Folt: Nine being terminated or under disciplinary review as result of report on UNC academic fraud

A sobering independent investigation into academic fraud at UNC-Chapel Hill released Wednesday prompted Chancellor Carol Folt to commit to holding accountable all current university staff implicated in the report, including initiating termination against four and disciplinary review for another five.

A system of no-show classes was pushed by academic counselors for athletes, hatched and enabled by two sympathetic officials in a key department and employed by coaches eager to keep players eligible, the report on the new investigation into the long-running scandal said.

The 18-year scheme generated inflated grades through lecture-style classes that had been quietly converted into bogus independent studies. The report, released Wednesday afternoon, found a new culprit: the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes.

Kenneth Wainstein, a former top U.S. Justice Department official, found that the academic counselors had pushed for the easy classes and embraced those started by Deborah Crowder, a longtime manager for the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. The report describes a fairly broad group of academic and athletic officials who knew about athletes getting better grades in classes that required only papers, yet took little or no action.

Folt declined to identify the nine employees being terminated or under disciplinary review, citing personnel laws.

After a day of fielding questions from reporters and board members, Folt gathered with hundreds of students, staff and faculty this evening in a filled auditorium in the Genome Center.

Folt told the crowd that she was really troubled by the amount of time the problems went on. She also said she was disturbed that “a few people had the hubris” to develop a scheme and “think they could lowball the value of an education.”

She started the presentation by telling the crowd that a friend once told her “the best disinfectant is light.”

UNC may face more scrutiny in the months to come. The NCAA has an ongoing investigation into the academic fraud; university leaders said they have forwarded Wainstein’s report to the NCAA.

In comments to reporters Wednesday, Wainstein was reluctant to put a label on the scandal, though at a news conference he offered sharp language to describe the actions of UNC officials at the focus of the investigation.

He called the “paper classes” Crowder initiated “watered down” and “corrupted” versions of legitimate forms of teaching. Crowder, an administrator, not a professor, assigned high grades to student papers without reading them in full, he said.

Wainstein’s review of the papers that Crowder graded shows that in half of them, at least 25 percent of the content had been plagiarized.

At least five academic counselors for athletes leaned heavily on Crowder to help struggling athletes remain academically eligible to play, the report says. Before Crowder retired in 2009, athletic counselors urged athletes to turn in their papers before Crowder retired so that she, rather than a professor, could grade them.

Chancellor Folt said Wainstein’s findings definitely show that the fraud was both an academic and athletic problem.

“The bad actions of a very few and inaction of many more failed our students, faculty and staff and undermined our institution,” Folt said. She called it an “inexcusable betrayal of our values.”

Wainstein said in the news conference that his team found a “glaring” lack of oversight by university administrators. For instance, the performance of Professor Julius Nyang’oro, former chairman of the Afro and Afro-American Studies Department, wasn’t reviewed for more than 20 years. Wainstein did say, however, that he found no evidence that athletic coaches were involved in initiating of the sham classes.

UNC President Tom Ross said Wainstein’s findings revealed the depth of the problem in both academic and athletic circles.

“From the beginning I think the university has taken the position that these classes started in an academic department by a person employed in the academic side of the university,” Ross said. “Subsequent to that, athletics took advantage of that.”

It’s a blow to learn that pockets of people around the university knew about the bogus classes for years, Folt said.

“Like everyone who reads it, I feel shocked and very disappointed,” said Folt, who became chancellor in 2013. “I think it’s a case where you have bad actions of a few and inaction of many more. And had actions or processes been in place, we could’ve caught it and stopped it a lot sooner.”

It was common knowledge within the support program that the classes didn’t meet, were easy and offered high grades, the report says. They became such a crutch that when Crowder retired in 2009, football team counselors were desperate for the classes to continue, warning coaches that the team’s overall GPA would plummet without them, which it did.

But some in the program knew that the classes, which typically required a term paper at the end, lacked a professor. Crowder played that role, even though she had only a bachelor’s degree from UNC. She created the classes – often at the counselors’ requests – collected the papers and graded them, often without reading them, the report said.

“Between 1993 and 2011, Crowder and Nyang’oro developed and ran a ‘shadow curriculum’ within the AFAM Department that provided students with academically flawed instruction through the offering of ‘paper classes,’” the report said. “These were classes that involved no interaction with a faculty member, required no class attendance or course work other than a single paper, and resulted in consistently high grades that Crowder awarded without reading the papers or otherwise evaluating their true quality.”

