Should UNC Get The Real Death Penalty For Academic Fraud?

By Mark Esposito, FFS Contributor

This coming Wednesday is a big day in the State of North Carolina. No, it’s not just the anniversary of the election of Gertrude McKee as the state’s first female state senator in 1931, but rather it’s delivery day for an important document from the University of North Carolina’s (at Chapel Hill) Administration. McKee was an early voice against child labor in Carolina which is why I think she’d have taken a keen interest in the reply letter that UNC will deliver to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools – Commission on Colleges (“SACSCOC”) next week.

The reason for the document is well-known but bears repeating. After a half-hearted investigation into academic fraud at UNC prompted by a series of allegations of irregularities in the football program, a former governor declared that, despite red flags showing that UNC athletes in the two major revenue sports were woefully ill-prepared for the the once considered rigorous academics at the school, the problem was contained to the academic side of the campus and was the work of two rogue employees in the African and  African-American Studies program (“AFAM”). Or so that’s what they told former Virginia Secretary of Education, Belle Wheelan, who now heads the SACSCOC. Carol Folt, who is the chancellor at UNC, confirmed that the problem was contained to the AFAM program and that:

Every person I  have met at Carolina cares deeply about the integrity of this wonderful University; we are committed to the meaningful reforms that have been put in place and determined to make sure that an academic problem of this nature and magnitude never happens again.

(You can read the April 2014 letter here.)

Never, that is, until whistleblower Mary Willingham, (discussed here on the blog) developed enough pang of conscience to come forward and blow the lid off of  a near twenty-year scam of phony classes and other academic frauds like professor-free independent study courses that involved over 3000 students with almost half being Tarheel athletes steered there by some in the athletic department that valued eligibility over education and others who looked the other way to keep their gilded jobs.

The players in the scheme involved the long-time chair of UNC’s Department of African and Afro-American Studies, Julius Nyang’oro, and his erstwhile secretary cum grade-broker, Deborah Crowder, who conspired with athletic counselors and at least one dean (who ironically ran the school’s Parr Center for Ethics) to run phony lecture  classes and independent studies courses to curate that most prized possession of  D1 football and basketball schools, the eligible star athlete.

Stung by the criticism generated by Willingham’s going public with reports of 18-year-old high school “educated” athletes who needed help sounding out the word “Wis-con-sin” and figures showing 60 percent of which were reading at fourth- to eighth-grade levels with a mind boggling 10 percent below a third-grade level, Folt commissioned former US Attorney, Kenneth Wainstein, a no-nonsense UVa and Cal-Berkeley trained guy who spent his time in public service ferreting out both terrorists and white-collar criminals to figure out what happened.

If Folt and the rest of the table-talkers at UNC thought this was just another subpoena-free bull session as two other probes into the tense intersection between UNC academics and athletes had been, they were sorely mistaken. Wainstein didn’t head right to campus with his investigators. Instead, he made a stop by the office of Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall, who had secured a grand jury charge of fraud against Nyang’oro for taking payment for classes he didn’t teach.

Woodall, prompted by Wainstein, traded the ticky-tac felony charge of  obtaining money by false pretenses into a chance to get to the truth about the phony classes by offering Nyang’oro a deal. Cooperate with Wainstein totally and the charges disappear. As Woodall put it, ” [Nyang’oro has provided] invaluable information that they could have gotten from no other source.”

Wainstein was practically ebullient,”He has met with us on multiple occasions, he has answered all of our questions regarding the academic and athletic dimensions of the irregular courses offered in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, and he has provided important insights and information we would otherwise not have received. In sum, his cooperation has contributed significantly to the progress that our investigation has made to date.”

And sing he did, to the tune of 3100 students deprived of a meaningful education using a combination of their own laziness, poor academic preparation, and a zeal to keep the crowd cheering in the Dean Dome and Kenan Memorial Stadium. Phony classes were just the start as dial-a-grade soon became the work of basketball cozy, Deborah Crowder, who ran the illicit program. A couple of emails tell the depths UNC was willing to go to keep the kids eligible and the turnstiles turning.

