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UNC’s response again challenges NCAA’s jurisdiction in academic scandal

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UNC-Chapel Hill, continuing its fight to avoid serious sanctions against its athletic programs, on Thursday released documents that seek to counter NCAA allegations by challenging the organization’s jurisdiction and by disputing the number of athletes who enrolled in a system of bogus classes.

The university also cited assertions by a key figure in the scandal that she wasn’t specifically trying to help athletes.

“The University takes seriously its obligations to comply with NCAA bylaws, but fundamentally believes that the matters at issue here were of an academic nature that do not implicate the NCAA bylaws in the manner alleged,” UNC’s attorneys Rick Evrard and Bob Kirchner wrote in a 102-page response to the governing agency for collegiate athletics.

Part of the response relies on statements by a former office administrator who created and graded many of the classes, Deborah Crowder. Her recent interview with NCAA investigators is among the more than 800 pages of exhibits included in UNC’s response.

IMG_Deborah_Crowder_2_1_CR97I1D0_L257022510 (2)
Deborah Crowder

Crowder is a big fan of UNC sports, but she told the investigators she was seeking to help all students, not just athletes. She said the report in 2014 by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein and his legal team left her “crushed, because I did not think it was an accurate representation” of what she told them.

Wainstein found that Crowder and her boss, former African studies department chairman Julius Nyang’oro, had created classes that didn’t meet and had no instruction in part to help athletes stay eligible to play sports. The classes began in 1993, Wainstein found, and continued until 2011, when The News & Observer obtained a football player’s transcript that showed a high grade for an upper-level African studies class during the summer before his freshman year.

Investigator Kenneth Wainstein describes a lack of oversight by UNC while outlining his investigation into academic issues and athletics. Wainstein was presenting his findings during a 2014 press conference held by UNC.

The NCAA has accused UNC of five serious violations, including lack of institutional control over athletics and offering impermissible benefits by giving athletes special access to the bogus classes.

In a short news conference by telephone, UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham said the university has no plans to sanction itself in the case. He declined to specify what the university would do if the infractions committee hands out severe penalties.

UNC has suffered through more than five years of publicity about the classes. Revelations included that the 2005 championship men’s basketball team had relied heavily on the bogus classes and that academic counselors for the football team had warned coaches in 2009 that Crowder’s retirement meant that the classes players had leaned on would no longer be available.

North Carolina head coach Roy Williams talks about the allegations against UNC during press conference Sunday, April 2, 2017, before the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship national championship game at the University of Phoenix Stadium

The university also continues to challenge the NCAA’s decision to use material from Wainstein’s investigation as it considers sanctions. UNC says that Wainstein, hired by the university, didn’t tape interviews and wasn’t collecting information with an eye toward NCAA bylaws.

Crowder said in the NCAA interview earlier this month that Nyang’oro originally created and graded the classes, which she called “special arrangement classes” intended to help students who, for various reasons, were unable to sit in a classroom. But Nyang’oro’s constant traveling forced her into the role.

“I was horrified, frankly,” she said. “I didn’t want to grade a paper. I was an English major who did not want to teach, therefore, I didn’t want to grade a paper.”

She said she asked Nyang’oro what grades he offered. He told her A’s and B’s.

“He said you have to work to get a C,” Crowder said. She added that she saw some papers that she thought were “C” quality, and in some cases the student accepted the grade and in others she let them redo the paper for a higher grade.

University of North Carolina system president Margaret Spellings refuses to release the transcripts of 2011 NCAA and UNC interviews with AFAM chairman Julius Nyang'oro and others involved in the academic scandal when asked by News and Observer rep

‘Grades would be high’

Kathy Sulentic, the NCAA’s associate director for enforcement, showed Crowder numerous exhibits during the interview that suggested Crowder knew she was providing special help to athletes through counselors in the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes. Crowder acknowledged that she asked the program to send her lists of athletes to be enrolled, while other students often had to visit her office and make their cases.

Sulentic asked Crowder about one of those counselors’ take on her grading: “It was well known that if Debbie graded it, the grades would be high just that simple.”

Crowder said that was just opinion, not “based on any fact.”

Crowder told Sulentic that when she wrote in an email that she didn’t want to enroll athletes alone in a class because it might raise “too many red flags,” it was only to note that she wasn’t giving athletes special attention.

“That means I would be (giving) special favors to an athlete – didn’t do it,” Crowder said.

Disputed enrollment numbers

Wainstein found that athletes made up roughly half of the enrollments in the classes. But UNC officials said that percentage should be 37.2 percent. That percentage does not include athletes who stopped playing in the middle of their studies, or those who completed their athletic eligibility but continued to take courses.

Some of those in the latter category – such as athletes who turn pro but then continue to take classes to earn a degree – provide a cushion to universities’ academic progress rates. The NCAA uses those rates to determine if a school can compete in postseason tournaments.

UNC continued to insist that the NCAA has no jurisdiction over the classes. It cited independent study controversies at Auburn and Michigan that drew little or no action from the NCAA.

The evidence in those cases involved professors, rather than a secretary who was creating and grading classes. Nor was either university punished by their accrediting commissions. In 2015, UNC received a year’s probation for classes that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges found lacked academic integrity. The commission also said the university showed little control over athletics.

The NCAA’s case also cites former faculty leader Jan Boxill, an academic counselor for women’s basketball, for unethical conduct.

Her attorney, Randall Roden of Raleigh, was traveling abroad Thursday and had not fully reviewed UNC’s response. He reiterated his previous defense of Boxill, who has said she did not provide impermissible assistance or special favors to athletes, but tried to help all of her students succeed in college.

“As we have said all along, the charges are untrue and cruel in their misrepresentation of Dr. Boxill’s role and her actions,” Roden said in a statement.

UNC said in its response that some of Boxill’s actions support the allegation of extra benefits for athletes, but others do not. UNC added that all allegations against Boxill that have any merit are past the NCAA’s four-year statute of limitations.

The NCAA’s enforcement staff will have up to 60 days to respond to UNC’s information. Barring any other delays, the case would go to an infractions committee hearing. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, the committee’s chairman, has said in correspondence he would like to have that hearing in mid-August.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was extensively investigated by the NCAA for a system of fake classes taken by thousands of students, roughly half of them athletes, that spanned three decades.

Staff writer Jane Stancill contributed.

Dan Kane: 919-829-4861, @dankanenando

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