Widespread Chapel Hill academic fraud laid bare

An academic fraud scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took root under a departmental secretary and die-hard Tar Heel fan, who was egged on by athletics advisers to create no-show classes that would keep under-prepared and unmotivated players eligible.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

Over nearly two decades, professors, coaches and administrators either participated in the scheme or overlooked it, undercutting the core values of one of the United States' premier public universities.

Such are the sobering findings of an eight-month investigation led by Kenneth L Wainstein, a long-time official of the US Justice Department who was hired by the university to get to the bottom of a scandal that came to light four years ago.

Wainstein’s 136-page report, made public last month, lays much of the blame at the feet of Deborah Crowder, a secretary and then manager in the department of African and Afro-American studies, which is often called AFAM.

Crowder worked with Julius E Nyang’oro, who was then chair of the department, to develop what the report calls a “shadow curriculum” that awarded students, many of them athletes, with high grades for classes that required no attendance and minimal work.

Crowder and Nyang’oro’s role in academic fraud has long been acknowledged, but the new report is the first to reveal the broad involvement of a variety of actors, including a faculty leader and other professors in the AFAM department.

The investigation delves deeply into the motives of central players and provides a complex picture of Crowder, a relatively low-level operator who investigators say acted as a professor in all but name, routinely grading students’ papers and forging faculty signatures.

“Crowder provided the students with no actual instruction, but she managed the courses from beginning to end,” the report states.

“When Crowder graded papers,” the report continues, “she did so generously – typically with A’s or high B’s – and largely without regard to the quality of the papers. The result was that thousands of Chapel Hill students received high grades, a large number of whom did not earn those high grades with high quality work.”

The report estimates that more than 3,100 students received "irregular instruction" in the department’s "paper classes", which did not meet and required only a single paper for credit.

Student athletes were disproportionately represented in the classes, accounting for 47.6% of enrolments, while making up just 4% of the undergraduate student body.

Chapel Hill officials have previously played down the suggestion that the scandal was an athletics one.

The report lays bare, however, that athletes, particularly football and basketball players, enrolled in the classes at high rates, received better grades than their non-athlete peers, and were steered toward the classes by counsellors who joked about how easy these ‘GPA booster’ classes were.

Looking at motivations

Wainstein’s investigation was yet another in a long series of university inquiries, none of which has managed to bring a close to a scandal that has been repeatedly revived by new allegations made by former athletes and a steady drumbeat of national media coverage.

Chapel Hill officials said this inquiry was distinctive and definitive because it was the first to have the cooperation of the two key players, but some of the most damning new evidence in Wainstein’s report comes in the form of internal documents and emails that the university presumably had access to all along.

Crowder and Nyang’oro’s motivations have been the subject of great speculation, and the report concludes that their sympathies for struggling students and enthusiasm for athletics both played a role.

There is no indication, however, that they sought to profit from the scheme or hoped to elevate the stature of the department by bolstering its popularity for all the wrong reasons.

The personal biographies of both Crowder and Nyang’oro figure prominently into the report’s discussion of their alleged motives.

Crowder attended Chapel Hill from 1971 to 1975 and told people that "she was left adrift by a faculty and staff that focused on ‘the best and the brightest’ and failed to pay attention to students like herself who needed direction and support", the report says. She felt it was her duty, investigators said, to help others who faced similar struggles, particularly athletes.

As for Nyang’oro, the department chair said he was haunted by the fates of two athletes he had taught early in his career. Both lost eligibility due to grades, and their lives were forever altered. One returned to his hometown, where he was murdered. The other wound up in jail.

In a telling email to Crowder, Nyang’oro once complained that professors in the department "bitch as if there’s no tomorrow" when asked to "help out a sinking kid".

The report largely absolves high-level administrators of having direct knowledge of the fraud, but it blames a decentralised management style for allowing the fraud to go on for 18 years.

