UNC Scandal

Athletics official never checked independent study classes

Burley Mitchell
Burley Mitchell

After an independent study scandal rocked Auburn University six years ago, a UNC-Chapel Hill faculty committee tasked the director for academic support for athletes with tracking independent studies to make sure something similar wasn’t happening there.

Thursday, UNC-CH and UNC system officials said they can find no evidence that the director, Robert Mercer, did it.

“He was asked to provide reports, but he did not provide written reports, is all I can tell you,” said UNC Board of Governors member Louis Bissette. “It’s another failure.”

The lack of tracking is doubly troubling. Today, UNC-CH is grappling with one of the worst academic fraud cases ever found at an American university after discovering that since 1997, the chairman of the African and Afro-American Studies Department and his assistant had converted scores of lecture-style classes into independent studies that had heavy enrollment of athletes.

Mercer, according to a report commissioned by UNC-CH, was one of four officials with athletics ties who contended that he and John Blanchard, a senior associate athletic director, raised concerns about the classes to the faculty athletics committee in 2002 and 2006. That report, by former Gov. Jim Martin and the Baker Tilly management consulting firm, accepted their claims.

If Mercer was concerned about those classes, why wasn’t he tracking independent studies as he had been asked?

“That should have been followed up on,” UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp said. “I wish it had been, because we would have caught all of this stuff.”

Mercer could not be reached for comment. In August, he was quietly moved from the director’s post to a position outside of the academic support program.

The interim director, Harold Woodard, said at the time that the move wasn’t punitive; the university wanted to find a new leader who could create a model program.

The News & Observer had requested the reports two months ago after seeing in the minutes of a 2007 faculty athletics committee meeting that reported Mercer will “track registrations in independent study and on-line courses.”

That N&O request produced no documents showing the tracking, and subsequent minutes released Wednesday show little discussion of independent studies.

Thorp said he didn’t know whether Mercer’s apparent lack of action on independent studies casts doubt on his assertion that he raised concerns about them. Burley Mitchell, a UNC Board of Governors member and former N.C. Supreme Court chief justice, said it makes Mercer’s assertion look like a “smokescreen.”