For UNC sports fans, alumni and lovers of the nation’s oldest public university – and even those who delight in the university’s current plight – one question seems dominant these days:
What will the NCAA do?
Last month, the governing body of college sports sent UNC its notice of allegations involving the university’s long-running academic scandal, which lasted nearly two decades and evolved into a system of classes advertised as lecture-style that actually never met. Athletes were disproportionately enrolled in the classes, and a previous investigation by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein found that the scheme began after academic counselors for the athletes complained about independent studies that were too demanding.
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The 59-page NCAA notice came with 730 pages of exhibits. They have been significantly redacted by UNC to protect the names of athletes, but a deeper review of the documents reveals new information that Wainstein hadn’t produced or made public. That three-inch-high stack of paper contains clues on what the NCAA finds important, and where it could focus for potential penalties, likely early next year.
1) The NCAA is interested in how the bogus classes stayed under wraps for roughly a decade.
Buried within the pile of exhibits is an email that had previously not been public and that raises an important question: What did two athletic officials and the head of the academic support program tell faculty about lecture-style classes in the African studies department that they knew didn’t meet?
The NCAA exhibits include two instances when two key university officials, senior associate athletic director John Blanchard and Robert Mercer, head of the academic support program, could have intervened to learn more about the classes and stop them.
Twice in the last decade, controversies at other universities pushed UNC officials to take a closer look at whether athletes were taking too many independent studies classes and clustering in certain courses or majors. Wainstein found Mercer underreported independent studies enrollments in 2002, the first time the subject came up.
The second time, in 2006, faculty tasked Mercer with tracking independent studies enrollments by athletes. He never did it.
The NCAA exhibits include an email from Mercer to Blanchard in 2006 that show Mercer had little interest in investigating athletes’ class enrollments.
“I have a difficult time with the idea of questioning majors or ‘paper courses’ (beyond the institution),” Mercer wrote. “Does Carolina have them – yes. Does Carolina offer on-line courses and independent study courses – yes. Do I or anyone in the Department of Athletics have any say in how departments structure their courses – NO!”
The academic support program has been under UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences since the 1980s. But Wainstein found Blanchard to be the de facto leader, while counselors said their mission was to keep athletes eligible to play.
The NCAA also appears to be assessing what Mercer, Blanchard and former athletic director Dick Baddour told former Gov. Jim Martin when he was preparing his report on the scandal in 2012.
Lissa Broome, a law professor who became UNC’s faculty athletics representative in 2010, was at both meetings in which Baddour, Blanchard and Mercer asserted in Martin’s report to have raised questions in 2002 and 2006 about lecture classes being conducted as independent studies. She and many others at those meetings later told The News & Observer no such concern was raised. None of them were interviewed by Martin.
Martin’s report at first said that the three had raised the issue, but he later backed off that assertion.
Broome wrote in a newly released email among the NCAA’s exhibits that Raina Rose Tagle from Baker Tilly, a consulting firm that worked with Martin, said the finding “should be rephrased to say only that individuals interviewed for the Martin Report recollected raising questions about lecture courses being taught as independent studies in some conversations amongst themselves.” The discussions with faculty were limited to traditional independent studies.
Determining who knew what and how that information was handled speaks to one of the major allegations in the NCAA’s notice, called a “lack of institutional control.” The notice sets the start of impermissible benefits received by athletes at the fall 2002-03 semester, which is shortly after Blanchard first looked at the classes.
2) The NCAA is looking at the fake classes to determine eligibility.
Among the exhibits is a spreadsheet, public for the first time, that is identified in the notice as a “transcript evaluation.” It appears to identify how many athletes by sport took more than 12 credit hours in the bogus classes, possibly exceeding a limit on how many independent studies students are allowed to take. It also tracks other academic requirements such as full-time enrollment and progress toward graduation.
The names of the athletes and their sport are redacted. But the data suggests 150 athletes took more than 12 credit hours of bogus courses, and 33 of those athletes would have run afoul of the other requirements for full-time students without the bogus courses.
The NCAA notice, however, speaks only to 10 athletes who exceeded the independent study limit. What’s key there, and may prove to be a break for UNC, is that the NCAA appears to be only counting students who exceeded the limit while at the university from 2006-07 and after.
In 2006, UNC clarified that an independent study is what most schools define it as – a contract between a student and professor to work on a paper or research project without going to class. The work by the student and monitoring by the professor is supposed to be equal to the time in a regular class.
In prior years, UNC called those courses “special studies,” while identifying independent studies as correspondence courses. The NCAA’s exhibits show how the definition changed in UNC’s policies.
What the NCAA might not be taking into account is Deborah Crowder – the African and Afro-American Studies department manager and architect of the bogus class system – and others at the university believed the limit for independent studies existed within the “special studies” policy. Wainstein found that Crowder began disguising independent studies as lecture classes in 1999 to help students get around that limit.
Wainstein found that athletes accounted for the highest numbers of multiple enrollments in the classes. Wainstein’s report found that athletes accounted for 71 percent of the 154 students who took five or more bogus lecture classes, and half of the 30 students who took four or more bogus independent studies in the AFAM department.
3) Men’s basketball is not out of the woods.
The NCAA’s notice doesn’t hit UNC with academic fraud, but it is defining “special arrangements” counselors used to enroll athletes in the bogus classes as impermissible benefits. The NCAA has cited these benefits as a major violation; in past cases they have brought heavy penalties.
The men’s basketball team appears to be tied to roughly 40 exhibits, judging by the academic support staff identified in them. Nearly all of the emails speak to athletes’ enrollments in AFAM classes and, in some cases, the grades they received.
Some emails appear to go beyond the AFAM classes. One shows Jan Boxill, former faculty chair and philosophy professor, changing grades “only slightly” for two athletes on a philosophy quiz in summer 2005.
Wayne Walden, the academic counselor brought from Kansas by head basketball coach Roy Williams in 2003 after he returned to Chapel Hill, is referenced in nearly 20 exhibits, and longtime tutor Janet Huffstetler’s name appears in 30.
Several of Huffstetler’s emails show her sending players’ papers to Crowder. Tutors are not supposed to do this because it’s harder to tell if the paper is the student’s work.
Huffstetler is an office manager for an architectural firm in Chapel Hill that specializes in athletic facilities, including several at UNC. She does not have a college degree. She said she was hired to help the athletes organize their work, but the correspondence suggests she was running study sessions and helping basketball players with their papers.
The emails show interactions that go as far back as the spring 2005 semester, when the men’s basketball team won the national championship. An email between Crowder and Walden, dated Jan. 5, 2005, and titled “Re: Spring 2005” speaks to enrolling players in AFAM classes.
The email has redactions, which make it unclear how many athletes are being helped or if they are being placed into the bogus classes, referred to by Wainstein as “paper” classes, because they required only a paper at the end. Wainstein reported basketball players accounted for 26 enrollments in such classes that semester.
Starting guard Rashad McCants told ESPN he took nothing but the paper classes that semester – and made the dean’s list.