not meet,” he said.

Silent on Peppers

Chancellor Holden Thorp commissioned Martin’s report after evidence emerged showing the no-show classes stretched back further than the review period of the university’s report.

A UNC-CH graduate provided emails to the News & Observer suggesting a 2005 class was turned into a no-show class, and a transcript for Julius Peppers suggested he had been in no-show classes and suspect independent studies while a student from 1998 to 2002. Peppers, a two-sport star who now plays for the NFL’s Chicago Bears, has denied through his agent taking part in any academic fraud.

Peppers did not graduate, and his transcript shows he scored Bs or better in African studies courses that, when reviewed for the 2007-2011 period, were found to lack academic integrity. Martin said he could not comment on whether Peppers was in any suspect classes because of the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which prevents universities from releasing academic records related to specific students.

Much of the scandal in the past several months has centered on how the classes were used by the university’s academic support program for athletes. UNC records show athletes accounted for nearly two-thirds of the enrollments in the 54 no-show classes found between 2007 and 2011, and other documents obtained by the N&O show Nyang’oro worked with the support program to make them available to athletes.

A class Nyang’oro launched four days before the beginning of a summer semester in 2011, for example, was filled by football players and a former player.

Martin’s probe is one of five into the academic fraud that are either under way or soon to begin. The SBI is investigating after the N&O reported that Nyang’oro had received $12,000 in summer pay for the 2011 class. And last week the association that provides the university with its accreditation said it plans to send a special committee in the coming months to look into how the university is cleaning up what the association described as a possible lack of rigor and adequate work by athletes taking African studies courses.

The academic fraud has prompted numerous reforms, and Baker Tilly was also commissioned to determine whether those changes would prevent a similar scandal from happening again. Raina Rose Tagle, a partner with the firm, said the new controls would be a strong deterrent, but she also cautioned that there is no failsafe.

“You are doing what you can do,” she said.

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