Two counselors even suggested to Crowder what grades to give to the athletes. One of them, Jan Boxill, later became the faculty leader for UNC in 2011, just as the academic fraud became public.

As Wainstein detailed his findings at the news conference, about a dozen students settled into chairs in a student union auditorium to watch a broadcast of the proceedings. Several were female university athletes, who watched with rapt attention.

“Obviously the extent of the irregularities and involvement was disappointing,” said Sarah Thompson, a forward and midfielder on the UNC women’s soccer team. “Hopefully, the information we have now is in and we can start to move on.”

Most students seemed oblivious to the news unfolding, focusing on school work or gathering under the blue sky on a sunny fall day.

Who knew?

Wainstein’s investigation said that Crowder’s boss, longtime department chairman Nyang’oro, acquiesced to her scheme and continued it to a lesser extent after she retired.

“Besides those (academic support) counselors … who were actively colluding with Crowder and Nyang’oro, there were a number of …counselors and Athletics Department staff who knew that these were easy courses that required no class attendance and that they resulted in consistently high grades,” the report said. “Several also recognized the anomaly that these classes were taught in an independent study format even though they were often designated on the course schedule as lecture classes.”

Academic and athletic officials had opportunities to stop the bogus classes, but took limited action. Bobbi Owen, a senior associate dean for undergraduate education who stepped down to return to teaching this year, learned roughly nine years ago that the department was offering far more independent studies than it could manage, and told Nyang’oro to reduce them, the report said. But she never investigated why there were so many in the first place.

Meanwhile, John Blanchard, a former senior associate athletics director who supervised the tutoring program, missed an opportunity to expose the depths of the bogus classes after inquiries from faculty about independent studies and athletics in 2002 and 2006 that were related to media reports of problems at other universities. The report suggested Blanchard was not fully informed of what was going on in the tutoring program by the director, Robert Mercer.

Blanchard retired last year, and Mercer left the university after being transferred out of the director’s job.

Men’s basketball coach Roy Williams told investigators that early on he had suspicions about his players’ heavy use of AFAM classes, but he denied knowing about paper classes that lacked an instructor. He said he expressed his concerns to Joe Holladay, the assistant coach for academics, and by 2007 their enrollments in the paper classes subsided.

Wayne Walden, an academic counselor for basketball, admitted sending some players to Crowder, and he knew that she graded some papers. But the investigation found that Walden did less steering than the football team.

Williams and Baddour told investigators they knew that basketball player Rashad McCants had been in four AFAM independent studies in the spring 2005 semester, while the team was making a run to the national championship.

In June, ESPN broadcast an interview with McCants, who showed that his transcript had more than a dozen paper classes and that he was steered to them as part of an eligibility system within the tutoring program. He said he believed basketball staff were aware of the classes, but admitted he didn’t know for certain whether Williams knew they were bogus.

“Baddour recalled that Williams asked Baddour whether the number of independent studies McCants had taken troubled him, and Baddour replied that it did trouble him and that he wondered how the college had allowed it to happen,” the report said. It said Baddour didn’t recall when the conversation took place.

Williams’ public statements about why his players stopped enrolling in the AFAM classes conflict with what he told investigators. At a news conference in October 2012, he suggested the players may have had other interests.

The Wainstein report is in many respects a reversal from what two previous investigations concluded – that the academic fraud lacked an athletic motive. Those investigations, one led by former Gov. Jim Martin, drew that conclusion because non-athletes had also gotten into the classes and received the same high grades. Martin also could not find any connection between athletics officials and the classes, or any kind of financial incentive for Crowder and Nyang’oro create the classes.

Pressure on professor

Wainstein and his team of lawyers did not find any evidence that coaches or other athletics officials hatched the scheme, nor did they find any kind of financial incentive. But they concluded that pressure from the tutoring program in the early 1990s prompted Crowder to create the classes.

She told investigators that she had long sought the opportunity to help students who struggled academically for various reasons. She said when she was a student at UNC, she resented that professors often focused on the best and brightest students, leaving the others adrift.

Student athletes were one group that Crowder thought received a raw deal from the university. Many came to UNC unprepared for college work, yet athletics officials expected them to spend long hours on their sports.

After a dozen years working for two leaders who wouldn’t tolerate slipshod academics, Crowder saw her chance to launch the classes when Nyang’oro became chairman in 1992. Nyang’oro had little interest in running the department, and gave Crowder wide latitude as manager, even allowing her to sign his name to various academic records, the report said. She would use that authority to create the classes under his name.