Chapel Hill’s esteemed academic reputation also created a "blind spot", Wainstein said in an interview. There was a sense that "this kind of thing just wouldn’t happen here", he said.

"I feel shocked and very disappointed," Carol L Folt, the campus chancellor, said in an interview. "I think it’s a case where you have bad actions of a few and inactions of many more."

Based on the report, Folt said, nine employees are being terminated or are under disciplinary review.

"Make no mistake," the chancellor said, "we are absolutely taking action."

Folt succeeded H Holden Thorp, who resigned in 2012 amid controversy over the fraud and several other athletics-related matters.

Nyang’oro told investigators that he felt Thorp had offered tacit approval for the AFAM department’s favourable treatment of athletes, but the report lends the charge little credence.

Panic in the football programme

Chapel Hill’s football team became particularly reliant upon sham classes as a means of keeping athletes eligible, the report states, and academic advisers to the programme demonstrated abject panic when they learned that Crowder planned to retire.

In a 2009 email, Cynthia R Reynolds, associate director of the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes and director of football, sounded the alarm that the programme’s fortunes were about to change.

"Ms Crowder is retiring at the end of July…if the guys are not in…I would expect D’s or C’s at best," she wrote. "Most need better than that…ALL WORK FROM THE AFAM DEPT MUST BE DONE AND TURNED IN ON THE LAST DAY OF CLASS."

Wainstein’s team searched 1.6 million emails and electronic documents dating to the 1980s. The most damning may have been a PowerPoint presentation that academic counsellors in the football programme gave to coaches as Crowder’s retirement approached.

During the presentation, Beth Bridger and Jaimie Lee, both football counselling staff members, explained that the AFAM paper classes had been "part of the solution" for the football team’s eligibility challenges. The slide read:

"We put them in classes that met degree requirements in which
They didn’t go to class
They didn’t take notes, have to stay awake
They didn’t have to meet with professors
They didn’t have to pay attention or necessarily engage with the material.

Bridger, who had since taken a position as an adviser at North Carolina’s Wilmington campus, was fired last month, the Wilmington Star-News reported.

Paul H (Butch) Davis Jr, who was head football coach at the time of the presentation, was at the meeting with "most, if not all" of the coaching staff, the report states. Davis told investigators that he did not recall the presentation, and he denied knowing that grades were being given without faculty involvement.

In a call with reporters, Wainstein seemed to take issue with the former coach’s assertion.

"We didn’t get evidence that those exact words were passed, that somebody said Debbie Crowder does all the grading," Wainstein said. "A fair reading of that slide would suggest that Debbie Crowder was the one behind those classes."

Davis, who was fired in 2011, told investigators that he learned early in his tenure that Chapel Hill’s highly touted academic standards for players were not as advertised.

"He quickly realised that there was lots of talk about the importance of academics without anything to back up that talk," the report says. "He found Chapel Hill’s attitude toward student-athlete academics to be like an ‘Easter egg’, beautiful and impressive to the outside world, but without much life inside."

During their PowerPoint presentation, football counsellors worked to underscore the gravity of Crowder’s imminent retirement.

To drive this point home, they showed another slide comparing eight players’ grade-point averages in AFAM classes with their GPAs in other classes. The numbers put the story in sharp relief: the average GPA in the paper classes was 3.61, compared with 1.92 in other classes.

The fallout from Crowder’s retirement was precipitous. In the autumn of 2009, the first semester after Crowder stepped down, the football team posted a grade-point average of 2.1, its lowest in 10 years. Forty-eight players had a semester GPA of less than 2.0.

Faced with the knowledge that athletes’ eligibility was at serious risk, football counsellors quickly scrambled to persuade Nyang’oro to pick up where Crowder had left off, the report says. The chair acquiesced, offering six more classes in the spirit of those routinely given by ‘Professor Debbie’, as Crowder came to be known among students. One class had 13 football players.

Before awarding students' grades, Nyang’oro asked his assistant to look up their grade-point averages. He was mindful to never give a grade that would hinder a student’s eligibility "regardless of paper quality", the report states.

