The president of the commission that accredits UNC-Chapel Hill said in a letter released Tuesday that it will not look further into statements the university made to the NCAA’s infractions committee regarding the legitimacy of classes in the long-running academic scandal.
In a News & Observer story last week, Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, said the association would look into UNC’s characterization of the classes as stated in the infractions committee’s decision. Three passages in the decision referenced UNC officials’ statements that the classes at the heart of the scandal counted.
The university told the accreditor in 2013 that students who had yet to graduate could not use any confirmed “paper” classes toward graduation unless they could produce the work they did or take a challenge exam. Failing that, students would have to take another course, which the university would provide free of charge.
“After reading the newspaper article, I spent the weekend reading the NCAA report and I have found no issues of non-compliance with our Principles; therefore, there is no reason to reopen the investigation,” Wheelan wrote in a letter released by UNC. “I do not believe the actions of the NCAA impact the decision previously made by the SACSCOC Board.”
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Wheelan stressed to UNC Chancellor Carol Folt that Wheelan did not tell an N&O reporter that the investigation was being reopened. The N&O reported that the accreditor was reviewing UNC’s statements as relayed by the infractions committee.
“It does raise the question of what did you really do?” Wheelan told the N&O then. “... and at worst we should probably ask that question.”
An investigation by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein found that over an 18-year period, a former secretary, Deborah Crowder, and her boss, African studies department Chairman Julius Nyang’oro, had offered classes that had no instruction and provided high grades if students turned in a paper. More than 3,100 students took at least one class, with athletes making up a disproportionate number of the enrollments.
This is the second time that Wheelan has said the accreditor would not look further into the NCAA’s report. The infractions committee reported that UNC officials had contended that its description of the classes as “academic fraud” in 2015 correspondence to the accreditor was a “typographical error.”
The infractions committee said it had to accept that characterization, and not pursue an academic fraud violation against the university, because a 2014 rule leaves decisions as to whether classes are legitimate up to the member schools.
The committee said it was concerned by UNC’s “shifting positions” on the legitimacy of the classes. Critics call letting schools make the call on academic fraud a loophole that needs to be fixed.
When the infractions committee released its decision on Oct. 13, it said it had sent a copy to the accreditor out of a concern for UNC’s differing statements on whether the classes were fraudulent. Three days later, Wheelan said there was no new evidence in the case.
“We acted two years ago,” she wrote in an email Oct. 16. “Nothing new has occurred for us to do anything else.”
In 2015, the accreditor put UNC on probation for a year after finding it had not met several standards, including institutional integrity and control of college sports. UNC is up for reaccreditation next month.