UNC Scandal

UNC defended classes to the NCAA. Now the accreditor has questions

UNC academic scandal explained

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was extensively investigated by the NCAA for a system of fake classes taken by thousands of students, roughly half of them athletes, that spanned three decades.
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The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was extensively investigated by the NCAA for a system of fake classes taken by thousands of students, roughly half of them athletes, that spanned three decades.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s accreditor says it will look into statements the university made to an NCAA panel at an August hearing that showed support for classes at the heart of a long-running academic scandal that involved a disproportionate number of athletes.

Those statements, made behind closed doors in August and recently disclosed by the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in its decision not to punish UNC, appear to contradict a promise UNC made four years ago to the accreditor that the classes would not be counted towards graduation.

The accreditor’s decision to review the statements stems from three passages in the NCAA’s decision that say the university stood by the classes hundreds of students took. The NCAA committee cited UNC’s backing of the classes for not sanctioning UNC because NCAA rules leave academic fraud determinations to universities.

The NCAA investigation was prompted by revelations about classes that never met, had no instruction and were created by a secretary who provided a high grade on papers she admitted not reading in full.

But UNC did not stand behind the classes in 2013 when the accrediting commission first looked into the scandal. UNC staved off sanctions from the accreditor by agreeing not to honor “paper” classes taken by students who needed them to graduate.

“It does raise the question of what did you really do?” said Belle Wheelan, president of the accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, of UNC. “... and at worst we should probably ask that question.”

She said of the infractions committee report: “We’re working through the report. It says a lot, but it says nothing, so we are trying to ferret out what it actually says.”

Carol Cartwright, co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and a member of the NCAA Infractions Committee, talks about UNC pivoting from accepting the term "academic fraud" to claiming the courses were legitimate courses.

Up for reaccreditation

UNC is up for reaccreditation next month, which presents an opportunity for the accreditor to address how UNC handled the classes.

The infraction committee’s report had already drawn plenty of controversy by pointing out that UNC had told the accreditor the classes were “academic fraud” in correspondence nearly three years ago. The committee said UNC officials at the August hearing called that phrase “a typo.”

Wheelan had initially said after the infraction committee released its report in October that there was no need for further review. She changed her mind this week after seeing the three passages in the report that said UNC’s stance was that the classes counted.

“Despite the fact that the courses failed to meet, involved little, if any, faculty engagement, and were often graded by the secretary, UNC argued the courses violated no UNC policy,” the infractions committee report said. “UNC further claimed that work was assigned, completed and graded, and the grades counted towards a UNC degree.”

Actually, according to UNC’s 2013 agreement with the accreditor, those students who had yet to graduate had to take an exam or submit the work they did for the class to show they had learned the subject matter and deserved the grade. If they couldn’t do that, the students would have to take another class to replace the lost credit hours. After UNC agreed to those requirements, the accreditor spared the university any sanctions, but continued to keep it on special monitoring.

UNC officials have not explained the discrepancy between the 2013 agreement with the accreditor and the language of the infractions committee report. Joanne Peters Denny, a UNC spokeswoman, said in an email that UNC does not have a transcript or recording of the infractions committee hearing, which would show what UNC officials said. NCAA infractions hearings are closed to the public. The only public version of what UNC said in the hearing is the infraction committee’s report.

Greg Sankey, the chairman of the infractions committee that heard the case referred all questions to NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn. She said the committee would have “nothing further” to say about the case.

The committee’s decision and UNC’s defense of the no-show classes have drawn national skepticism and calls for reform. Late last month, the Knight Commission on college athletics said member schools should not be the sole decider of academic fraud in cases before the committee. Arne Duncan, a commission co-chairman and former U.S. education secretary, called it a loophole that needed to be closed.

Fetzer: ’Clear violation’

Tom Fetzer, a member of the UNC system’s Board of Governors and a former Raleigh mayor, said he didn’t believe UNC’s position on the classes to the NCAA. He said the university’s characterization of the classes to the NCAA appears to be a “clear violation” of the university’s agreement with the accreditor, commonly referred to as SACS.

