More than 3,100 students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — at least half of them athletes — took phony courses with automatic high grades offered by a department called African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM).
There were red flags galore but no one at UNC said a word for nearly twenty years.
Finally Mary Willingham, a UNC learning specialist, questioned the literacy of some athletes. She eventually blew the whistle on the academic fraud.
Ken Wainstein, formerly of the DOJ and now a partner at Cadwallader, said in a report released Wednesday that bogus “research paper” courses were in UNC’s curriculum from 1993 to 2011.
The courses required no attendance. Students only had to submit an independent research paper that no faculty member read. Nearly every paper, including many based entirely on plagiarized sources, received an A or B grade.
“Athletic counselors” who worked for UNC steered athletes into the bogus courses.
The university said in a statement, “These counselors saw the paper classes and the artificially high grades they yielded as key to helping some student-athletes remain eligible.”
A department administrator assigned the grades in the name of the AFAM chairman.
The administrator, Deborah Crowder, retired in 2009 and hasn’t been charged.
Former AFAM chair Julius Nyang’oro was indicted by a grand jury for accepting payment for a summer class he didn’t teach in 2011. The charges were dropped in exchange for his cooperation in the investigation.
According to Wainstein’s report, 994 football players (out of 1,852 athletes) enrolled in fake AFAM classes between 1999 and 2009.
AFAM was never subject to external reviews required every five years by the university because it didn’t have a graduate program.
Nyang’oro was exempt from peer reviews for tenured faculty because he was a department chairman.
UNC said it has now closed those loopholes.
And it absolved all its coaches: “No current coaches were involved in or aware of” the academic fraud, a university statement said.
Wainstein said UNC gave him and his team access to conduct a full investigation.
“We have done just that over the past eight months,” Wainstein’s report said, “interviewing 120 witnesses, collecting and searching 1.6 million emails and other electronic documents and analyzing student transcripts and Chapel Hill course records dating back to the 1980s.”
A GPA of 2.0 is required for graduation from UNC and was generally needed for sports eligibility. Eighty-one students made an overall 2.0 and graduated because of the boost from their AFAM grades. More than 350 were boosted above 2.0 for at least one semester.
The average grade for an AFAM research-paper course was 3.62.
It became common knowledge among student athletes that Crowder didn’t grade the papers based on substance. “As a result,” Wainstein’s report said, many of the papers included “large amounts of unoriginal text.”
The report said,
In a number of cases, students submitted papers with original introductions and conclusions, but with copied “fluff” text in between, because they knew that Crowder typically just skimmed the beginning and the end of a paper before awarding a high grade.
When Crowder announced her retirement, some of the “athletic counselors” panicked. They urged students to submit their research papers before she left.
Ten of the 15 players on North Carolina’s 2005 national championship men’s basketball team were AFAM majors.
The NCAA is conducting a separate investigation that could lead to sanctions against the university’s sports programs.
A copy of Wainstein’s report is here (pdf).
Richard L. Cassin is the publisher and editor of the FCPA Blog. He can be contacted here.