First, Dean Jan Boxill, academic counselor to the women’s basketball team and distinguished professor of ethics, discussing a dial-a-grade for an essay by an unnamed UNC hooper:

Crowder: As long as I am here I will try to accommodate as many favors as possible. Did you say a D will do for [basketball player]? I’m only asking that because 1. no sources, 2. it has absolutely nothing to do with the assignments for that class and 3. it seems to me to be a recycled paper. She took AFRI in spring of 2007 and that was likely for that class.

Boxill: Yes, a D will be fine; that’s all she needs. I didn’t look at the paper but figured it was a recycled one as well, but I couldn’t figure from where! Thanks for whatever you can do.

Then the second, an exchange between Crowder and UNC men’s basketball academics wrangler, Wayne Walden, over a learning disabled b-baller who needed to stay eligible on a team just coming off a national championship in the preceding April:

Walden:  I hope this finds you doing well. I am wondering if it is still possible for a student to add a course for this semester. We have a student with some diagnosed learning disabilities and we are trying to help him with his reading and writing skills while also tutoring him in his current courses. I sense that he is getting a little overwhelmed and wondered if there might be a course that you would recommend that he might still be able to add in order that he might drop one of his current courses. If there is a course that you would recommend that we could use to help him develop his reading and writing skills, that would be appreciated. I certainly understand if it is too late but I just wanted to explore any options that we might have ….

Crowder: Hi, Wayne. I hope you are fine as well. Ms. Janet has talked to me at length (twice) this weekend about the student in question and I had told her no. We are getting pressure from on-high to reduce the numbers of independent study type courses in the dept. and it is hard to justify giving one to [male basketball player] who has not had one of our introductory courses. Janet assures me that she can work with the student and that it will be in his best long term interest to take this class. I will fill out an add form for AFAM that he can pick up at his convenience and he can drop the other course at the same time. … I do hope it helps.

You can read the 131 page (not counting addenda) Wainstein report here.

While the roar from around the Tarheel state has been crystal clear, the cry from most corners of academe has been more muted as the mortar board crowd all seem to have some skeletons to hide. Once notable exception is Brian C. Rosenberg, the president of little Macalester College in Minnesota that boasts distinguished alumni like Kofi Annan,  former UN Secretary General, and Walter Mondale among a host of  other academicians, judges, public officials, artists and entrepreneurs that would take a book to list.

Rosenberg takes the issue head-on in an op-ed piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education with the blunt title: “UNC-Chapel Hill Should Lose Accreditation.” (Read it here). For Rosenberg like many in the academia, the issue is only tangentially athletic. The rot lies not in the motivation for the corruption but in the affect on the very credibility of higher learning.  Rosenberg writes:

This is not chiefly an athletics issue, though the students involved are disproportionately intercollegiate athletes. Nor is it primarily a matter for the NCAA, which is more a cause of than a solution to the problem of athletics in American higher education.

This is an issue of institutional integrity, a violation of the most basic assumption upon which the credibility of any college or university is based: that the grades and credits represented on the transcripts of its students are an accurate reflection of the work actually done. Absent this assurance, a transcript—a degree—from the institution has lost its meaning.

Rosenberg also has some definite ideas on how to handle this level of on-going and deep academic fraud that passed through several UNC administrations. He has no patience for the lame argument that the scheme was designed to help underprivileged students succeed.  Rosenberg’s response is that “awarding credits and grades without providing instruction is not ‘help’ in any sense that I can accept. In the case of student athletes, I see it as closer to exploitation for the benefit of the university.”

And exploitation no matter how beautifully wrapped still strikes a dagger at the mission of universities which is first and foremost to educate; a mission clouded in the artificial fog of athletic success and the tainted lucre that drives it. Lucre gained in large measure off the backs of today’s “child” laborers who toil on fields and gyms around the nation and whose health is every bit as jeopardized by the Big Time College Sports machinery as weaving machines were to younger kids of the 30s in the textile mills of Burlington. It’s an irony that I’m sure would not be lost on Gertrude McKee.

Recently, a former UNC athlete has sued the school claiming a breach of promise by the school in failing to provide an education in return for the athletic performances that gained him a free tuition and books and apparently little more.

Michael McAdoo, a gridiron star, who wanted to be a criminal justice major but was denied that right because it wouldn’t fit his practice schedule, was declared ineligible by the UNC for getting too much help on an essay in a course of study he neither chose nor wanted. “I lost an education. I lost trust in the school — someone I thought had my best interest. I definitely lost out on two seasons of football which would have put me in a better situation than I am now,” says McAdoo.

According to his lawyer, Jeremi Duru, a Washington University law professor, “UNC has reaped substantial profits from football student-athletes’ performance for the school, but it has not provided them a legitimate education in return.”

The lawsuit might answer even more questions about academic fraud at UNC because unlike Wainstein, Duru has the power of the subpoena and with it he might encourage folks who refused to speak to Wainstein to now divulge all that they know about the scandal. They include former interim football coach Everett Withers, now head at JMU (disclosure: I’m a JMU graduate and played football there my freshman year), and former director of football operations Cynthia Reynolds, now at Cornell. Both Withers and Reynolds along with others refused cooperation with Wainstein some even going so far as to threaten a harassment suit or police involvement if they were contacted again.

Those “substantial profits” Duru alludes to  might come at a dear price depending upon what SACSCOC thinks of the reply from UNC in response to its questioning of the “due diligence” shown by UNC in investigating the academic fraud not once or twice but three times. (Read the letter of inquiry here). SACSCOC  seems skeptical, if its director, Belle Wheelan,  is to be believed: “It is huge. It’s bigger than anything with which we’ve dealt before. … I just don’t know in what direction the board is going to go.”

Accreditation by the regional body is critical to the viability of any university as it is the threshold to federal money including student loans and research grants. Lose it and you might just as well lock the gates of the college for good.

Dr. Rosenberg has a forceful suggestion for both UNC and SACSCOC:

Any accrediting agency that would overlook a violation of this magnitude would both delegitimize itself and appear hopelessly hypocritical if it attempted, now or in the future, to threaten or sanction institutions—generally those with much less wealth and influence—for violations much smaller in scale.

Most of us work very hard to conform to the standards imposed by our regional accrediting agencies and the federal government. If falsified grades and transcripts for more than 3,000 students over more than a decade are viewed as anything other than an egregious violation of those standards, my response to the whole accreditation process is simple: Why bother?

Why bother? Indeed.

What do you think? Has UNC done enough for the boot or should it get another chance?

Sourced Throughout

~Mark Esposito, FFS Contributor

About mespo727272

I 'm a plaintiff's personal injury attorney with 30 years of trial experience practicing with my law school classmate in Richmond, Virginia. You can read all about me here:
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12 Responses to Should UNC Get The Real Death Penalty For Academic Fraud?

  1. Given the depth of the problem and the ethical issues? Probably so. However, that doesn’t address what kinds of problems that would naturally arise from such an action, not the least of which is a horde of students that may be saddled with debt and credits that they may not be able to transfer. It’s a sticky wicket and a fine illustration of why I think collegiate athletics needs to go in general. If the NBA and NFL want a farm team system? Let them fund it themselves like MLB does. School is for education first. But the sad thing is is that I’m betting that UNC isn’t the only school where athletes “get a pass” on the academics. Not with the kind of money at stake the modern college athletics brings to bear. Good column, Mark. Good question.

  2. blouise says:

    If the NBA and NFL want a farm team system? Let them fund it themselves like MLB does. School is for education first. – Gene

    Just great. Now what are all the “bag men” gonna do with all their burner phones? This university sports thing is one, huge, criminal enterprise.

  3. buckaroo says:

    Slavery comes in many different forms – doesn’t it ?

  4. “Slavery” may be too strong a word, but “exploitation” isn’t.

  5. Slartibartfast says:

    As someone who has both taught classes and done research at UNC (and never even once* rooted for one of their sports teams—on several occasions emphatically so**) I thought I should weigh in on this. First off, UNC is the one who got caught and while, from the looks of things, they are probably one of the most extreme offenders, this kind of thing goes on at pretty much every university which depends on money (or “advertising”—applications to Appalachian State skyrocketed after they beat UofM in football) from their athletic programs. Also, it seems to me that this is less of a threat to overall academic integrity than the flip side of the coin—grade inflation.