“I am nonplussed that SACS has not queried UNC about complying with their earlier agreements, especially in light of the NCAA opinion,” said Fetzer, a lobbyist appointed to the board this year.

According to the most detailed investigation into the classes by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein, more than 3,100 students took at least one of the classes, which he identified as part of a “shadow curriculum.” Athletes made up nearly half of the enrollments, despite representing only 4 percent of the student body.

Wainstein found that Deborah Crowder, a former secretary in the African studies department, created and graded many of the roughly 185 classes that were listed as lecture style but never met and had no instruction. Crowder retired in 2009. Academic counselors to the football team persuaded her boss, department chairman Julius Nyang’oro, to continue them.

The accrediting commission revisited the case after Wainstein’s report in 2014, concerned that some UNC officials had not disclosed everything they knew about the scandal. In response, UNC described the classes in a lengthy report to the accrediting commission, released in January 2015, as academic fraud:

“The University is in complete agreement with the Commission’s observations that the Wainstein investigation uncovered important and new information about the scope and extent of the irregularities in Carolina’s AFAM Department — the product, as Carolina expected, of the important and breakthrough access Wainstein had to Julius Nyang’oro and Deborah Crowder and thousands of documents gathered in the District Attorney’s criminal investigation. The Wainstein report explains this information at length and in significant detail and demonstrates, as SACSCOC correctly observes, that the academic fraud was long-standing and not limited to the misconduct of just Nyang’oro and Crowder.

“Indeed, the latter point is precisely what led the University, as Chancellor Folt announced at the news conference accompanying the release of the Wainstein report on October 22, 2014, to terminate or commence disciplinary reviews of a number of employees — all in furtherance of Carolina’s commitment to holding individuals appropriately accountable for the past academic failings. On December 31, 2014, and as explained further below, the University publicly released information about those terminations and ongoing disciplinary reviews.”

NCAA President Mark Emmert tells the Knight Commission that the infractions committee in the UNC academic fraud case felt 'hamstrung' by the NCAA's academic fraud rule.

‘Typographical error’

But the infractions committee last month said UNC officials disavowed Wainstein’s report at the hearing in August, and called the use of the term academic fraud in the accreditation report a “typographical error.” UNC officials now say Nyang’oro had a much bigger role in the classes Crowder created, including approving assignments and grading papers.

The infractions committee cited UNC’s shifting positions on the legitimacy of the classes, but said its hands were tied by a 2014 rule that leaves academic fraud determinations up to member schools.

In numerous other reports and communications over the past six years, UNC has referred to the classes as “aberrant,” “anomalous,” or “irregular,” though former UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp told faculty in a July 2012 message: “We disclosed this academic fraud, and we are fixing it.”

The News & Observer asked UNC to produce any documents that it provided to the accreditation commission showing it had stepped away from what it had said in the 2015 report. The university said it had none. Wheelan, the accrediting commission president, said officials there never received any. The NCAA also did not reach out to her.

“I was surprised that the NCAA didn’t find anything wrong,” Wheelan said. “Because we did, but obviously they have a different standard than we do.”

Nor did UNC or the NCAA contact Wainstein to ask him to explain how his report strayed from the facts as UNC claimed. In January, the N&O reported that one of UNC’s attorneys incorrectly reported a class as legitimate without checking first with Wainstein, who had inadvertently failed to list it among the “paper” classes.

Peters Denny, the UNC spokeswoman, said in an email response that Wainstein’s report was “a starting point” for the university.

“The report was not commissioned to be used as part of an NCAA investigation, nor did it follow NCAA protocol or standards,” Peters Denny said.

