The NCAA’s Committee on Infractions could not find any violations of its rules regarding academics in UNC’s long-running fraudulent classes case, the athletics governing body announced Friday. The University will not be sanctioned.
The committee said in a statement that it “could not conclude that the university failed to monitor or lacked control over its athletics program,” the allegation UNC feared most.
The committee found two minor violations related to noncooperation in the NCAA investigation by Julius Nyang’oro, former chair of what once was known as African and African-American studies, now called African, African American and diaspora studies; and Deborah Crowder ’75, that department’s former administrative assistant.
“A Division I Committee on Infractions hearing panel could not conclude that the University of North Carolina violated NCAA academic rules when it made available deficient Department of African and Afro-American Studies ‘paper courses’ to the general student body, including student-athletes,” the statement said.
Greg Sankey, the panel’s chief hearing officer and commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, said: “While student-athletes likely benefited from the so-called ‘paper courses’ offered by North Carolina, the information available in the record did not establish that the courses were solely created, offered and maintained as an orchestrated effort to benefit student-athletes. The panel is troubled by the university’s shifting positions about whether academic fraud occurred on its campus and the credibility of the Cadwalader report [also known as the Kenneth Wainstein report], which it distanced itself from after initially supporting the findings. However, NCAA policy is clear. The NCAA defers to its member schools to determine whether academic fraud occurred and, ultimately, the panel is bound to making decisions within the rules set by the membership.”
The committee said that “its ability to determine whether academic fraud occurred at UNC was limited by the NCAA principle relying on individual member schools to determine whether academic fraud occurred on their own campuses. North Carolina said the work was assigned, completed, turned in and graded, often by the former secretary, under the professor’s guidelines. While the university admitted the courses failed to meet its own expectations and standards, the university maintained that the courses did not violate its policies at the time.”
“The panel also did not conclude, based on the record before it, that extra benefits were provided to student-athletes,” the committee continued.
The University acknowledged in 2014 that it did not provide proper oversight of African and African-American studies and that the paper-classes arrangement was wrong and should have been discovered and stopped much earlier. But as the NCAA brought allegations against it, UNC insisted that what happened did not violate NCAA rules.
Gradually, that became the key question in the case.
Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham, speaking at a media teleconference, said: “Sometimes the behavior that you’re not proud of just doesn’t quite fit into a bylaw or a rule or something, and that’s what we’ve been talking about for five years. We’re not proud of the behavior, but we didn’t think it violated the bylaws, and today the Committee on Infractions revealed to us that they came to that same conclusion.”
Chancellor Carol L. Folt addressed the decision in a statement: “Carolina long ago publicly accepted responsibility for what happened in the past. One of the highest priorities of this administration has been to resolve this issue by following the facts, understanding what occurred, and taking every opportunity to make our University stronger.
“I believe we have done everything possible to correct and move beyond the past academic irregularities and have established very robust processes to prevent them from recurring.”
Folt said this was the outcome she expected, and added: “This isn’t a time of celebration.” She emphasized that the University has instituted some 70 reforms in academic policy and practice as a result of the revelations.
The paper-only classes arrangement was created by Nyang’oro and administered largely by Crowder ’75, who managed enrollment and graded papers. Crowder testified before the NCAA’s enforcement staff in May after having refused multiple requests to talk earlier. Nyang’oro answered questions asked by Wainstein and, in exchange for the state’s agreement to drop a felony fraud charge, cooperated with the State Bureau of Investigation as it looked into the affair, but he never spoke with the NCAA.
With Nyang’oro’s blessing, Crowder operated the scheme over about 18 years. In the 12 years between 1999 and 2011, there were 3,933 enrollments in the paper classes and varsity athletes represented 47.6 percent of those enrollments — primarily football and men’s basketball players. Athletes make up less than 5 percent of the student body.
For years, the NCAA declined to dig into the scandal. It visited the campus in fall 2011 and later said, in 2012 and again in 2013, that it saw no apparent violations in the fake classes. NCAA officials never gave a full explanation, but experts said the fraud would not be in the NCAA’s purview if it was open to all students and lacked involvement by athletic personnel.
The NCAA’s posture changed in 2014 after Wainstein began investigating the fraud at the University’s behest. Wainstein’s October 2014 report placed most of the onus on Crowder but also cited a number of key people whom the report says knew for years what Crowder was doing.
With regard to Jan Boxill, the former philosophy lecturer whom the NCAA had alleged had knowingly provided improper benefits to athletes, the infractions committee concluded that the record “did not discredit” Boxill’s statements to the committee “regarding a consistent level of assistance to all students. As a result, the panel could not conclude that she provided women’s basketball student-athletes with extra benefits or acted unethically.”
The NCAA’s statement made reference to Boxill, Nyang’oro and Crowder without naming them, and no UNC coaches or administrators were referenced.
On the day Wainstein’s report came out, UNC announced it was firing four people and disciplining five others for their involvement in the scheme. The next year, the University fired two more people and banned a former senior administrator from ever holding an administrative position at UNC again.
UNC eventually disowned Wainstein’s findings and told the NCAA it should not consider them in its case.
The NCAA’s interest in academic fraud at UNC goes back five years, but suspicions were aroused two years earlier. In October 2010, then-Chancellor Holden Thorp ’86 said the NCAA had uncovered possible academic misconduct involving an undergraduate student tutor and some players on the football team.
The next summer, court documents revealed that football player Michael McAdoo ’12 had plagiarized a paper in a course in the department of African and African-American studies. In August 2011, The News & Observer obtained the transcript of football player Marvin Austin ’12. Though his SAT scores had required him to take remedial writing, he took and made a B-plus in a high-level undergraduate class in African and African-American studies. That month, the University’s counsel notified the NCAA that there might be problems in that department.
McAdoo later told the newspaper that his academic career was a sham of courses designed to keep him eligible to play and presented himself as victim of a system that didn’t care about his academics.
(McAdoo and Austin both were kicked out of the football program.)
UNC began an internal investigation soon afterward and found irregularities in more than 50 classes. In 2012, the SBI began looking into the program.
The following summer, football player Hakeem Nicks ’10 was found to have received improper academic help. NCAA documents called the case “academic fraud.” Meanwhile, the transcript of star football player Julius Peppers ’02 from 10 years earlier surfaced and showed that, but for his high grades in AFAM classes, he was in danger of being declared ineligible to play.
An investigation led by former Gov. James Martin in 2012 found that Nyang’oro’s practice of getting approval for lecture courses that involved no lectures but a single paper due at the semester’s end started in 1997 — just months after African and African-American studies was elevated from a curriculum to a department. Martin found patterns of faculty no-show classes that peaked in 2005-06 and then dropped precipitously — to near zero by 2009, the year Crowder retired.
Related to the investigations, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools initially declared UNC out of compliance with accreditation principles, then declined to sanction it, recommending that the University offer makeup classes to those who took the fraudulent AFAM classes. After a second review of the situation, SACS placed UNC on a year’s probation in June 2015. The probation was lifted a year later. After reviewing the infractions committee’s decision, SACS President Belle Wheelan said the association had no plans to get involved again.
Members of the Committee on Infractions, along with Sankey, are Carol Cartwright, president emeritus at Kent State University and Bowling Green University; Alberto Gonzales, dean of the law school at Belmont University (Nashville, Tenn.) and former attorney general of the United States; Eleanor W. Myers, associate professor of law emerita and former faculty athletics representative at Temple University; Joseph D. Novak, former head football coach at Northern Illinois University; and Jill Pilgrim, an attorney in private practice.
The documents in the case are available at carolinacommitment.unc.edu/updates.