Long-ago UNC report contradicts university’s latest stance on independent studies

UNC-Chapel Hill, which is under investigation for fraudulent classes involving athletes, has maintained that students were not subjected to a limit on independent studies until the 2006-07 academic year.

That stance appears to have narrowed one key part of the NCAA’s investigation.

But a new document released by the university in March shows that the limit on independent studies started before 2003. Other evidence suggests that the limit was in place since the early 1990s.

In response to a long-standing public records request from The News & Observer, UNC provided a 2003 faculty report that proposed numerous curriculum changes.

Deep within the report, the authors cited a 12-hour independent studies limit. Noting that curriculum changes can’t happen if they run counter to General College and Arts and Sciences guidelines, the report said: “That might mean, for example, considering whether to reaffirm the current rule that an Arts and Sciences student can count toward graduation only twelve hours of independent study.”

The start date of that 12-credit-hour limit is critical because the NCAA considers that athletes who exceeded it received an impermissible benefit.

Going back further than 2006 would add well more than 100 athletes to the list of 10 that the NCAA said exceeded the independent study limit through classes that had no professor, never met and yielded a high grade for an end-of-class paper.

For example, records show many athletes on the 2005 men’s basketball championship team took multiple fake classes, which were directed and graded by a clerical employee in the African studies department – including a star player who took 12 hours’ worth in the spring semester when the team won the title.

The independent studies limit represents one prong of the investigation that deals with fake classes. Another involves athletes steered to the fake classes from 2002 through 2011, which the NCAA considers an impermissible benefit.

UNC officials offered no explanation for the statement about independent studies within the 2003 report, which involved the work of dozens of faculty and was approved by the Faculty Council that year. Chancellor Carol Folt and Provost James W. Dean Jr. forwarded interview requests to a spokesperson, who offered no further information.

The document surfaced as the men’s basketball team seeks another national championship. Coach Roy Williams’ Tar Heels are the favorites in the NCAA’s Final Four, which starts Saturday.

‘Special studies’

The curriculum report buttresses other documents that show UNC had a long-standing policy of limiting independent studies to the equivalent of four courses. Many faculty have also confirmed the limit.

In October 2014, the N&O reported that UNC’s undergraduate bulletins cited a 12-hour limit for “special studies” going at least as far back as the early 1990s. It typically takes 120 hours of academic credit or more to complete a bachelor’s degree. Faculty viewed those special studies as independent studies.

Those undergraduate bulletins, however, also had an outdated description of correspondence classes offered to nontraditional students, calling them “independent studies.” An investigative report by Kenneth Wainstein in 2014 into the fake classes found the language confusing enough to raise the possibility that there was no clear standard.

But Wainstein noted that every witness asked about the 12-hour limit said it had been in place before 2006. Among them: Deborah Crowder, the department secretary for the African studies department.

She hatched the classes in 1993, Wainstein reported, after receiving complaints from academic counselors for athletes about the rigor of the department’s independent studies. Six years later, she began disguising them as lecture classes to keep students who had taken several of them from running afoul of the limit.

“Crowder – and nearly all the faculty we interviewed – believed that students were limited to 12 hours of independent study credit toward the 120 hours required for a Chapel Hill degree,” Wainstein’s report said. “Rebranding these independent study paper classes as lecture classes avoided the danger that the administration might someday question the record of a student who took a number of these courses.”

A semantic difference?

The investigation by Wainstein, a former top lawyer in the U.S. Department of Justice, found several employees in the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes complicit in the scandal. His probe triggered the return of the NCAA and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

UNC told both regulatory bodies in 2015 that the independent study limit did not begin until the 2006-07 academic year. It cited a change in the undergraduate bulletin’s description of special studies to include independent studies.

“Until Fall 2006 there was no defined limit on the number of independent study courses that could be applied toward an undergraduate degree,” UNC officials said in correspondence to the accrediting commission last year.

Jay Smith, a UNC history professor and leading critic of the university’s handling of the scandal, said he largely assembled the 2006-07 undergraduate bulletin in his role as associate dean for undergraduate curricula.

“There was no change in policy,” Smith said. “It was just a shift in language used to describe the policy.”

In June 2015, The N&O requested any documentation about changes to the 12-hour special studies limit in 2006.

Repeatedly, the university said it had none. Then in March, a university spokesman sent a digital link to the 2003 report and pointed to a page noting the 12-hour credit limit.

UNC also told the accreditation commission that a graduation coordinator from 1988 to 2008 “did not limit the number of independent study courses that could be applied toward graduation of any students.”

The university did not identify that person, but other records show it was Betsy Taylor, who retired in 2008. Taylor told Wainstein she was aware Crowder was offering classes that didn’t meet but assumed they were supervised by a professor. It was unclear whether Taylor was asked about the 12-hour limit. She could not be reached by The N&O.

Richard Cramer is a former associate dean for the Arts and Sciences college and a sociology professor who retired in 2014. He told The N&O that year that as far back as 2002, he checked seniors’ transcripts to make sure they did not exceed four independent study courses so they would be on track to graduate. He said he would have been unaware of those disguised as lecture classes.

Waiting on the NCAA

The question of the independent study limit could come into play as the NCAA considers how and whether to punish UNC for what the NCAA says are five serious violations.

The NCAA’s notice of allegations, issued last May, appears to accept UNC’s contention that the limit started in the fall of 2006. The notice said from the fall of 2006 to the end of the 2010-11 academic year, 10 athletes exceeded the limit, which was an impermissible academic benefit under NCAA rules.

But if the limit has been in existence much longer, it could capture 140 more athletes who had exceeded it, according to a spreadsheet in the NCAA’s exhibits. The spreadsheet identifies students who had enrolled in more than 12 hours of independent study and “anomalous courses” from mid-2000 to mid-2011.

That presumably would include Rashad McCants, whose transcript shows he took nothing but fake classes in the semester during the championship run. He had taken seven others prior to that semester, making a total of 11, or 33 hours.

During the 2004-05 national title season, records show the team accounted for 35 enrollments in fake classes.

An NCAA spokeswoman said the association couldn’t comment during an investigation. The accreditation commission also declined to comment.

The NCAA case was delayed when UNC said in August it had found additional potential violations involving the women’s basketball program. It now appears the NCAA won’t hear the case until well after the men’s basketball tournament.

Jay Smith was among those interviewed in the NCAA investigation. The notice cites his position on the 12-hour independent study limit. Smith told The N&O that he confirmed to the NCAA that the limit had been in place long before the start of the 2006-07 academic year.

The accreditation commission placed UNC on probation last year, a rare step for a major research university. The commission will decide in June whether to extend that probation for a second year.

Key dates

1999: Deborah Crowder, the department secretary for African studies, started disguising the fake independent study classes she was directing – used heavily by athletes – as lecture classes. She later told investigator Kenneth Wainstein that the change was to avoid the university’s 12-hour limit on independent studies.

2003: A faculty report makes reference to the “current rule” of only 12 hours of independent study.

2004-05: The men’s basketball team wins the national championship. Its players account for 35 enrollments in the fake classes during the year, including one player who took four such courses in the spring semester.

2006: A change in the university’s undergraduate bulletin changes language of “special studies” to include “independent studies.” Prior bulletins had a 12-hour limit for special studies, and identified independent studies as correspondence courses.

2015: Relying on the 2006 change, UNC tells the NCAA and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges that the independent study limit did not apply until the 2006-07 academic year.