UNC-CH report brings out the scandal's hard truths

A report from an independent investigation team hired by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will deepen the university’s embarrassment over academic fraud and the willing use of it by an athletics department run amok.

The report, from former Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein, pulls no punches: It says a system of no-show classes in the African studies department was pushed by the academic counseling program for athletes, who were steered to paper classes virtually guaranteeing good grades and continued eligibility for sports.

That pretty much debunks an earlier investigation, much-heralded by the university, led by former Gov. Jim Martin. Martin’s report concluded that the academic scandal of bogus classes was just that, an academic scandal with no connection to athletics.

But Wainstein found a system of classes created by Deborah Crowder, an administrator with the African and Afro-American Studies department, and Julius Nyang’oro, the department’s one-time chairman. Both have retired. And neither spoke with Martin. But interest in the scandal from Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall apparently resulted in their cooperation with Wainstein.

The ‘shadow curriculum’

The picture that emerges from Wainstein is a tremendous embarrassment for a university that once prided itself on “the Carolina Way,” a term that was supposed to translate as “the right way.” Crowder, the report says, helped create classes that counselors then recommended to athletes. Crowder even acknowledged grading some papers, though she was a department administrator and had just an undergraduate degree. She wanted to help athletes, whom she felt were unprepared for college work and overburdened by the obligations of their sports.

Nyang’oro went along, and the situation was helped, Wainstein notes, by the fact that Nyang’oro was virtually unsupervised. Wainstein called what Crowder and Nyang’oro did the creation of a “shadow curriculum.”

Martin’s report basically concluded that, because non-athletes took some of the questionable classes, those classes couldn’t be called part of a conspiracy to help athletes. But Wainstein found widespread plagiarism and a clear effort on the part of academic advisers to athletes to steer players to the easy courses and to Crowder.

Wainstein’s conclusions confirm much of what whistle-blower Mary Willingham said about the corruption of the academic program by the athletics department. Willingham, a former academic adviser to athletes, said athletes were being kept eligible by a sham academic system. She spoke out because the arrangement benefits athletics programs but deprives athletes of an education. Today, her actions look more noble than ever.

‘An inexcusable betrayal’

So what is UNC-CH going to do? Chancellor Carol Folt, who came to the university following the departure of Chancellor Holden Thorp, whose reaction to the scandal was weak, has stepped up.

She says the university already has put into place safeguards against a repetition of these scandals, and that’s good. She promises more openness. She says she will dismiss or discipline nine people as a result of Wainstein’s conclusions.

And to her credit, Folt sounded the right degree of alarm at the report, saying that clearly there was an academic and athletics problem here. “The bad actions of a few and the inaction of many more,” Folt said, “failed our students, faculty and staff and undermined our institution.” She said what happened was “an inexcusable betrayal of our values.”

As The News & Observer reported on this disgraceful breach of the public trust and the university’s mission over the last three years, too many athletics boosters and other supporters dismissed the problems as nothing different from “what’s going on everywhere.” That was an excuse for the inexcusable.

The report clearly indicates that too many officials in the athletics and academic sides of the university either weren’t paying attention or were, by their disinterest or inaction, letting the corruption of the academic mission continue. That’s serious, because that mission is the heart and soul of any university, and the integrity of the academic mission must be protected against all comers – even a multimillion-dollar, highly popular athletics enterprise.