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Former UNC-CH African studies chairman indicted by grand jury

HILLSBOROUGH An Orange County grand jury Monday morning accused former UNC-Chapel Hill African studies chairman Julius Nyang’oro of a felony for accepting $12,000 from the university for a summer class that he did not teach.

Nyang’oro, 59, of Durham was indicted on a charge of obtaining property by false pretenses, Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said. The charge is a lower-level felony and Nyang’oro is not likely to face prison time if convicted.

The grand jury’s finding is the latest in a scandal that has roiled UNC-Chapel Hill, one of the nation’s top public universities. A UNC-backed probe found the academic fraud reached as far back as the mid-90s, with more than 200 lecture-style classes that are either suspected or confirmed of never having met. A paper was assigned instead, with little evidence it was actually read. The grades averaged in the range of a B-plus.

The classes included roughly 500 grade changes that are either suspected or confirmed to be unauthorized. Athletes accounted for just under half of the grade changes.

Athletes enrolled in the classes in disproportionate numbers. They made up 45 percent of the enrollments, despite representing less than five percent of the student body. The football team had the highest number of athletic enrollments, with the men’s basketball team a distant second.

But UNC officials and the probe they commissioned that was led by former Gov. Jim Martin found that athletics did not play a role in the fraud because non-athletes had the same access to the classes and received the same grades. They also found no evidence that athletic officials played a part in setting up the classes.

Correspondence obtained by The News & Observer, involving the tutoring program for athletes, showed counselors there knew the classes didn’t meet and weren’t challenging. The counselors steered academically-challenged freshmen football players into one such class, which was listed in a course catalog as a seminar for seniors majoring in African studies.

In another case, a counselor asked Nyang’oro to schedule a “research paper” class for an intermediate Swahili language class. The counselor had told Nyang’oro in an email that the class had previously been taught that way.

The 2011 summer class at the heart of the SBI investigation into Nyang’oro also had strong ties to athletics.

Nyang’oro created the class, AFAM 280: Blacks in North Carolina, a few days before the summer semester began. It quickly filled with 19 students – 18 of them football players, the other a former football player. UNC records show Nyang’oro was expected to teach the class, but it never met.

“The allegation is that he was paid to teach a face-to-face, lecture-style class and he accepted and kept $12,000 for that, when in fact he didn’t teach that class in a face-to-face, lecture-style manner,” Woodall said Monday.

The university later got the money back by docking Nyang’oro’s pay.

Woodall said Nyang’oro would likely appear in court on Tuesday.

Woodall said the case has taken a long time to investigate because it involved several years of records and numerous interviews largely handled by one agent. But the evidence so far showed the criminal activity was limited to no more than two people, he said.

“In the scheme of things, it was relatively minimal criminal activity,” Woodall said, adding that he didn’t see that investigating further would justify the additional time and expense.

Woodall did not provide details explaining Nyang’oro’s actions. Woodall has repeatedly said his investigation focused on crimes committed, not the cause of the long-standing academic fraud.

Woodall launched the investigation in May 2012 after The News & Observer reported that Nyang’oro had received $12,000 in additional pay to teach the class. It was the only suspect class in which he received more than his regular salary, university records showed.

Nyang’oro was the department’s first chairman, taking over in 1992 after eight years of teaching at UNC. He had won two notable teaching awards during his tenure as chairman.

Nyang’oro stepped down from the chairmanship shortly after UNC began investigating the classes in August 2011, and retired in June 2012. He has declined numerous requests for interviews.

The SBI probe is one of several launched over the past two years since UNC leaders said they first learned of the no-show classes in August 2011. They began investigating after The N&O reported that star football player Marvin Austin had received a B-plus in an upper-level African studies class the summer before he began his first full semester as a freshman, and took remedial writing. That summer class also never met.

Woodall said he could not say much about the particulars of the SBI case, other than he does anticipate a continued investigation regarding a second person who is not currently an employee of the university.

The probes have identified Nyang’oro and his longtime department manager, Deborah Crowder, as the two largely responsible for the bogus classes. Crowder retired in September 2009 and has also declined to be interviewed.

The scandal exposed several holes in the university’s oversight of academic and athletic matters and prompted numerous reforms. UNC officials admitted, for example, they had never reviewed Nyang’oro’s performance as chairman, as they hadn’t for any department chairman. That practice is now in place.

But the bogus classes have prompted little action from the NCAA, which regulates college athletics. UNC correspondence released to The N&O last month indicated the NCAA planned no further investigation and would not file additional violations.

The NCAA missed the bogus classes in a previous probe into improper financial benefits football players received from agents and their go-betweens. That probe also found that a former tutor had been giving improper academic and financial help to football players.

The tutor, Jennifer Wiley Thompson, is now facing charges in a follow up investigation by the N.C. Secretary of State that she violated the state’s laws governing agent activity by helping funnel money to a football player. An agent from Georgia and three others identified as runners for the agent have also been charged.

Amid these cases, the UNC men’s basketball team is dealing with another scandal involving two athletes suspected of taking improper benefits. The NCAA is investigating that case, and the two players, P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, have yet to appear in a game.

Kane: 919-829-4861
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