UNC academic scandal explained
A year ago Thursday, a 131-page report detailing 18 years of fake classes in the African and Afro-American Studies department delivered a staggering blow to UNC-Chapel Hill’s academic reputation and to its athletics programs.
That day, Chancellor Carol Folt promised swift action to correct what had gone wrong: a system of bogus classes that helped keep athletes eligible to play and a substantial number of key university officials who failed to stop it. NCAA investigators were set to follow up on the findings produced by a legal team led by Kenneth Wainstein, a former top U.S. Justice Department official.
In the past year, the university has received notice of five serious NCAA violations. A former faculty leader implicated in the fake classes resigned under pressure. The commission that accredits the university placed it on probation.
Yet quite a bit remains unsettled. Some key developments flowing from Wainstein’s investigation that are still in play:
The NCAA investigation: By now, the university would have had to respond to the NCAA’s allegations, which include a lack of institutional control, the most serious charge the NCAA can levy. But in mid-August, UNC announced it had found evidence of more improper academic help, which created a delay in the NCAA infractions case.
At the time, UNC officials said it should be clear within 60 days whether the NCAA would need to issue a new notice of allegations, or let UNC respond to the current one.
Those 60 days passed last week, making it seem more likely that the NCAA will choose to issue a new notice of allegations, which will extend the time to resolve the case by at least another 90 days. All of this means that the NCAA case is unlikely to be resolved before spring.
The new allegations involve Jan Boxill, the former academic counselor for women’s basketball players, who later became UNC’s faculty leader. UNC officials said the new allegations are similar to those in the notice, which accused Boxill of writing and editing parts of women’s basketball players’ papers and requesting a grade for one player.
Rick White, a UNC spokesman, said Wednesday: “We have not received a revised (notice of allegations) from the NCAA nor have we received a revised timeline.” He said that information would be made public as soon as UNC is notified.
The NCAA could reduce scholarships, issue postseason bans or take away titles won by previous Tar Heels teams.
Disciplinary actions: At the release of the Wainstein Report, Folt said nine UNC employees were facing termination or disciplinary review. Since then, three of those employees have left UNC, including Boxill, while a former academic counselor for athletes was fired from a similar job at UNC Wilmington.
UNC reported that information as part of settling a public records lawsuit with a media coalition that included The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer.
Since then, UNC has made no determination regarding the other five employees, who have not been identified by UNC.
One of them appears to be Bobbi Owen, a former senior associate dean who oversaw the academic support program for athletes. Wainstein reported that she became aware the African studies department was offering abnormally high numbers of independent studies and sought to bring that number down, but did not look into why they were so high in the first place.
Owen was later replaced as director of a UNC honors program in London for the spring 2015 semester, but no explanation was given.
“We’re hopeful the personnel reviews will be concluded soon,” White said. “When those are completed, we will announce the results in accordance with the agreement we have with the NC Press Association.”
Transparency: Folt pledged UNC would step up its efforts to be transparent in its actions. It has created a new website that lists all public records requests and whether they have been processed.
But a check of the website shows many unfulfilled requests, some of which do not involve voluminous records. The N&O, for example, has not received legal and public relations bills from some of the firms UNC has contracted with, nor has UNC responded to a request for any letters of disassociation issued to people involved in the scandal. Both requests are several weeks old.
White said a much more voluminous request has tied up UNC’s public records staff. Last year, The N&O requested all records provided to Wainstein for his investigation. (The Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s student newspaper, made a similar request.) UNC began releasing those Wednesday, making public roughly 200,000 pages of records. UNC officials say 5 million pages of records were originally provided to Wainstein.
UNC reviewed the records before releasing them, with some names and dates redacted. That review led to UNC identifying the further allegations of misconduct by Boxill. The N&O has requested those particular records be released immediately.
UNC reforms: Even before the Wainstein report’s release, UNC had announced roughly 70 reforms related to the scandal. Some of the key reforms are tighter academic requirements on independent studies that include limits on how many each professor can offer; regular and more thorough reviews of academic department chairmen; and no involvement by the athletics department in the operations of the academic support program for athletes.
Since then, UNC has announced additional changes, most recently limits on communications between faculty and coaches and academic support staff. UNC also announced two working groups, one that would focus on policy and procedures and a second on ethics and integrity.
External reforms: The scandal has drawn the attention of members of Congress, some of whom have cited it in filing legislation calling for a presidential commission to examine college sports. Last month, four bill sponsors brought UNC whistleblower Mary Willingham and others to Capitol Hill to speak at a private briefing of congressional staff, but it’s unclear whether their efforts drew more support.
Meanwhile, the NCAA is developing new regulations regarding academic misconduct that speak directly to the UNC scandal. The proposed regulations would give the NCAA more latitude over “impermissible academic assistance,” according to a report by Jon Solomon of CBSSports.com.
NCAA officials have said they are limited in pursuing academic misconduct because member universities have insisted only they should make the call on the legitimacy of a class. The NCAA has not explained why it did not pursue an academic misconduct case against UNC over the fake classes, but that would have been likely if UNC had called the classes fraudulent. The NCAA has instead alleged impermissible benefits.
One of the classes led to a felony charge of obtaining property by false pretenses against former African studies chairman Julius Nyang’oro, but the charge was dropped when he cooperated with Wainstein’s investigation. At a news conference after the report’s release, Wainstein described the classes as “corrupted” and part of a “scheme.”
Solomon reported last month that Kathy Sulentic, who leads the NCAA enforcement staff’s academic integrity group, told Division I faculty athletics representatives the new regulations would allow the NCAA to make a charge in an obvious case of academic fraud in cases where “the institution, for whatever reason, came out with an absurd result.”
White, the UNC spokesman, declined to say whether the classes were fraudulent.
“We have identified some classes as ‘irregular.’ We’ve certainly done that,” White said. “The Wainstein report has done that, and I would refer you back to the Wainstein report for that material.”
Former athletes have filed two lawsuits against UNC over the fake classes, alleging they were denied a proper education. The athletes in both are seeking the lawsuits be certified as class-action cases.
Lawsuits: Former athletes have filed two lawsuits against UNC over the fake classes, alleging they were denied a proper education. The athletes in both are seeking the lawsuits be certified as class-action cases. One of the lawsuits also names the NCAA as a defendant and calls for an independent commission to certify that athletes in big-money sports programs are receiving the same educational opportunities as non-athletes.
Both cases remain active in federal court and are assigned to U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs of North Carolina’s Middle District. She has not ruled on dismissal motions filed by UNC and the NCAA.