Swept up in scandal

Former UNC student remembers a different Julius Nyang'oro


When Stephanie Buff Preston attended UNC, Julius Nyang’oro was one of the most difficult and challenging professors she had.

Because Nyang’oro’s strict demeanor made the courses interesting, Preston, a 1991 graduate, decided to minor in African studies.

Two decades later, Preston said she can’t believe the professor she once nominated for a teaching award played such a prominent role in the largest academic scandal in the University’s history.

“I’m not the kind of person that would just go up and nominate a teacher,” Preston said. “I was so impressed and had such an incredible experience in his classroom, I thought I had to do something.”

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And based on Preston’s experience, the idea that Nyang’oro would bend the rules for athletes was just not characteristic of the professor she knew.

“The athletes that were in my classes showed up,” she said, mentioning that George Lynch and Rick Fox — who both became NBA players — were in one of her classes. “He kind of just raised the bar in his classroom. He expected a lot, which is why (the impropriety) is so surprising to hear.”

Nyang’oro won the teaching award in 1991. Twenty years later, he was asked to retire after University officials discovered he had helped orchestrate the formation of academic courses taught irregularly or not at all, some of which had a disproportionately large number of student athletes enrolled.

Now, the questions of where the scandal originated, who is responsible and who is to blame are swirling around the heads of administrators and the UNC community.

Jay Smith, a history professor who has been at the forefront of the faculty discussion about restoring the school’s academic integrity, said these questions are dividing UNC’s faculty.

“How in the world did such a system fly under the radar?” he said.

“That’s the question of the moment, isn’t it?”

Were there any signs?

The Department of African and Afro-American Studies was just a curriculum when Trudier Harris was the chairwoman in 1991.

At that time, Harris said the curriculum underwent a period of massive expansion — acquiring more offices and conference rooms, forming an honors program and adding faculty positions.

When she left Nyang’oro at the helm of the soon-to-be department to be closer to her family, she felt he was qualified for the job.

“He was a brilliant man, he had done exceptional work,” she said. “He was very much the kind of professor and scholar that one would want in any department.”

Harris said her entire experience with the department was positive.

“We saw no signs of this, had no indication at all that this was on the horizon.”

Harris said African and Afro-American studies departments across the country have been held to intense scrutiny, not just UNC.

“I think that AFAM departments throughout the United States suffer from questions about legitimacy and strength,” she said. “They are always under microscopes.”

Despite the stigma, Harris said these departments might face on a national level, signs of the UNC department’s initial impropriety have yet to surface.

Who has the oversight?

As one of 69 department chairmen at UNC, Nyang’oro was responsible for overseeing all activity within the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, which currently includes 23 faculty members and lecturers.

Department chairmen report to an associate dean, who ultimately reports to the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Chancellor Holden Thorp said this structure is necessary to administer such a large staff, but the University was not prepared for the system to fail.

“Department chairs obviously have a lot of ability to influence things, and we put a lot of trust in them,” Thorp said. “The oversight system we had didn’t account for this possibility.”

But current restructuring of the system following Nyang’oro’s departure are not the first changes to the hierarchy.

Gillian Cell, who was dean of the college from 1985 to 1991, wrote in an email that while she enjoyed being dean during her term, she is not sure she would take the position now.

“I enjoyed being dean because I did have contact with so many people,” she wrote.

“I would not want to be dean now, given the current structure, because I would (be) out of contact with chairs and faculty.”

Former Gov. Jim Martin, who is leading an independent review into the department, will attempt to answer questions about proper reporting of class activity with the assistance of consulting firm Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP.

Martin said he will also be interviewing faculty members to see what has been considered problematic within their own departments or others they have observed. He said he hopes this effort will give him some leads.

Are athletics to blame?

Some faculty members argue that athletes — who have been at the center of the scandal — are not to blame.

“Given all the pressure that is put on (athletes), the fact that they might be able to take advantage of an easy course should not surprise you,” Smith said.

Thorp said the administration has been working on ways to strengthen the intersection of academics and athletics.

One example is the work of Karen Gil, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Bubba Cunningham, UNC’s athletic director, who are working together to reform the relationship between their two departments.

“Areas of campus have gotten closer together to figure out a solution,” Cunningham said.

“(Student athletes) have a full-time job, essentially, on top of being a student, so we have to provide an appropriate level of support.”

Cunningham said they are working on several plans, such as reinforcing the difference between advisers and counselors.

Former athletics department academic counselor Carl Carey said carrying out the daily duties of an academic adviser to student athletes can be difficult.

“Academic counselors, we look at things like making sure their classes don’t conflict with practice time,” said Carey, who is also the agent of former UNC football and basketball star Julius Peppers.

“These are scholarship student athletes, and when they’re on scholarship, they have team obligations they have to meet.”

Last week, it was discovered that Peppers’ transcript had been posted on a UNC website. It showed heavy participation in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies.

Carey said that although he never suggested easy classes for student athletes to take, the athletes do talk amongst themselves on the topic.

“Student athletes talk just like students talk … they know who’s a good professor, who’s not good, who’s a hard grader, who’s not a hard grader,” he said.

“Do those discussions take place among athletes? Absolutely. So a lot of times when student athletes sit down, they already have an idea of what they want to do.”

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