North Carolina

NCAA exhibits focus on UNC’s inability to stop no-show classes

The Historic South Building and the Old Well on the University of North Carolina campus in February.
The Historic South Building and the Old Well on the University of North Carolina campus in February.

Dozens of exhibits made public Thursday in the NCAA’s investigation of the academic-athletic scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill show the many opportunities academic and athletic officials had to expose a scheme of no-show classes that lasted 18 years.

There was the academic counselor for football who drew up a PowerPoint presentation about the loss of classes that never met and produced high grades. On another occasion, the academic counselor to men’s basketball was told there was “pressure from on-high” to cut back on the classes, but still enrolled one of his academically struggling athletes. Meanwhile, the head of the academic support program for athletes complained in an email about having to look into “paper courses.”

Many of the exhibits have surfaced before, but taken together, they help clarify the NCAA’s case against UNC about the so-called “paper classes” in the African studies department that never met, had no professor and provided high grades if a paper was turned in. The exhibits are part of a second notice of allegations and includes more details about a related allegation involving former faculty leader Jan Boxill and her academic help to women’s basketball players.

Those missed opportunities are now being used by the NCAA to support two major “Level 1” infractions against the university over the classes – a failure to monitor and a lack of institutional control. A spreadsheet included in the exhibits shows many of them relate to those two allegations. Those exhibits include many examples in which some aspect of the “paper class” scheme was revealed, or a review was launched that failed to catch them.

‘Death by a thousand cuts’

“It’s almost death by a thousand cuts,” said Stuart Brown, an attorney who specializes in NCAA compliance matters. He said individually, each piece of evidence might not rise to the level of a failure to report or lack of institutional control, but put together, they give the NCAA an avenue for those violations.

The NCAA is using 112 exhibits that include university emails, faculty reports and UNC-backed investigations into the scandal, along with interviews of key people to allege five major violations. Two simply accuse the two creators of the classes with unethical conduct for not cooperating with the NCAA investigation.

The fifth violation speaks to academic help Boxill provided women’s basketball players. She was the longtime academic counselor to the team, and served as faculty leader at the time Deborah Crowder and Julius Nyang’oro’s scheme was exposed. The NCAA alleges Boxill went too far in helping the players and accuses her of unethical conduct. She denies the allegations.

The NCAA opened a new investigation into the classes in June 2014 after UNC had hired a former top U.S. Justice Department official, Kenneth Wainstein, to investigate. Wainstein’s report four months later found the “shadow curriculum” began in 1993 and involved more than 3,100 students, half of them athletes.

Crowder, the former department manager for the African and Afro-American Studies department, launched the classes after receiving complaints from academic counselors to the athletes about independent studies that required regular meetings with the professor, Wainstein’s report said. She was not a professor, but she assigned papers and graded them.

Nyang’oro, Crowder’s boss as department chairman, told investigators he later found out about the classes but didn’t stop them. He continued them for two years after Crowder retired. Nearly 190 of the classes were listed as lecture-style but never met, Wainstein reported.

The exhibits are the supporting documentation for a second notice of allegations from the NCAA. The new notice appears to be tamer than the first one the NCAA sent UNC nearly a year ago and makes no mention of football and men’s basketball.

The NCAA’s enforcement staff dropped an impermissible benefits charge and appears to have shortened the time frame for the allegations related to the classes to the last six years they were in place. That suggests the 2005 men’s championship basketball team, which had a significant number of enrollments in the classes, would not be affected.

More than 70 exhibits pertain to the failure to monitor and lack of institutional control violations. Some of those refer to Boxill’s academic help to athletes, but most speak to the no-show classes and how they stayed under the radar for so long.

Nearly all of the documents listed have surfaced in Wainstein’s report, such as a PowerPoint presentation Beth Bridger, a former academic counselor for the football team, put together for the coaches. In it, she raises alarm that Crowder’s retirement means the loss of classes that don’t meet, have no interaction with a professor and don’t require athletes to “necessarily engage with the material.”

Direct references to men’s basketball appear in only two exhibits: an interview with former assistant coach Joe Holladay and an email in which a former academic counselor to the team, Wayne Walden, asks Crowder to find a class for a player with “diagnosed learning disabilities” who needs help with reading and writing.

Other universities

Crowder enrolled him in one of the no-show classes despite his not having taken an introductory course, and after telling Walden “(w)e are getting pressure from on-high to reduce the numbers of independent study type courses in the dept.”

The exhibits also recount instances in which academic issues involving athletes erupted at other universities, triggering independent study reviews at UNC. But those reviews failed to identify the classes. An email about one review showed a reluctance by the former head of the academic support program for athletes to take a deep look.

But the new notice, just as the first, does not characterize the classes as fraudulent. It describes them as “anomalous,” a term that has been common in the various UNC-backed investigations into the case. UNC’s accrediting agency, however, described them as fraudulent in placing the university on probation for, among other things, a lack of academic integrity.

The lack of an academic misconduct charge related to the classes has prompted debate as to whether the NCAA can cite them in a case involving failure to monitor and lack of institutional control. NCAA officials have said they lack jurisdiction over the content of a class, and recently moved forward a reform to try to remedy that.

“They’re not going to delve into that, and yet they are going to use ‘anomalous’ as the basis for the failure to monitor and lack of institutional control,” Brown said. “You could make the argument that you have to be all in or all out.”

He said if UNC admitted to the NCAA the classes were fraudulent and created to help athletes stay eligible, the NCAA would have a path toward an unethical conduct violation against Crowder and Nyang’oro. But it’s unclear whether UNC has made such an admission.

UNC officials said they would not comment on the exhibits and have said little about their discussions with the NCAA. Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham said when the second notice was released two weeks ago that UNC takes the allegations “extremely seriously” and would “cooperate fully with the NCAA while working tirelessly to secure a fair outcome for Carolina.”

UNC has 90 days to respond to the second notice. Once that happens, the NCAA would set a hearing before the Committee on Infractions. It’s unlikely a decision would come before the end of the year.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill endured a multi-year NCAA investigation into a system of fake classes taken by thousands of students, roughly half of them athletes, that spanned three decades.