John Drescher

Drescher: Baker Tilly retracts key finding in UNC report

The accounting firm that worked with former Gov. Jim Martin in investigating academic fraud at UNC-Chapel Hill last week dropped one of their key findings.

Martin had said athletic officials and academic support officials raised questions with the Faculty Committee on Athletics about courses in one department that were supposed to be lecture courses but never met. But eight members of the faculty committee told The News & Observer’s Dan Kane no such concerns had been raised.

After Kane’s reporting was published, Martin doubled-down on his claim. He wrote a letter to The N&O defending his conclusion and posted similar comments on various Internet sites.

“I believe that findings and conclusions should be based on evidence, not hearsay and imagination,” Martin wrote. If only that were what Martin’s report did.

Raina Rose Tagle, a partner with Baker Tilly, said last week that the evidence did not support Martin’s conclusion that the Faculty Committee on Athletics had heard concerns.

Martin was governor from 1985 to 1993. I covered him for half that time as a reporter on the Capitol beat and interviewed him many times. He was smart and capable.

But he’s an inexperienced investigator, and it showed in his report. After athletic department officials told him they had raised red flags with the faculty committee, neither Martin nor Baker Tilly interviewed any of the faculty committee members, except for the NCAA representative.

That’s right: Gov. Martin never talked to the people he blamed for dropping the ball.

Martin and Baker Tilly were obligated to interview several members of the faculty committee for two reasons:

• To make every effort to get to the truth;

• To give members of the committee a chance to respond to charges that they had heard concerns about possible academic abuse.

There’s no acceptable explanation for why Martin and Baker Tilly didn’t interview these faculty members. Martin and Baker Tilly seemed more determined to absolve the athletic department of blame than to get to the bottom of what went wrong.

Members of the committee objected to being blamed for ignoring academic fraud. One faculty member on the committee, History Department Chairman Lloyd Kramer, sought a faculty resolution disputing Martin’s finding.

Baker Tilly had no choice but to back away. At a meeting last week of a UNC Board of Governors panel, Tagle agreed the finding should be removed from the report. Martin did not attend the meeting and appears to be no longer involved.

Tagle said athletic officials “asked a question not necessarily of the faculty athletic committee as a whole but sort of offline.”

I don’t know what it means to ask a question “sort of offline.” But it’s clear, as it has been since Kane’s Dec. 30 article, that Martin and Baker Tilly didn’t have the evidence to support their claim.

Members of the Board of Governors panel didn’t think the retraction damaged the rest of the findings. “I don’t think in any way it disqualifies the report in my mind,” panel chairman Louis Bissette said.

Anecdote discredited

Jay Smith, a history professor at UNC, has another view. “The importance of this event cannot be overstated,” Smith wrote in The Herald-Sun of Durham. “The validity of Martin’s interpretation of UNC’s troubles as ‘not an athletics scandal’ hinged on the anecdote about the FAC; the discrediting of that anecdote undermines the interpretive thrust of the entire report.”

At issue were 172 bogus classes within the African and Afro-American Studies department. About 45 percent of the students in those classes were athletes; fewer than 5 percent of UNC students are athletes. Baker Tilly explained that discrepancy by noting that a disproportionate share of athletes are African-American and more likely to take a course in that department.

That might be a factor. But the evidence also is overwhelming that the academic support staff, which at the time effectively reported to the athletic department, knew these classes did not meet and steered athletes toward them.

“While it appears that academic support staff were aware that Professor (Julius) Nyang’oro didn’t intend to teach the class as a standard lecture course, they knew that the students would be required to write a 15-page paper,” Chancellor Holden Thorp wrote in June. “They saw no reason to question the faculty member’s choice of course format.” But their bosses in the athletic department did, Martin said.

Academic vs. athletic

Martin concluded in December that the academic wrongdoing at UNC was an isolated academic scandal. “This was not an athletic scandal,” he said.

He didn’t explicitly define “athletic scandal” but let’s presume he meant that no one from the athletic department participated in the academic fraud in any way.

With Baker Tilly’s retraction, Martin has painted himself into a corner – and it leads to a place that disputes his finding about the role of the athletic department.

The only officials Baker Tilly has found who knew about the fraudulent classes, other than the department head and his assistant, were from the athletic department and the faculty representative to the NCAA.

“Sort of offline,” these athletic department officials “asked a question” – apparently so meekly that no faculty member remembers it.

To expose the fake classes, surely these athletic department officials sent an email to the chairman of the Faculty Committee on Athletics? Or wrote a memo to the chancellor? No such paper trail exists. Because there’s little evidence a serious warning was sounded.

In trying to get to the bottom of a scandal, it’s helpful to ask the basic questions once asked by Sen. Howard Baker: What did he know? When did he know it? I’d pose a third question: When he knew, what did he do about it?

Martin and Baker Tilly tried to show that the UNC athletic department was pure. Instead, cornered by the facts, they’ve unintentionally shown that athletic department officials suspected academic fraud years ago and did little or nothing about it.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer