College Sports

NCAA allegations say UNC lacked institutional control

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

When the first signs of the paper class scandal at UNC emerged nearly four years ago, the NCAA sided with university officials who found no athletic motive. Hundreds of nonathletes were in the classes too and had also received the same high grades.

The NCAA’s enforcement division now has a different view. On Thursday, UNC released the NCAA’s notice of allegations that found athletes in several sports, particularly football and men’s and women’s basketball, received “special arrangements” from an academic support program that catered only to athletes, steering them to classes, suggesting grades and in some cases writing portions of their papers.

The NCAA’s enforcement staff accused UNC of having a lack of institutional control, one of the most serious charges that can be levied by the organization, and of allowing dozens of instances of impermissible benefits to athletes. UNC faces major sanctions that could bring severe penalties such as vacated wins, hefty fines and postseason bans.

The report hit former faculty leader Jan Boxill with numerous instances of improper help to athletes, but it did not cite specific athletic officials or coaches for impropriety or lack of oversight. Boxill, who resigned earlier this year, was a former academic counselor to the women’s basketball team, a philosophy professor and director of the Parr Center for Ethics at the school.

“There’s no way anyone can read that and think it’s a good day for Carolina,” said Gene Marsh, an attorney and former chairman of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions.

UNC officials offered little clue as to how they will respond to the allegations. The university received the notice of allegations on May 20 and has 90 days from that date to respond.

Chancellor Carol Folt could not be reached for an interview but said in a statement:

“We take the allegations the NCAA made about past conduct very seriously. This is the next step in a defined process, and we are a long way from reaching a conclusion. We will respond to the notice using facts and evidence to present a full picture of our case.

“Although we may identify some instances in the NCAA’s notice where we agree and others where we do not, we are committed to continue pursuing a fair and just outcome for Carolina.”

Former chancellors Holden Thorp and James Moeser declined to comment on the report.

Athletic director Bubba Cunningham spoke about the report during a conference call Thursday.

“I think at times I would be disappointed with maybe actions of what we did as an institution. Other times I’d be disappointed in how things were characterized that I would think would be inaccurate. So I just think of it as a healthy range of emotion, and I think there will be a lot of emotion by a lot of people as everybody reads this from their own perspective.”

Paper classes

The notice of allegations came six months after Kenneth Wainstein, a former top U.S. Justice Department official, delivered an extensive report that found strong ties between the fake classes and athlete eligibility. He reported that Debby Crowder, the longtime administrative manager for the African and Afro-American Studies department, had created them in 1993 after the academic support program for athletes complained about independent studies that required too many meetings.

Crowder responded by creating independent studies that had no professor. She assigned a paper and provided high grades so long as one was turned in. In the late 1990s, Crowder began converting lecture-style classes into the paper classes, in part because the university had limits on how many independent studies a student could use toward graduation.

Her boss, department chairman Julius Nyang’oro, not only knew about the fake classes, he offered a few more after she retired in 2009.

More than 3,100 students enrolled in the classes, roughly half of them athletes, who are less than 5 percent of the student body. Several experts have said the academic fraud is the worst in NCAA history.

The NCAA report, which relies heavily on Wainstein’s findings, found the athletes received preferential treatment.

“The AFRI/AFAM department created anomalous courses that went unchecked for 18 years,” the report said. “This allowed individuals within ASPSA to use these courses through special arrangements to maintain the eligibility of academically at-risk student-athletes, particularly in the sports of football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball.”

The NCAA report does not address how many athletes may have been kept eligible to play through the bogus classes. It found that 10 athletes exceeded the university’s 12-hour credit limit on independent studies from fall 2006 through summer 2011.

Crowder and Nyang’oro did not cooperate with the NCAA, which resulted in two more allegations of serious noncompliance from the association. The report showed numerous officials and staff were interviewed by the NCAA, including men’s basketball coach Roy Williams, former football coach Butch Davis, women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell and former Athletic Director Dick Baddour.

The notice of allegations blamed academic officials, and particularly the College of Arts & Sciences, for failing to properly monitor the academic support program and Boxill.

The program has been under the arts and sciences college for many years, but Wainstein found that staff there saw their role as serving the athletic department, with John Blanchard, a former senior associate athletic director, as the de facto boss. Blanchard retired two years ago.

Nyang’oro resigned from his chair position in 2011 and was forced to retire in July 2012. Boxill resigned in February 2015, months after the university took action to fire her.

A severe notice of allegations

Stuart Brown, a lawyer who handles athletic compliance cases, said UNC could have been in a worse situation with the NCAA given the length of the scandal, the number of athletes involved and the way the fake classes worked.

“It’s as benign as can be, realistically,” he said, “but still a very severe notice of allegations.”

He noted the NCAA did not hit UNC with academic misconduct, which would likely lead to heavier penalties.

“The person on the street might say, ‘If this isn’t an academic fraud allegation, what possibly could be?” Brown said.

The NCAA’s use of the “lack of institutional” control tag makes this investigation different from the one five years ago that began when the NCAA interviewed a handful of UNC football players, including current NFL players Marvin Austin, Greg Little and Robert Quinn, for taking improper gifts and benefits from sports agents.

The NCAA handed down its punishment in that case in March 2012, nine months after UNC received the NOA in June 2011.

The NOA effectively sets a timetable for the conclusion of the prolonged investigation into one of the most complex academic scandals in NCAA history. Under the normal timetable, UNC will meet with the NCAA in Indianapolis in three months and receive a ruling in nine months, likely by March 2016.

Marsh said the NCAA has been using the impermissible or “extra” benefit rule to cover academic misconduct in recent cases because many universities don’t provide a clear definition as to what it is.

“The philosophy is let the schools decide first through their own disciplinary process if these set of facts are academic fraud or academic misconduct,” Marsh said. “And if they conclude that it’s academic fraud, boom, the NCAA will use that. But if they do not, the NCAA does not walk away, they will use extra benefits.”

Staff writer Joe Giglio contributed to this story

Cast of characters

Debby Crowder

Crowder, the longtime administrative manager for the African and Afro-American Studies department, first created the bogus classes.

Julius Nyang’oro

The former African and Afro-American Studies department chair who knew Crowder offered the fake classes and offered a few more when she retired.

Jan Boxill

The former faculty leader is charged with numerous instances of improper help to athletes. She was a former academic counselor to the women’s basketball team, a philosophy professor and director of the UNC Parr Center for Ethics.

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