This past year, UNC-Chapel Hill remained the fifth best public university in the nation, according to the popular U.S. News & World Report rankings. UNC had another record-breaking year of applicants, and fundraising remains steady.
UNC also is on probation from the commission that accredits it, the result of an academic-athletic scandal involving classes that never met and didn’t have a professor.
This week, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges will revisit UNC’s accreditation status. The commission has three choices: end the probation, continue it for a second year, or take the unlikely step to revoke the university’s accreditation.
The accrediting agency initially opted not to sanction UNC when it first looked at the classes in 2013. But last year, after reading a report from former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein, accreditation officials said two UNC employees had not revealed all they knew about the classes.
The accreditation board put UNC on probation for violating standards that include institutional integrity, control over college athletics and proper academic support services.
The penalty drew attention within academic circles, but little beyond, even though probation for a major research university such as UNC is very rare.
U.S. News & World Report, for example, didn’t factor the probation into its rankings.
“When a school is placed on probation by its regional accreditor, U.S. News does not exclude it from the Best Colleges rankings,” Bob Morse, the chief data strategist for U.S. News who is in charge of the report, said in an emailed statement. “There is not a way to assess whether its probation impacted specific rankings indicators. Therefore, we cannot determine if or how its U.S. News rankings were impacted by its probation status.”
Steven Roy Goodman, a Washington-based admissions consultant and strategist, said most rising college students aren’t focused on accreditation and don’t really understand what it means. Their main question about fallout from the UNC scandal, he said, is this: Does it increase my chances of getting in?
“In my view, my students still perceive that UNC is one of the great American universities,” Goodman said.
There was little evidence that UNC’s accreditation hit turned off prospective students. Nearly 36,000 students applied for admission for this fall’s first-year class – a 12 percent increase from last year. It was the 11th consecutive year that applications set a record.
Fundraising has been on a steady pace after a record 2015. As of April 29, cash gifts were slightly down but grants were up, leading to a 5 percent overall cash increase over 2015.
Indeed, UNC leaders and supporters regularly tweet positive news about the university with a hashtag #GDTBATH (Great Day To Be A Tar Heel).
No in-between penalty
But the university has been through a six-year period of scandal and unrelenting revelations, first about NCAA violations involving the football team, then about the bogus classes involving athletes and other students.
The evidence shows much of what happened in the academic scandal stemmed from the need to keep athletes eligible to play sports. Deborah Crowder, a former department manager in the African studies department, created classes that had no professor and provided a high grade so long as a paper was turned in.
Crowder, a fervent fan of the UNC men’s basketball team, started the classes in 1993 after counselors in the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes complained about the rigor of her department’s independent studies, according to Wainstein’s investigation. Football and men’s basketball players had the highest enrollments.
The NCAA has hit UNC with serious charges of failure to monitor and lack of institutional control, but appears to have accepted UNC’s definition of them as “anomalous.” The NCAA did not accuse Crowder or her boss, former department chairman Julius Nyang’oro, of arranging fraudulent academic credit for athletes.
Advocates for the university say any penalties for the scandal should come from the accreditation agency, not from the NCAA. But accreditation agencies have little authority over athletics.
Nor do they have a wide range of penalties for violating their standards. Accreditation agencies issue sanctions that carry no financial penalty and little public embarrassment, or shut down the institution. There’s no in-between.
UNC stresses reforms
Loss of accreditation could effectively shut the doors of the nation’s oldest public university, eliminating $20 million a year in student aid money.
Experts say that step is highly unlikely.
“The likelihood that a school, once it’s put on probation, loses its accreditation, is low,” said Antoinette Flores, a policy analyst for the Center for American Progress, who has been examining the effectiveness of higher education accreditation. “For a large institution on probation to lose accreditation, it’s zero. You are not going to see that.”
A 2014 federal Government Accountability Office report reviewed national and regional accreditation agencies’ actions over a roughly five-year period and found less than 1 percent of member schools had lost accreditation.
Belle Wheelan, the president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, said she can’t predict what the association’s board will do when it meets Thursday in Memphis. Loss of accreditation is an option for a case unlike any she’s ever seen in the agency’s history, but that’s typically not the first option.
“Our job is not to close institutions,” she said. “Our job is to help them improve. So, no, my board’s first act is not to close the institution and drop their financial aid for the first time.”
UNC officials, in a report to the accrediting agency three months ago, continued to assert that no one had misled the agency or withheld information about the fake classes. It said that the scandal was limited to one academic department, and “principally conducted by two individuals,” Crowder and Nyang’oro.
There was little mention of Wainstein’s findings that several academic counselors to athletes knew Crowder graded the classes and that they had used them to help keep athletes eligible. UNC’s report does not call the classes fraudulent, instead using such terms as “academic failings,” “irregularities” and “shortcomings.”
UNC’s report also noted the dozens of reforms it has put in place to prevent such a scandal from happening again. They include limits on how many independent studies a professor can teach and stronger academic oversight of athletics.
“The university has set the bar high and is unwavering in its commitment to acting with integrity in every academic and extracurricular program and in the implementation of all policies, procedures, and the many reforms and initiatives instituted in recent years,” UNC’s report said.
Efforts to interview UNC Chancellor Carol Folt and Provost James W. Dean Jr. were unsuccessful.
Wheelan said she couldn’t comment on UNC’s report. She said Folt has been invited to address the board before it makes a decision.
What is accreditation?
Federal law requires colleges and universities to be accredited to receive federal student aid. Seven regional accrediting commissions typically perform this work for degree-awarding public and nonprofit colleges. The commissions are nonprofits with boards that have representatives from member schools. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges accredits colleges in North Carolina and 10 other states stretching from Virginia to Texas.
To be accredited, colleges have to meet numerous standards intended to show academic quality and financial stability. Colleges are up for accreditation every few years to 10 years.
December 2012: The accreditation association’s board calls for staff to monitor UNC. Belle Wheelan, the association’s president, later says that UNC may have to offer courses to students and graduates to replace the bogus classes.
June 2013: The association’s board decides not to sanction UNC, but requires it to be monitored for a year. UNC offers replacement classes for nearly 50 students and more than 300 alumni who had taken what were then known as 39 confirmed bogus classes (a subsequent investigation would find roughly 190 bogus lecture classes and an estimated 1,350 bogus independent studies).
November 2014: Accreditation officials revisit the case after new details emerge. In a letter, the association tells UNC it “was not diligent” in providing information about the scandal, and two UNC employees didn’t reveal all they knew. UNC disputes the association’s claims.
June 2015: The accreditation board puts UNC-Chapel Hill on probation for one year for violating several standards, including institutional integrity, control of athletics and academic support services.