The president of the agency that accredits UNC-Chapel Hill twice told The News & Observer recently that some of the university’s statements to the NCAA didn’t “pass the smell test” and that she would review those statements if The N&O published an article about them.
Belle S. Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, made the comments during an interview with N&O reporter Dan Kane on Nov. 7.
The N&O published a story on its website two days later, on Nov. 9, based on the interview. The article said the accreditor would look into statements UNC made to an NCAA panel in August that showed support for classes at the heart of the long-running academic scandal that involved a disproportionate number of athletes.
Those UNC statements appear to contradict a promise UNC made four years ago to the accreditor that the classes would not be counted toward graduation if the student who took them had not yet graduated.
But after the N&O article was published, Wheelan wrote a letter to UNC Chancellor Carol Folt complaining about the article and said she no longer wanted to pursue the matter. After reading the NCAA report, Wheelan wrote, she “found no issues of non-compliance with our Principles.”
Referring to the Nov. 9 story, Wheelan wrote to Folt: “I have no doubt that it must have created much consternation at the University. I want you to know, however, that I did NOT tell Mr. Kane we were reopening the investigation into the University.”
The Nov. 9 article did not say that SACS was reopening its investigation into UNC. The first sentence of the article said: “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.”
On Tuesday, Nov. 14, Folt’s chief of staff, Amy Locklear Hertel, sent an email to members of the UNC community that said: “I’m pleased to share with you that Belle Wheelan, President of SACSCOC, sent Chancellor Folt a letter yesterday stating that she was misquoted in a recent newspaper article and that there is no reason to reopen the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) investigation. Later this afternoon, we will post the letter to our Carolina Commitment website. Feel free to share the letter with members of our campus community.”
Wheelan did not use the word “misquoted” in the letter to Folt but she was critical of the article.
N&O Executive Editor John Drescher emailed Wheelan a letter Monday afternoon that said, in part:
“I believe Mr. Kane, who taped the interview, accurately reported your comments in our article that was published digitally on Nov. 9 and in print on Nov. 12. As far as I can determine, you have not contacted Mr. Kane or any editor at The N&O to express any concerns about how your comments were reported.”
Drescher, in his letter, included a summary of Wheelan’s quotes from the interview, and asked her whether she felt she was misquoted or whether the story did not accurately reflect the comments she made to Kane.
In her response to Drescher by email Monday evening, Wheelan again stated that the N&O article said SACS was reopening its investigation. She wrote:
“There is always danger in trying to help people outside of the academy understand all of the nuances of accreditation. Though I don’t recall Mr. Kane telling me he was taping our conversation, there parts [sic] of it that were not included. By not including them, I felt it caused some of my comments to be taken out of context and, therefore, leaving room for misinterpretation.
“For example, I spent time trying to explain how our unsolicited information process worked, that when information hits the press, we consider that unsolicited information. I said that if indeed he printed his article questioning some of the information from the NCAA report, we would look into whether or not there was anything in the article that suggested the University was out of compliance with any of our standards. He said he was going to publish something so I said we would review his article and determine if anything in the article suggested any non-compliance. To me, that is NOT the same thing as saying we were going to reopen the investigation which the article did say.
“Even in the comments you’ve listed below, there are lots of gaps in the conversation.
“As to my not having contacted anyone at the paper, I have been misquoted before and know that seldom, if ever, are corrections or clarifications printed. Since UNC is a member institution, I wrote to the Chancellor explaining what I said rather than to the paper.”
Wheelan had not previously contacted The N&O to say a story was inaccurate. The N&O publishes corrections when errors are brought to its attention.
The interview was recorded without Wheelan’s permission, as allowed under state law. Reporters sometimes record interviews to check for accuracy and to preserve a record of the conversation.
The Nov. 7 interview with Wheelan focused on several passages in a report by the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions.
The committee held a closed-door hearing in August into the academic scandal and announced in October that it would not punish UNC. A key factor in its decision, according to the committee’s 24-page report, was UNC’s assertion in the August hearing that it stood by roughly 185 classes that students took that never met, had no instruction and were created by a secretary in the African studies department who gave high grades on papers that she admitted not reading in full. Athletes made up nearly half the enrollments in these classes despite making up only 4 percent of the UNC student body.
