UNC-Chapel Hill has spent $21 million on legal, public relations and investigative costs related to its long-running academic scandal, bills released Friday show.
The bills from 2016 through this year show the university has spent more than $3.7 million on several law firms involved in successfully defending the university against NCAA allegations and individual lawsuits by former athletes. The university had previously spent nearly $18 million on legal, public relations, investigative and records production costs.
The university is not likely to spend much more. The NCAA’s infractions committee, after a drawn-out case that involved three separate notices of allegations, did not sanction the university. The three athlete lawsuits were dismissed by state and federal judges.
The News & Observer made a public records request for the bills in November.
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UNC initially said in a news release said the legal bills totaled nearly $3.6 million, but the N&O’s tallying of the bills came to more than $3.7 million. The bills include payments to two law firms not mentioned in UNC’s news release: $16,000 to the Charlotte office of the Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice firm for representing basketball coach Roy Williams and $71,000 to the Williams & Connolly firm in Washington that was billed to Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham.
Kate Luck, a UNC spokeswoman later confirmed the university paid those expenses. She also acknowledged UNC had under-reported in its news release the amount of money paid to another law firm — Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom — by $67,000.
The legal, public relations and investigative bills cover several aspects of the university’s handling of the situation involving 18 years of classes that had no instruction and only required a term paper or two that drew high grades. Nearly 190 of those classes were listed as lecture-style classes in university publications; hundreds more were listed as independent studies.
Deborah Crowder, a former administrative aide in the African and Afro-American Studies department, created and graded most of the classes. When she retired in 2009, academic counselors for the football team requested her boss, department chairman Julius Nyang’oro, continue them, which he did until The N&O’s reporting exposed the classes in 2011.
UNC’s expenses began in 2012 with former Gov. Jim Martin’s investigation. At that time, the university began engaging outside public relations firms.
In December 2013, an Orange County grand jury indicted Nyang’oro on a felony charge of obtaining property through false pretenses. He had accepted $12,000 in special summer pay for a 2011 class that he did not teach. That and a wave of national press prompted UNC and the UNC system to hire Kenneth Wainstein, a former top U.S. Justice Department official now in private practice, to conduct a more thorough investigation.
Nyang’oro and Crowder cooperated with that investigation and avoided any criminal exposure. The investigation ultimately cost the university an additional $3 million. But it also ushered in the return of the NCAA and UNC’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. The accreditor ultimately put UNC on probation for one year, a rare penalty for a major research university, and the most severe punishment short of removing accreditation.
But the NCAA, after three rounds of charging documents and a special hearing on jurisdictional issues that spanned three years, only found violations against Nyang’oro and Crowder for a lack of cooperation with its investigation. The NCAA’s infractions committee said it could not sanction UNC for impermissible benefits because evidence showed they weren’t made strictly available to athletes.
Wainstein’s investigation found athletes made up nearly half of the 3,100 enrollments in the bogus classes, despite accounting for less than five percent of the student body. Athletes also made up a sizeable majority of the students who took multiple classes.
The infractions committee also said it could not pursue an academic fraud bylaw violation because NCAA rules give universities the right to determine whether fraud occurred on campus. UNC told the committee the classes were legitimate at the time they were offered, but not after subsequent reforms.
The university also fought off lawsuits by former athletes who claimed they received shoddy educations. State and federal judges turned back three lawsuits.
This continues to play out in a federal case involving athlete compensation, and in the efforts of a special NCAA commission to reform college basketball.
Attorneys for athletes in the federal case, Jenkins vs. NCAA, contend the UNC decision makes it hard for the NCAA to claim that athletes are being fairly compensated with a free college education when the NCAA has little say whether classes are legitimate.
Those on the special NCAA commission, led by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, called for reforms that directly address the NCAA’s handling of the UNC case. They want the NCAA to have more jurisdiction over academic matters, and an end to universities claiming a benefit is not in violation of NCAA rules because nonathletes received it as well.
But on Wednesday, when the NCAA announced a list of reforms, those two recommendations were not among them. An NCAA spokeswoman pointed to a separate committee that is examining academic integrity rules.
UNC officials said the money for the various costs did not come from tuition or state appropriations.