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At last, UNC has its date with the NCAA Committee on Infractions

UNC academic scandal explained

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.
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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.

After more than a year’s worth of delays and three NCAA notices of allegations, UNC-Chapel Hill has at last received its date to appear before the NCAA Committee on Infractions, which is the judge and jury in major NCAA investigations.

UNC representatives will appear before the committee on Aug. 16 in Nashville, Tenn. The hearing, which will help shape what penalties and sanctions the university might face in the wake of an investigation into how suspect African Studies courses benefited athletes, could last for two days.

University Chancellor Carol Folt will attend the hearing, as will Bubba Cunningham, the athletic director. The NCAA has requested that men’s basketball coach Roy Williams, football coach Larry Fedora and women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell also attend.

The infractions committee hearing is the next formal step in the NCAA’s investigative process, and it is one that has been a long time coming for UNC. It announced on June 30, 2014, that it was under NCAA investigation and, three years later, the case still awaits its resolution.

The case has been characterized by procedural delays and, recently, ever-rising tension between UNC and the NCAA. In its response to the NCAA’s third Notice of Allegations, UNC struck a defiant tone with which it questioned the NCAA’s jurisdiction. In its response to UNC, dated July 17, the NCAA wrote with equal defiance that “the issues at the heart of this case are clearly the NCAA’s business.”

At its crux, the debate between UNC and the NCAA is over how much authority, if any, the NCAA has over the kind of malfeasance that played out at the university for nearly 20 years. Between 1993 and 2011, UNC athletes enrolled in disproportionate numbers in the bogus African Studies classes, ones that UNC’s accrediting agency concluded lacked integrity.

The accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, also found that the classes violated six of its other principles, including ones related to academic support and control over intercollegiate athletics. While UNC accepted SACS’ findings, the university has bristled at the NCAA’s involvement in the case.

Several university-commissioned investigations found that the classes, many of which were lecture courses that instead became independent studies, featured little to no instruction and required only an end-of-semester paper that generally received a high grade regardless of its quality.

Men’s basketball and football players, especially, filled the classes in large numbers, leading to the suspicion that they relied on the classes, and their substandard requirements, to maintain their eligibility. According to evidence used by Kenneth Wainstein in his 2014 report, one former academic counselor for UNC’s football team described athletes’ participation in the classes like this:

“They didn’t go to class … they didn’t have to take notes, have to stay awake … they didn’t have to meet with professors … they didn’t have to pay attention or necessarily engage with the material.”

That, according to Wainstein, a former federal prosecutor, was part of a presentation that the counselor gave to the football coaching staff in 2009, just before Deborah Crowder’s retirement. Crowder, the longtime administrative assistant in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, played a central role in scheduling and grading the classes.

The NCAA charged her and Julius Nyang’oro, the former department chairman, with unethical conduct. Crowder in an April interview with NCAA officials denied wrongdoing, while Nyang’oro has refused to speak with the NCAA.

In the three NOAs it delivered to UNC, meanwhile, the NCAA Enforcement Staff has attempted to target the bogus classes in different ways. Complicating the matter is the fact that the classes do not fit the NCAA’s standard definition of academic fraud.

The NCAA, then, has been left to attempt to apply other rules to the case. In the third NOA, which UNC received in December, the NCAA alleged that Nyang’oro and Crowder violated “principles of extra-benefit legislation” in relation to the classes. The NCAA alleged that Nyang’oro and Crowder “worked closely and directly with athletics” to create a scheme in which athletes benefited from lax coursework and grading standards.

“As a result,” wrote the NCAA Enforcement Staff, “student-athletes were afforded greater access to the anomalous courses and enrolled in these courses at a disproportionately higher rate than students who were not athletes. Many at-risk student-athletes, particularly in the sports of football and men’s basketball, used these courses for purposes of ensuring their continuing NCAA academic eligibility.”

In its response, UNC argued that “no special arrangements were made for student-athletes in violation of NCAA extra-benefit legislation” and that athletes “were not treated differently than other students who took the courses” in question. The university also denied that the athletics department was complicit with Nyang’oro and Crowder, and insisted that the NCAA had no business in the case.

To the contrary, the NCAA wrote in its response, “When a member institution allows an academic department to provide benefits to student-athletes that are materially different from the general student body, it is the NCAA’s business. ... When a member institution uses ‘special arrangement’ courses to keep a significant number of student-athletes eligible, it is the NCAA’s business.”

The potential sanctions UNC might face, and the severity of such sanctions, will remain unknown until the infractions committee issues its ruling, which could take several months after the Aug. 16 hearing ends. Men’s basketball and football have borne the brunt of public speculation about what might happen, though neither sport – nor any coach – has been charged with wrongdoing.

Both sports were identified, however, in the most recent NOA. Women’s basketball was, too, through its association with former academic counselor Jan Boxill, who faces a charge of providing extra benefits and special arrangements to women’s basketball players.

The most serious charges UNC faces is that of lack of institutional control and failure to monitor. The university has denied those charges, as well, on the basis that there is no support for levying them. Cunningham, the UNC athletic director, said in May that the university is prepared to “exhaust” all of its options defend itself against an NCAA investigative process the university has found to be unfair.

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

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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