The following year, Crowder began creating independent studies for students in which no professor was involved. Nyang’oro told investigators when he sought to create legitimate independent studies, Crowder chastised him.

“On one occasion, Crowder told him that the…academic counselors believed he was ‘being an ass’ for demanding so much from the players and were rethinking whether they should be steering student-athletes to AFAM classes,” the report said.

That “push-back” from the counselors led Crowder to “improvise with AFAM’s independent study classes.”

He was not the only professor Crowder pressured. Alphonse Mutima, a Swahili professor, said Crowder told him he had to pass athletes and she complained when they received low grades. Mutima also knew about the paper classes and in some cases, sought to place athletes in them when they were too much of a challenge to teach. He said they frequently misbehaved and showed no interest in learning the language.

For six years, Crowder merely created accurately named independent studies as vehicles for classes that only required a paper. But as more students took more of the classes, she realized they were bumping up against a limit the university had in place – no more than four such classes toward an undergraduate degree.

That prompted the guise of lecture-style classes, the investigation found. Crowder started creating those for the fall 1999 semester.

Plenty of plagiarism

Athletes were the heaviest repeat users of the classes.

Crowder did help other students, particularly those in difficult situations such as assault victims and others fearful of being in classrooms. But word got out about the classes and eventually hundreds of fraternity members, and some sorority members, were lining up for them. Crowder was troubled to find the classes had made it into the “frat circuit,” she told two friends in the regular academic advising department.

Those advisers had also been steering students to Crowder, but they told investigators they thought the classes had a professor and met the standards for independent study.

Crowder admitted she did not read the papers beyond the openings and conclusions. Students quickly learned they could get away with submitting papers that had “fluff” in the middle so long as the openings and conclusions were original. The investigation found that of 150 papers written by students, well over half contained plagiarized passages that accounted for at least 25 percent of each paper’s content.

Wainstein’s investigation also found two other methods for placing students – predominantly athletes – into paper classes. At least five classes actually met, but Crowder and Nyang’oro allowed some students to take the class as a paper class. In a “handful” of other cases, Crowder added student athletes, who would turn in a paper to her, to grade rolls without a professor’s knowledge.

Nyang’oro said he allowed Crowder to create the classes, and later created some after she retired, because he also thought student athletes were in a difficult position. He said early in his career he had seen what had happened to two athletes who flunked out: One was murdered in his rural hometown; the other ended up in jail.

Nyang’oro and Crowder had not cooperated in previous probes, but sat down with Wainstein and his team after facing a criminal investigation by Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall. In December, Nyang’oro had been indicted by a grand jury for accepting payment for a summer class he did not teach in 2011, a development that drew national attention to the case.

That wave of national coverage prompted UNC leaders to hire Wainstein. His investigation took eight months and involved interviews with 126 witnesses and a review of 1.6 million academic records.

UNC has drawn criticism for the way it has handled the scandal. Officials long insisted the fraud was not related to athletics, and the N&O’s requests for records and information were often denied or fulfilled after long waits. Folt vowed at the press conference to be more responsive to public records in the future, including launching a website to track requests.

But Wainstein said the university was not trying to cover up the fraud or muzzle the news media.

“We found no evidence that the higher levels of the University tried in any way to obscure the facts or the magnitude of this situation,” the report said. “To the extent there were times of delay or equivocation in their response to this controversy, we largely attribute that to insufficient appreciation of the scale of the problem, an understandable lack of experience with this sort of institutional crisis and some lingering disbelief that such misconduct could have occurred at Chapel Hill.”

Chancellor Folt said some 70 reforms already enacted address practically every issue the report turned up. She pledged more work and promised to do better by students and the Carolina community.

She apologized to students and emphasized how the university had failed student athletes by “prejudging their capabilities.” She vowed to do better by students at every moment, with every decision at UNC.

“We are at our best when we use our most difficult moments to teach us,” she said at the news conference.

Written by Catfish Hughes

Catfish Hughes

Frank “Catfish” Hughes has been called, “Bob Knight’s Baby with Hip Hop that covers sports.” and “the future of sports writing!” He is an official member of the NSSA & USBWA. Catfish covers the Los Angeles Angeles as the official East Coast Voice of the Lakers, and owns the NBA media outlet, WickedJumpShot.com and was the host of Thru the Wire Sports Talk Radio which aired on both ESPN Radio and Fox Sports Radio. Catfish is the head editor and chief here at the Boxing Globe. @CatfishHughes on twitter.