The NCAA committee said in three places in its report that UNC was standing by these classes, and because NCAA policy left academic fraud determinations up to member schools, it had no basis to impose penalties on UNC.
UNC’s assertion to the NCAA committee that these “paper” classes would count toward students’ graduation requirements appeared to contradict the promise UNC made four years ago to SACS that the classes would not be counted.
SACS got involved in the UNC scandal in 2012, after one of the early investigations into the “paper” classes by former Gov. Jim Martin identified what he called “phantom classes.” In 2013, UNC told SACS that courses for 46 students would not count toward graduation, and that to make up the credits, those students would need to do one of three things: resubmit class work for faculty review, take an exam or take another class.
After the results of a broader investigation by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein were released in 2014, SACS revisited the UNC case. In a report to SACS in 2015, UNC described the classes as a case of “academic fraud.” SACS put UNC on probation for a year.
But in the August NCAA hearing, according to the infractions committee report, UNC said that its description of the classes in 2015 to SACS as academic fraud was a “typographical error.”
Kane, in the Nov. 7 interview, told Wheelan that the N&O was looking at the discrepancies between what UNC told the NCAA in the August hearing and what it had told SACS in the past. Kane discussed the SACS requirement that the 39 classes would not be counted by UNC.
“You guys stipulated this to the university in order to not hit them with something worse than continued monitoring,” Kane said.
“Probation. Right. Right,” Wheelan replied.
“And so they agree to that,” Kane continued. “But then they go to the NCAA and they tell them the grades counted towards a degree, and that’s what I’m getting at here. This does not jibe with ... ”
“It doesn’t pass the smell test, yeah, I hear you,” Wheelan replied. “I don’t know what they told the NCAA. All I know is what they told us, and apparently whatever they told us, they did, and we were happy with it. That’s the best I can do.”
Kane continued: “You wouldn’t look at this and say, ‘Wait a minute, you know, the university wasn’t being truthful with the NCAA?’”
Wheelan replied: “If you print it, then we will look at it because we have a policy of unsolicited information. So if it hits the media and raises a question, then, yes, we would go back and review it again. So you are going to have to write about it first or somebody is going to have to bring it to our attention first. I’m not just going after the university.”
“OK, so I am bringing it to your attention,” Kane replied. “I am clearly stating that I’ve gone through this and I’ve seen this and I’m bringing it to your attention. So do you really need me to print the story for you to then go after...”
“Well, I’m just saying,” Wheelan replied, “that if you were to print it, I will definitely go after it. I will, there is a new staff member assigned to the institution and I will share this with them to see what we are going to do about it. But again, it’s two different sets of standards. It does raise the question of what did you [UNC] really do, which is what I’m hearing you ask, and at worst we should probably ask that question. But had you not brought it to my attention I probably wouldn’t have known it is my point. Unless it hits the media.”
“Gotcha, alrighty,” Kane replied. “And you saw, I’m sure you also saw, the passage where they spoke in their response when you guys came back in 2015, late 2014, after the Wainstein report you guys come back and say, ‘Wait a minute here, there’s a lot more to this than what we were made aware of in our first go-round.’ And you write a letter pointing out all the issues that you had and they write a response that includes the phrase academic fraud. And then they tell the NCAA that’s a typo.”
Wheelan responded: “Yeah, that didn’t pass the smell test with me either. We’ve got a copy of the [infractions committee] report and we’re working through the report. It says a lot but says nothing. So we are trying to ferret out what it actually says and stuff.”
‘New for us’
At another point during the interview, Kane and Wheelan discussed the fact that UNC is up for reaccreditation next month.
“So maybe that could get interesting?” Kane asked.
“Yeah,” Wheelan said. “That’s why I said we’re looking at it. I promise we’re looking at it. I just don’t know that the question was raised kind of the way that you just raised it to me. So I will make sure that the staff person knows that this has been raised and see if it makes a difference.”
“I take it,” Kane said, “you can’t really speak to what might happen if folks on the accrediting commission look at this and feel like, you know...”
“They could go back on sanction,” Wheelan said. “I mean our board always has the option of a monitoring report, a warning, probation or loss of membership. Any of those is an option for them at any and all times that they make recommendations. So, I mean, it’s, this is new for us. We’ve never had something like this happen before. We stated that before, so, we’re kind of floating here.”
Dan Barkin is managing editor of The News & Observer: 919-829-4562, @dbarkin