Newly released correspondence shows the faculty leader at UNC-Chapel Hill watered down a report into academic fraud to lessen the chances the NCAA would come back to campus.
The correspondence shows that hours before the report’s release on July 26, 2012, Faculty Council Chairman Jan Boxill sent the three faculty authors a last-minute email. It suggested they rewrite a sentence that painted a picture of a department manager creating bogus classes to protect athletes’ eligibility to play sports.
The authors grudgingly agreed to it, and some key information disappeared from the final version.
Boxill wrote that the request came from other faculty on the council’s executive committee. “The worry is that this could further raise NCAA issues and that is not the intention,” she said in the email.
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As the elected faculty leader, Boxill is one of UNC’s top academic officials. Rewriting a sentence that carried the suggestion of an athletic motive behind the scandal should not be the mission of a faculty, said the author of a book on college athletic scandals.
“The faculty committee should not anticipate the audience or implications, but rather fulfill the charge they undertook,” said John Thelin, an education professor at the University of Kentucky and author of “Games Colleges Play.”
Jay Smith, a UNC history professor who has been among the most vocal critics of the university’s handling of the scandal, said Boxill’s email confirmed his fears that UNC had not investigated vigorously.
“It seems consistent with what I have taken to be the university’s strategy all along, which is they wanted to come up with findings that seemed frank and candid, but which also carefully exclude any further NCAA investigation,” Smith said.
Boxill did not respond to interview requests. In email messages to The News & Observer, she said she only relayed the suggestions of others, but she would not identify who provided them.
“The concern of (Faculty Executive Committee) members was to make sure the facts were reported correctly without implications and innuendos we were not in a position to know,” she said.
The NCAA typically does not involve itself in academic fraud cases unless there is an intent to assist athletes above other students.
Two academic scandals involving athletes and non-athletes in recent years illustrate the distinction: Florida State University was hit with severe penalties because the NCAA determined a cheating scandal originated with someone trying to help athletes, but Auburn University was left largely unscathed when a professor was found to have offered more than 270 independent studies in one year that athletes used to improve their GPAs. Non-athletes had also enrolled in those independent studies.
Questions about the UNC faculty report didn’t surface until an N&O public records request turned up earlier drafts of the report that contained the concerns about the ties Deborah Crowder, a former longtime manager of the African studies department, had to athletics. The N&O first reported on the change in a story published May 18, and sought more details with another request for all correspondence associated with the faculty report, which UNC provided late last month.
UNC athletics, particularly the football program, has been embroiled in scandal for nearly three years. The NCAA investigated improper benefits from agents and improper help from tutors, leading to a one-year bowl ban, scholarship reductions, the firing of football coach Butch Davis and early retirement for athletics director Dick Baddour.
Soon after, word of bogus classes for athletes and other students in the African and Afro-American Studies Department led to several other investigations and a criminal probe that is still unfinished.
Crowder’s athletic ties
The change in the faculty report was made after Boxill and several committee members had praised previous drafts. Seven of the faculty members on the committee in a position to review the report said they did not make the suggestion; the other five who were not authors of the report could not be reached.
The special faculty report followed an internal university review that found the longtime chairman of the African studies department, Julius Nyang’oro, and his department manager Crowder, were involved in creating dozens of lecture-style classes that never met and required only a term paper turned in at the end. Athletes were heavily enrolled in the classes.
The university report said athletics were not behind the scandal because non-athletes were also enrolled and graded similarly. The faculty report was the first official review to raise concerns that athletics may have played a role in the scandal. The drafts leading up to the final report stated this more strongly.
They said: “Although we may never know for certain, it was our impression from multiple interviews that the involvement of Deborah Crowder seems to have been that of an athletics supporter who was extremely close to personnel in Athletics, and who managed to use the system to help players by directing them to enroll in courses in the African and Afro-American Studies department that turned out to be aberrant or irregularly taught.”
The final version reads: “Although we may never know for certain, it was our impression from multiple interviews that a department staff member managed to use the system to help players by directing them to enroll in courses in the African and Afro-American Studies Department that turned out to be aberrant or irregularly taught.”
Boxill said in an email to the N&O that some faculty executive committee members objected to describing Crowder as “extremely close” to athletic personnel. Boxill called it “vague without definite boundaries.”
Crowder had close ties to the athletics department. At the time the report was being written, it was known that she was in a long-term relationship with former UNC basketball player Warren Martin and was Facebook friends with several UNC athletes.
Boxill’s July 26 email also requested the authors take out the next sentence, which also raised concerns of an athletic motive. The authors refused. It reads: “We were told that athletes claimed they had been sent to Julius Nyang’oro by the (Academic Support Program for Student Athletes).”
Boxill told the N&O that some faculty executive committee members said the sentence amounted to hearsay because the authors had not interviewed the athletes. But by then, Chancellor Holden Thorp had told trustees in a letter that academic support staff had helped football players enroll in a no-show class Nyang’oro had created days before the start of a summer 2011 semester. No other students were enrolled.
The authors are faculty executive committee members Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Steven Bachenheimer and Michael Gerhardt. They declined to be interviewed, but in email responses said they had no issue with the last-minute changes. Bachenheimer said in an email response that they “were completely comfortable with the final subcommittee report.”
We “certainly expected that more detailed information would emerge from further investigations, and in fact we called for more fact finding in our report,” Bachenheimer wrote.
The correspondence among all three as they worked on the report, however, shows they were worried that Boxill would try to dilute the report. They sent the report to her in PDFs, which stands for Portable Document Format, so she could not easily alter them.
After a draft of the report had been discussed in a faculty executive council meeting, Gerhardt wrote: “It seems to me that we might need to tell Jan that there is a line we hope she does not cross.”
Maffly-Kipp questioned the need for the late changes.
“Why is it a good thing to remove Deborah Crowder’s name from the report?” asked Maffly-Kipp, then the chairman of the religious studies department. “The fact is, she was close to people in athletics.”
UNC won’t provide info
Boxill, 74, began teaching at UNC in 1985, but she has also been involved nearly as long in advising athletes. A former women’s basketball coach at the University of Tampa, Boxill became an academic counselor to UNC athletes in 1988 and has served as a broadcaster of the university’s women’s basketball games.
She is senior lecturer in the philosophy department, and her expertise includes ethics in sports. That’s also the subject of one of her classes.
Boxill was elected faculty chair in the spring of 2011, a few months before the no-show classes were exposed in the academic records of two football players kicked off the team in an unrelated scandal over improper financial benefits and excessive academic help from a tutor. She is the first non-tenured faculty member elected to the post. Her term ends in June 2014.
UNC has refused to review or provide records that could answer the question of whether the academic scandal originated with athletics. University officials know, for example, how many athletes were enrolled in 39 no-show classes dating as far back as 1997 that a UNC-backed probe confirmed as not having an instructor. Another 167 classes dating to 1994 are suspected of being bogus.
In those 39 classes, there were 429 students, of whom 173 were athletes. Of the athletes, 88 were football players and 21 were men’s basketball players. Those sports were the top two in enrollments, with baseball third at 15.
The university recently reported this data to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits UNC and looked into the fraud.
But the report didn’t say how many athletes were in the earliest no-show classes. UNC officials said they have no public records showing what athletes by sport were in each of the bogus classes found in the 1990s. So it’s impossible to determine whether athletes were in the bogus classes from the start.
UNC officials added they aren’t required to pull non-public academic records to produce the information under the state’s public records law.
Joni Worthington, a spokeswoman for UNC system President Tom Ross, said Ross has “no plans” to request that information.