What puzzles critics of the NCAA’s decision is how the committee could be so bound by UNC’s version of events given its shifting positions on the classes, and its history of withholding information over the six years since the N&O exposed the scandal. UNC, for example, has repeatedly declined to release a transcript of an interview that UNC and the NCAA conducted with Nyang’oro in 2011 about the classes.

NCAA President Mark Emmert tells the Knight Commission that the infractions committee in the UNC academic fraud case felt 'hamstrung' by the NCAA's academic fraud rule.

2013 agreement with SACS

“My reading of it all along is that they simply decided to lie,” said Jay Smith, a UNC history professor, of his employer. “They lied in the face of the NCAA and dared them to do anything about it.”

The accrediting commission first got involved in the scandal when former Gov. Jim Martin delivered his report in December 2012. That report identified roughly 200 classes that appeared to lack any instruction. But it only confirmed 39 of them, calling the rest suspect.

Martin dubbed them “phantom classes” in delivering his report in December 2012 – a description that UNC officials didn’t publicly dispute. But when the accreditor initially came calling around that time, UNC officials sought to stand by the classes. UNC officials acknowledged in May 2013 an “unprofessional set of circumstances occurred” in correspondence to the accreditor, but also did not believe “credit was awarded for courses in which students did no work, or that degrees were awarded for students who did not earn them.”

The accreditor wasn’t convinced, so UNC officials agreed the courses could not count toward graduation. UNC reached out to 46 students to inform them they needed to provide the coursework from the class for faculty review, take an exam or enroll in another class, which would be provided at no cost. The accreditor said UNC did not have to do this for students who graduated, but did have to offer a free class to any graduate who wanted one. UNC has a policy that prevents changes to transcripts a year after a student graduates.

“UNC -Chapel Hill is making this effort to ensure the integrity of the degrees it awards,” UNC said in the May 2013 report.

In October 2014, Wainstein reported another roughly 145 classes described as lecture style also never met. But the accreditor’s follow-up review did not stipulate the students in those classes who hadn’t yet graduated needed a make-up class. It did lead to UNC being put on probation for a year by the accreditor, a rare penalty for an institution of UNC’s stature.

Among the accreditor’s findings: UNC did not meet integrity standards and did not show proper control over athletics.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was extensively investigated by the NCAA for a system of fake classes taken by thousands of students, roughly half of them athletes, that spanned three decades.

Here are the statements UNC made to the NCAA’s infractions committee, based on the report released Oct. 13:

On Page 2:

“UNC also claimed students and student-athletes were treated alike, they completed meaningful academic work and UNC did not remove course grades from students’ transcripts or rescind degrees.”

On Page 6:

“At the hearing, UNC stood by its paper courses. UNC indicated that the work was assigned, completed, turned in and graded under the professor’s guidelines. UNC also asserted that the grades are recorded on the students’ transcripts and continue to count.”

On Page 18:

“In addition to rejecting its early admissions and distancing itself from the Cadwalader report in the infractions process, UNC took the firm position that the courses were permissible and UNC will continue to honor the grades. Despite the fact that the courses failed to meet, involved little, if any, faculty engagement, and were often graded by the secretary, UNC argued the courses violated no UNC policy. UNC further claimed that work was assigned, completed and graded, and the grades counted towards a UNC degree.”

Here is what UNC told the public on June 20, 2013, after a special accreditation review:

“The University identified 80 students who took the [no-show] courses but have not graduated.

“Of the 80 students, 34 students are not affected under the University’s plan. Some registered for a [no-show] course, but did not receive any credit. Others have more than 120 hours required for graduation. A handful of students finished their undergraduate degrees at other institutions. In other cases, the course was a prerequisite to a higher-level course that was taught appropriately and completed satisfactorily.

“The remaining 46 students — all of whom received passing grades in a [no-show] course — are affected. The University is offering them three options if they wish to pursue graduation. They may provide the past coursework for re-evaluation by a faculty committee; take a challenge examination; or take an additional course. The University will cover tuition, fees and the cost of textbooks or other related or required course materials.”

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