On occasion, however, the grade a player needed to stay on the field or court was all too clear. Investigators found evidence that Reynolds, the football adviser, requested that Crowder and Nyang’oro "award specific grades to certain student athletes".

Those sorts of requests, the report says, also came from another source that is arguably more troubling: Jeanette M Boxill.

Boxill, an academic counsellor to women’s basketball, is a former chair of the faculty and former director of Chapel Hill’s Parr Center for Ethics. According to her online biography, Boxill is working on a book titled Front Porch Ethics: The moral significance of sport.

Email exchanges between Boxill and Crowder suggest the two worked hand-in-glove to keep athletes eligible. In 2008, for example, Crowder wrote that she would "accommodate as many favours as possible", a statement that investigators interpreted as Crowder’s pledge to award athletes whatever grades were needed.

In one exchange, regarding a basketball player, Crowder asked Boxill if "a D will do."

"I’m only asking," Crowder wrote, "because 1. No sources, 2, it has absolutely nothing to do with the assignments for the class and 3. It seems to be a recycled paper."

"Yes," Boxill replied, "a D will be fine; that’s all she needs."

Other emails indicated that Boxill helped players to write their papers, which the report characterised as "stepping across that line" of permissible behaviour for a tutor.

In a review of 150 final papers written for AFAM classes, investigators found evidence that suggested plagiarism. In three out of five of the papers, a quarter or more of the text was found to be "unoriginal".

Red flags ignored

After numerous previous investigations into academic fraud at Chapel Hill, one question has persisted as much as any other: how could this have gone on for so long without anyone noticing?

Wainstein’s report is the first to deeply probe the question, and his findings suggest that people at various levels throughout the university had numerous opportunities to ask tough questions that might have brought down the whole house of cards. They chose not to.

Time after time, administrators, professors and athletics officials saw red flags and responded anemically or not at all.

Around 2005 or 2006, for example, Roberta (Bobbi) Owen, senior associate dean for undergraduate education, had lunch with Nyang’oro and complained about the "extremely high number" of independent studies he was personally offering. (He sometimes supervised more than 300 in an academic year.)

During the lunch, Owen told Nyang’oro to get Crowder "under control", the report states. When enrolments in independent studies dropped, Owen appeared satisfied, dropping the matter. She never bothered to ask how Nyang’oro could possibly handle so many independent studies, the report says.

"The administration’s inexplicable decision not to press this obvious issue allowed the paper-class scheme to continue for another five years," the report contends.

To varying degrees, professors in the AFAM department also overlooked clear irregularities.

Crowder, for example, regularly asked Tim McMillan, a senior lecturer, to provide her with paper topics for students to write about, the report says.

"He always provided ideas without asking why the office administrator would be performing that faculty function," according to the report.

McMillan even signed grade sheets for courses he knew he had not taught, the report says. When pressed as to why, he had no good answer for investigators.

"We have to conclude that McMillan effectively knew what was happening," the report says, "even if he was careful not to learn all of the details."

The faculty athletics committee is also accused of giving a collective shrug when athletics officials said they had raised concerns about paper classes. Members of the committee dispute that those issues were raised, however.

Finally, the report ascribes some blame to academic advisers outside of athletics, who also referred students to the paper classes. Some of them, along with Crowder, came to be known as the "good old girls network", earning a reputation for helping struggling students to raise their grades with AFAM classes.

In a written statement posted on Chapel Hill’s website late last month, Folt, the chancellor, lamented the "anguish" that the prolonged nature of the crisis had caused. She said she hoped to pivot to a new era, stressing that a "single moment" had never defined the university in its 221-year history.

Still looming, however, is another investigation, by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which may bring with it more sanctions.

Closer to home, professors will wrestle with what this investigation’s new revelations say about their own actions, and what the Wainstein report reveals about how the values of academics and athletics can ever peacefully coexist.

This single moment, it would seem, is not over yet.