UNC Scandal

Athletes were steered to easy or even phony classes, Mitchell says

Burley Mitchell
Burley Mitchell

A finding that long-running academic fraud at UNC-Chapel Hill could be pinned only on two people in the African studies department drew skepticism Thursday from members of the UNC Board of Governors, including a former state Supreme Court justice who called the scandal an “athletic problem to an extreme.”

A panel of board members who reviewed the various investigations into the scandal said it was possible that academic counselors for athletes knew the classes never met and were easy, and therefore steered athletes to them, to keep them eligible. But that did not mean, the report said, that the counselors knew what they were doing was wrong.

“We have seen no evidence, for example, that anyone in (the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes) knew about improper and unauthorized grading practices, or the academic misconduct perpetrated by the two former AFAM Department employees,” the report said.

But board member Burley Mitchell, a former N.C. Supreme Court chief justice, said the evidence showed heavy athletics involvement – directly challenging a recent UNC-CH-commissioned report by former Gov. Jim Martin that claimed the scandal was solely about academics.

“If you look at the data that’s involved here, it is inconceivable that this was two people who did this,” said Mitchell, who received his bachelor’s degree from N.C. State University and his law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. “When you have 172 fake classes, 45 percent of the students in there are athletes, that is way disproportionate to their number on the campus – which is less than 5 percent. Somehow they are being directed to the courses.”

The numbers of bogus classes and athlete enrollments come from the report by Martin and the Baker Tilly management consulting firm. The figures cover fall 2001 to summer 2011, but the report found the fraud went back at least to 1997, with some suspect classes dating to 1994. All told, the Martin and Baker Tilly probe found more than 200 classes where students received little or no instruction, and 560 grade changes that lacked proper authorization.

It and previous UNC-CH probes have pinned all the blame on the former department chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, who was forced into retirement in July, and his former assistant, Deborah Crowder, who retired in September 2009.

NCAA and McAdoo

Mitchell noted that one of the athletes, former football player Michael McAdoo, told the New York Times this week that an athletics adviser steered him to the bogus classes that ultimately caused him to be kicked off the team. The NCAA ruled McAdoo ineligible for accepting improper help from a former student that UNC-CH officials had characterized as a rogue tutor. No evidence has emerged to show that UNC-CH officials told the NCAA that none of those classes ever met.

Mitchell criticized the Martin and Baker Tilly report for absolving athletics and academic support officials after accepting their claims that they had raised concerns about the no-show classes to a faculty athletics committee. Martin and Baker Tilly staff only talked to one committee member, who was the longtime faculty NCAA representative. Several other faculty on the committee told The News & Observer they had no recollection of such concerns being raised.

“The report from Baker Tilly, which (a representative) said was exhaustive and intensive and thorough, never went and asked anybody,” Mitchell said. “They just apparently relied on statistics.”

Asked whether the NCAA should be investigating, Mitchell said, “Hell, yes.”

Steve Kirschner, a UNC-CH athletics department spokesman, said the Athletics Compliance Office “is continuously engaged in efforts to educate, monitor, investigate and report.

“We have regular contact with representatives of the NCAA and ACC to support these efforts,” Kirschner added. “We do not comment on the specific details of our daily operations.”

The panel members at Thursday’s board meeting dismissed the Martin and Baker Tilly finding that athletics and academic support officials raised concerns with the faculty athletics committee about lecture-style classes that didn’t meet. But their report left it as a “dispute” as to whether such concerns were raised.

Panel member Jim Deal said he was “convinced” that academic counselors to the athletes knew the classes didn’t meet, and knew they were easy and that those who fulfilled the assignment – a term paper – got an easy grade. But that didn’t mean the counselors were culpable or that they or athletics officials were in on the fraud, he said.

“Was it their job to determine the academic rigor of the course being taught by the professor? No, that is not an adviser or academic counselor’s job,” said Deal, a board member and attorney from Boone.

The athletes’ academic support program reported to the College of Arts and Sciences and the athletics department. The tie to the athletics department was severed last summer in response to the scandal, and UNC system president Tom Ross said he has extended that reform to all of the state’s public universities.

The five-member panel’s report, in essence, is a review of the multiple investigations

Previous investigations

Two other board members expressed concerns about the panel’s findings. Peaches Gunter Blank, an NCSU graduate and former chairman of its Board of Trustees, also was troubled by the percentage of athletics enrollments in the classes. Peter Hans, the Board of Governors chairman and a UNC-CH graduate, criticized previous investigations for not pointing out the academic support program’s involvement in the scandal.

“I think it is important that the panel has acknowledged the obvious, which is academic advisers in the athletics department did encourage students to take these classes, and previous efforts to avoid that point probably prolonged this situation,” Hans said.

The panel’s report drew debate as to whether the African studies department should be disbanded. Others asked Ross to see whether more of the reforms UNC-CH has instituted in response to the scandal should be required for the 15 other public universities.

The Board of Governors did not vote on the panel report. Hans said he would seek more input from the board with an eye toward a vote at a later meeting. By then, Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall may have weighed in on a criminal probe into the academic fraud. He said this week that he expects to wrap up his investigation by the end of the month.

Hans said if the criminal investigation turns up more problems, it could prompt further work by the board. Otherwise, he said, the board should help put in place reforms that already have been identified.

Mitchell said he is ready to draw the Board of Governors’ review to a close, but only because he did not think it could find out anything more.

“We’re never going to get to the bottom of it, so we should move on,” Mitchell said.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer