UNC-Chapel Hill gets probation from its accrediting agency

UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham speaks at a press conference as UNC chancellor Carol Folt looks on after a presentation of the Wainstein report, an investigation into academic fraud at UNC on October 22, 2014.
UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham speaks at a press conference as UNC chancellor Carol Folt looks on after a presentation of the Wainstein report, an investigation into academic fraud at UNC on October 22, 2014. News & Observer file photo

The commission that accredits UNC-Chapel Hill has given the university 12 months probation for failing to meet seven standards, including academic integrity and a failure to monitor college sports.

“It’s the most serious sanction we have,” said Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

The sanction was handed down at a board meeting of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges in Portsmouth, Va., after a review of the university’s academic and athletic scandal, in which 3,100 students took sham classes during a period of nearly two decades.

Thursday’s action resulted from a second review of UNC by SACS, the regional accrediting agency, and follows last week’s NCAA notice to UNC last week in which five allegations were leveled at the university.

Wheelan said it is not unusual for the board to take up a specific issue at a university more than once. “Not of this magnitude,” she said, “but we have revisited issues before.”

Wheelan said the decision was arrived at through a series of meetings over the week at the commission’s annual summer conference. A subcommittee, followed by the commission’s executive board, and then, Thursday morning, the full board all reviewed the case. The main pieces of information reviewed were a report generated by UNC and one put together by the commission’s staff. No member from a North Carolina school can hear or vote on the case.

Last fall, after the university’s release of the Wainstein Report that detailed the breadth of the scandal, SACS informed UNC that it had concerns about the university’s compliance with 18 separate accreditation standards. Those standards include institutional integrity, control of athletics and policies on admissions and academics.

The Wainstein Report went much further than previous investigations and revealed an extensive pattern of academic fraud, which stretched nearly two decades and encompassed hundreds of fake independent studies and no-show classes in the African and Afro-American Studies department. Athletes were disproportionately enrolled in the sham classes, which helped them maintain high enough grades to remain eligible to compete.

The investigation, by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein, documented a shadow curriculum in which students had no contact with faculty but obtained course credit for little work. Athletic counselors steered players to the classes and others at the university had some knowledge of the scheme.

After the release of the Wainstein report, SACS officials said the UNC case was unlike anything they had dealt with before. They launched another review.

In 2012, SACS had required extensive monitoring reports by UNC after the scandal first emerged. The board found deficiencies in UNC compliance with its standards for academic policies, student services, student records and class credit hours. It required the university to offer students and graduates free courses to make up for the phony classes.

No alumni returned for the classes, but about a dozen students did have to complete another course because the AFAM courses in question wouldn’t have counted toward graduation requirements.

Nine employees either resigned, were fired or placed under disciplinary review as a result of the scandal. The university has repeatedly cited its work to correct procedures and policies, implementing some 70 reforms in the past few years.

UNC officials have apparently kept in close contact with SACS officials during the most recent review, including personal visits to brief them.

That may have been important, as a previous UNC liaison to SACS was taken to task by Wainstein for not acting when red flags emerged during the scandal.

Bobbi Owen, a former senior associate dean, was identified by Wainstein as an administrator who knew in 2005 or 2006 that there were hundreds of independent studies under Julius Nyang’oro, the former AFAM chairman. The report said Owen asked Nyang’oro to lunch to crack down on the proliferation of independent studies and told him to “rein in” Deborah Crowder, the department manager who ran the scheme.

Owen told the Wainstein team she did not remember such a meeting or concerns about the number of independent studies in AFAM, the report said. She did say she recalled conversations with an athletics official about the propriety of AFAM lecture courses that were conducted as independent studies.

Wainstein’s report said Owen’s “inexplicable decision” not to press the issue about the independent studies allowed the paper class scheme to go on longer.

Owen has been a point person for UNC on assembling reports for SACS accreditation reviews for years.

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