In the summer of 2011, as an NCAA investigation into payments from agents and improper academic help from a former tutor raged within UNC-Chapel Hill's football program, African studies chairman Julius Nyang'oro set out to create another summer class for students.
He had been teaching summer classes for years, UNC records showed, but often without seeking payment. This time, the summer school dean insisted he get paid.
“I don't think it's fair for you to take on a face-to-face course that will require you to be here in second session and for you to waive any kind of payment,” Jan Yopp wrote in an email.
Nyang’oro received the payment -- $12,000 for AFAM 280: Blacks in North Carolina. But just like with many of those other summer classes, UNC investigations later found, Nyang’oro didn't teach the class, which turned out to be filled with football players.
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On Monday, that payment potentially opened a new door into the academic scandal that had stayed under the radar for at least 14 years. An Orange County grand jury indicted Nyang’oro on a felony charge of obtaining property by false pretenses. A second person is also under investigation and could be indicted next month, said Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall.
He did not identify that person, except to say it is not someone who currently works for UNC. Other probes have identified Nyang’oro’s longtime department manager, Deborah Crowder, as being involved in the bogus classes. She retired in 2009. Both have declined numerous interview requests.
Woodall said Nyang’oro would likely make his first court appearance on Tuesday. The low-level felony has a maximum sentence of 30 months in prison, Woodall said, but such cases typically result in probation if they result in a conviction.
Woodall said Nyang'oro’s charge stems from taking money for a class he did not teach.
“The allegation is that he was paid to teach a face-to-face, lecture-style class and he accepted and kept $12,000 for that, when in fact he didn't teach that class in a face-to-face, lecture-style manner,” Woodall said.
But the indictment was something of a disappointment for those looking for more answers as to why Nyang’oro had participated in one of the longest-ever academic fraud scandals at a public university. Woodall, who had repeatedly said the investigation was only focused on criminal conduct, released few details beyond the specific acts that resulted in the charge.
“It seems so incredibly anticlimactic to me, because we've known about this particular situation for what, a year and a half now,” said Jay Smith, a history professor and a frequent critic of the university’s handling of the scandal. “And this SBI inquiry has been going on for that entire time, and this is all they have? I’m just not quite sure what to think of it.”
UNC Chancellor Carol Folt and UNC System President Tom Ross had said they were awaiting the outcome of the SBI probe before deciding what to do next. On Monday, both responded with emailed statements that bemoaned what had happened and talked of reforms that would keep it from happening again. Neither of them suggested they would investigate further.
“The action described in today’s indictment is completely inconsistent with the standards and aspirations of this great institution,” said Folt, who became chancellor in July.
But the criminal charge has the potential to do what the various probes haven’t: Provide a public venue for the airing of evidence in the form of a criminal trial.
Nyang’oro, 59, of Durham, has never publicly spoken about the case. He resigned his department chairmanship in August 2011, shortly after UNC began an internal investigation into his classes. That was prompted after The News & Observer reported that a prominent football player caught up in the agent scandal, Marvin Austin, had received a B-plus in an upper-level class in the summer before he began his first full semester as a freshman. Nyang'oro had been listed as the instructor.
UNC’s investigation found that class, too, was among more than 50 African studies classes over the previous five years that showed little evidence of actually meeting. Nine of those classes were disavowed by the instructors listed as teaching them, and the investigation found evidence the handwriting on course documents didn't belong to them.
A follow-up investigation by former Gov. Jim Martin, done at UNC's request when new evidence showed the bogus classes went much farther back, identified more than 200 confirmed or suspected no-show classes going as far back as the mid-1990s, plus more than 500 grade changes that are either confirmed or suspected to be unauthorized.
The evidence so far shows those enrolled were told to write a paper to turn in at the end of the semester, with little evidence it was actually read. But the grades were good to excellent, averaging better than a B-plus.
The case has drawn national attention, in part because it has strong ties to UNC’s high-profile athletic program.
Athletes enrolled in the classes in disproportionate numbers. They made up 45 percent of the enrollments, despite representing less than five percent of the student body. The football team had the highest number of athletic enrollments, with the men's basketball team a distant second.
UNC officials and Martin found that athletics did not play a role in the fraud because non-athletes had the same access to the classes and received the same grades. They also found no evidence that athletic officials played a part in setting up the classes.
But correspondence obtained by The News & Observer, involving the tutoring program for athletes, showed counselors there knew the classes didn’t meet and weren’t challenging. The counselors steered academically-challenged freshmen football players into one such class, which was listed in a course catalog as a seminar for seniors majoring in African studies.
In another case, a counselor asked Nyang’oro to schedule a “research paper” class for an intermediate Swahili language class. The counselor, Jaimie Lee, had told Nyang’oro in an email that the class had previously been taught that way.
The 2011 summer class at the heart of the SBI investigation into Nyang’oro also involved athletics.
Nyang’oro created the class, AFAM 280: Blacks in North Carolina, a few days before the summer semester began. It quickly filled with 19 students -- 18 of them football players, the other a former football player.
The university later got the money back by docking Nyang’oro’s pay.
Woodall said the case has taken a long time to investigate because it involved several years worth of records and numerous interviews largely handled by one agent. But the evidence so far showed the criminal activity was limited to no more than two people, he said.
Oversight holes exposed
“In the scheme of things, it was relatively minimal criminal activity,” Woodall said, adding that he didn't see that investigating further would justify the additional time and expense.
Woodall did not provide details explaining Nyang’oro’s actions. Woodall has repeatedly said his investigation focused on crimes committed, not the cause of the long-standing academic fraud.
Woodall launched the investigation in May 2012 after The News & Observer reported that Nyang’oro had received the additional pay to teach the class. It was the only suspect class for which he received more than his regular salary, university records showed.
Nyang’oro was the department’s first chairman, taking over in 1992 after eight years of teaching at UNC. He had won two notable teaching awards during his tenure as chairman.
The scandal exposed several holes in the university’s oversight of academic and athletic matters and prompted numerous reforms. UNC officials admitted, for example, they had never reviewed Nyang’oro’s performance as chairman, as they hadn't for any department chairman. That practice is now in place.
But the bogus classes have prompted little action from the NCAA, which regulates college athletics. UNC correspondence released to The N&O last month indicated the NCAA planned no further investigation and would not file additional violations.
Mark Emmert, the NCAA’s president, had said nearly a year ago that the NCAA was monitoring the academic fraud case and awaiting the outcome of the SBI probe. He and other NCAA officials could not be reached Monday.
The NCAA missed the bogus classes in their previous probe into improper financial benefits football players received from agents and their go-betweens. That probe also found that a former tutor had been giving improper academic and financial help to football players, and it resulted in several players being kicked off the team, a one-year bowl ban and a loss of athletic scholarships.
The tutor, Jennifer Wiley Thompson, is now facing charges in a follow-up investigation by the N.C. Secretary of State that she violated the state’s laws governing agent activity by helping funnel money to a football player. An agent from Georgia and three others identified as assisting the agent have also been charged.
Amid these cases, the UNC men’s basketball team is dealing with another NCAA investigation involving two athletes suspected of taking improper benefits. The two players, P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, have yet to appear in a game.
Staff writer Jane Stancill and news researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.