If the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had admitted its mistakes about its academic-athletics problem early on and taken strong action, it would all be over now.
Instead, the university, in its latest response to the NCAA governing body that is considering sanctions on the athletics program, claims the NCAA’s jurisdiction over the matter doesn’t exist and the statute of limitations has run out on accusations against a faculty leader accused of unethical conduct. It even disputes the findings of Kenneth Wainstein, a high-powered and high-priced Washington attorney who was hired to get to the bottom of the problems. He found that phony classes created by two people, Deborah Crowder and Julius Nyang’oro (a dean), in African Studies had begun in 1993 and continued until 2011.
That was when The News & Observer obtained a football player’s transcript that showed a high grade for an African Studies summer class he was taking before his freshman year began. That led to five years of reporting on phony classes, generous grades for athletes who needed them to maintain eligibility and relentless obfuscation by university officials who treated the scandal more as a public relations problem than anything else.
UNC-CH also disputes Wainstein’s findings that roughly half of the enrollments in African Studies classes often required only a paper, and didn’t meet in person. The university says the percentage is 37.2 percent. The university isn’t counting athletes who stopped playing in the middle of their courses, or who kept taking courses after their athletic eligibility expired.
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The Wainstein investigation was done to get the problems out in the open with an unbiased view from a respected attorney. Now it appears, facing possible NCAA penalties, that UNC-CH is thumbing its nose at the NCAA, claiming the classes aren’t its business and noting that Crowder has said the classes she helped create, where grades were high and expectations of students were low, were designed to help all students, not just athletes. The university seems to be endorsing her view completely because it is convenient for UNC officials to do so.
Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham wouldn’t say what UNC-CH will do if the NCAA gives strong sanctions or penalties. He said the university will not sanction itself.
This is all profoundly disappointing. Someone in leadership in Chapel Hill has apparently decided that defiance and denial are the right strategies to employ. They are not. UNC-Chapel Hill is a public institution responsible to the people of North Carolina. University leaders, including Chancellor Carol Folt, seem to think they work for a private corporation. They could have put the crisis to rest with forthright, open responses to accusations. Instead, they’ve hidden behind lawyers and chosen secret legal strategy over candor and an open dialogue with the public.
What now? Amazingly, the university may have thumbed its nose at the NCAA to the point where the organization will bring serious penalties down because it cannot appear to be giving a prestigious university – the holder of the current NCAA basketball championship – some kind of break when other institutions have suffered penalties for their own offenses and expect UNC to pay the price.
If this saga were a book, it would be “War and Peace.” Only the ending doesn’t appear to be on the next few pages.