A little more than three months after the NCAA charged UNC-Chapel Hill with five major violations stemming from its long-running academic scandal, the university lodged a strenuous argument against the most serious allegations and questioned the core of the NCAA’s case.
On Tuesday, the university released a public version of its response, the next step in an NCAA investigation into a scheme of classes advertised as lectures that never met and required only a paper that yielded an easy grade. Other bogus classes were independent studies that weren’t monitored by a professor.
The crux of UNC’s argument: The classes at the heart of the scandal, which some critics have described as the worst academic fraud case in college sports history, aren’t subject to NCAA jurisdiction, and neither are the problems those classes created.
Therefore, UNC argues, the charges of a lack of institutional control and a failure to monitor – the two most serious allegations facing the university – are without merit.
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UNC argues that its case is bolstered by the NCAA enforcement staff’s treatment of the bogus classes. The NCAA has never found the existence of those classes – the subject of multiple investigations – to constitute an NCAA violation.
The university also alleges that the NCAA in 2011 knew details about the problems in the African and Afro-American Studies courses the university has described as “anomalous.” UNC then was in the midst of a separate NCAA investigation into impermissible benefits and academic misconduct within the football program.
According to UNC’s response, the NCAA knew about “the irregularity of class meeting times, a lack of professor oversight, and grading irregularities” in the AFAM classes at the heart of the investigation. The NCAA decided then to do nothing about those classes, which endured from 1993 to 2011.
“Ultimately,” UNC’s lawyers wrote in the response it submitted earlier this week, “the NCAA concluded that it had conducted a sufficient investigation, that no NCAA bylaws had been violated by academic irregularities in the Department, and that the Notice of Allegations did not need to be amended.”
Yet knowledge about the depth of the problems within the AFAM department expanded considerably after 2011, with reports about the scope of the bogus classes, that some of them were filled with athletes, and about African studies chairman Julius Nyangoro’s cozy relationship with academic support staffers for athletes.
After Nyang’oro was indicted for taking money to teach a class that never met, the NCAA decided in June 2014 to reopen its investigation.
Policing the classroom
In many ways, the NCAA’s case against UNC rests on the question of how much oversight, if any, the NCAA should have in deciding the academic merits of a particular course or curriculum. UNC Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham noted that has been an ongoing issue.
“Just because it didn’t meet our normal standards,” Cunningham said, “doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a violation of a bylaw.”
Jay Bilas, an ESPN college basketball analyst and lawyer who has become an outspoken critic of the NCAA, said UNC’s response was what he had expected.
“And I think UNC’s right in its response, that this is an issue of the NCAA’s jurisdiction in regard to academic issues,” Bilas said.
The NCAA has generally relied on an institution to self-report instances of academic fraud. UNC has avoided using that term in its dealings with the NCAA.
Not a violation?
It was the growing knowledge about those classes, however, that brought the NCAA back to Chapel Hill in June 2014. And four months later, Kenneth Wainstein concluded his far-reaching investigation.
Wainstein, a former federal prosecutor hired by the university, found that for 18 years Nyang’oro and Deborah Crowder ran a “shadow curriculum” in the AFAM department, and that athletes had “ready access to these watered-down classes to help them manage their competing athletic and academic time demands.”
The NCAA charged both Nyang’oro, the former department chairman, and Crowder, a former administrative assistant in the department, with unethical conduct for failing to cooperate in the NCAA investigation. The university accepted those charges.
Between 1999 and 2011, athletes accounted for nearly 2,000 enrollments in the bogus classes. Overall, athletes accounted for nearly half of the enrollments, though they made up only about 4 percent of the student body.
Even so, the NCAA enforcement staff has never described the classes as a violation. UNC used that throughout its response, and argued that if the classes didn’t constitute a violation of NCAA rules, then the allegations that resulted from their existence are baseless.
The NCAA enforcement staff levied the charge of lack of institutional control, it said, because “individuals in the athletics and academic administrations on campus, particularly in the college of arts and sciences, did not identify or investigate anomalous (African studies) courses.”
The lack of institutional control charge appeared to be the most serious that UNC faced, and the one that created the greatest potential that UNC might endure significant penalties as a result of the investigation.
“The University acknowledges that information was available that should have prompted questions about the anomalous courses and that it should have identified and investigated them sooner,” its response states. “However, the anomalous courses did not violate NCAA rules.”
The university used a similar argument in rejecting the allegation that its failure to monitor members of the African studies department and members of the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes constituted a violation of NCAA rules. The failure to monitor the AFAM department, UNC argued, represented an accreditation issue, not an NCAA issue.
UNC also challenged the failure to monitor charge against individuals in academic support, citing the lack of a rules violation.
“Inasmuch as the anomalous courses were offered to the student body in general and therefore did not violate any NCAA rules, there can be no restriction on (academic support) assisting student-athletes in enrolling in the courses.”
The university accepted that it failed to monitor Jan Boxill, the former philosophy instructor and women’s basketball academic counselor who was charged in a separate allegation of providing impermissible academic help and special arrangements to women’s basketball players.