    In the case of UNC, the victims would be the athletes themselves and the beneficiaries would be the athletic programs (and their supporters). This “rot”, so to speak, didn’t really involve the research of the University at all, and I’m sure nearly all of the academic faculty (and an even higher proportion of the students) knew nothing about it as well. I would far sooner threaten Harvard’s accreditation over grade inflation (which victimizes students who earn their grades at lesser institutions in favor of their own students) than to make martyrs of the faculty and students of UNC for the actions they had no knowledge of or control over.

    In my opinion, the only effect of an overreaction like that would be to give the hypocrites the illusion of being “tough on crime” while avoiding any kind of substantive changes that would address the problem (at UNC or in general).

    This is an issue about scholarship “student athletes” and, honestly, scholarships are the only tool that is both necessary and sufficient to solve this problem. Want the “death penalty”? Give UNC no basketball scholarships for several years. Some leniency? Any reduction in scholarships (as well as allowing current athletes to transfer without penalty) seriously hurts a program at UNC’s level (ask Penn State). Want to prevent recurrence? Force athletes to pass independent testing to verify what they learned as a condition for their scholarship for the next year.

    I’m a big believer in the right tool for the right job and even Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor would think that messing with UNC’s accreditation was using too much power. Not to mention applying it in the wrong place to get the desired effect.

    * Well, okay, once, but, in my defense, they were playing the University of Michigan in the NCAA championship game.

    ** I even had a role in the infamous “speedo guy” incident.

  6. Slartibartfast says:

    For the record, I didn’t have any football or basketball players in my Calc I for bio majors or my Calc III courses.

  7. bettykath says:

    Didn’t a woman get bounced from Penn State for calling out similar preferential treatment for football players? I went to Syracuse and I heard similar things about the jocks getting easy classes and easy grades and I wasn’t in a liberal arts program.

  8. bigfatmike says:

    ” This “rot”, so to speak, didn’t really involve the research of the University at all, and I’m sure nearly all of the academic faculty (and an even higher proportion of the students) knew nothing about it as well.”

    I think that is true but irrelevant. The treatment of athletes involves not just the athletic department but unethical conduct by of those directly responsible for academic standards.

    There is nothing that naturally limits or minimizes this kind of corruption. The direct actions will be different, of course. But if we minimize or cast a blind eye to this unethical conduct we can expect to see analogous corruption in other areas. It is easy to imagine similar corruption related to intellectual property developed by research departments, or in the interaction of the business school with corporations. This kind of corruption stops when we make it stop. I will not stop because there is something unique about the athletic department.

    Of course we should try to minimize the effect on ordinary students who had nothing to do with this.

    But I see no alternative to severe action toward the administration.

    And I believe that whistle blowers must be protected and presented to the community as responsible actors deserving of admiration. Otherwise the benefit of any attempts at reform will be diminished.

    Finally, what should we do? I think the death penalty is too broad and does not really get at the problem. Instead I would like to see a comprehensive set of requirements that might include probation with the threat of the death penalty unless specif goals are achieved. The goals would have to include things like independent investigation leading the termination of those who carried out the program; implementation of specific safeguards for whistle blowers, recognition and compensations for whistle blowers in this case; identification, compensation, and remediation for those educations were damaged by these activities.

    Perhaps most important of all, there would have to be changes in the way major college athletic programs are conducted. Some changes I would like to see would include, limitation of coaches salaries to those paid to full professors, limitation of time spent in athletic activities to no more than the equivalent of one or two courses per semester, allocation of revenues from sports to the general university budget subject and to the same budgeting procedures as all other university income. I am sure there are many other changes to university athletic programs necessary to return athletes to the status of student/athletes they once were.

  9. blouise17 says:

    BFM has given careful thought to this matter. Each of his ideas are discussion worthy. I particularly like: ” … limitation of time spent in athletic activities to no more than the equivalent of one or two courses per semester,…”

  10. mespo727272 says:

    I second blouise and bfm.

  11. But . . . but . . . but that’s a common sense approach to the problem!

    No one will ever buy that.

  12. blouise says:



    Think how well that particular suggestion fits into yours: “If the NBA and NFL want a farm team system? Let them fund it themselves like MLB does.” The NBA/NFL could simply take possession of those stadiums and courts, move right in and release the universities. The infrastructure is already built. It’s very doable.

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