After years of questions and insufficient responses, Wednesday’s press conference gave the final answer.
It was an athletic scandal — a scheme devised, ultimately, by an administrative assistant and the former chairman of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. The two were asked by the athletic teams’ academic counselors to keep athletes eligible to play. They were desperate to help students who struggled to adapt to UNC’s rigorous academics.
Kenneth Wainstein, the former federal prosecutor hired by UNC to independently investigate academic misconduct, released the findings of his eight-month-long investigation in a 136-page report Wednesday.
The report revealed staggering statistics about the African and Afro-American studies and the ways Deborah Crowder, a secretary in the department until her retirement in 2009, and Julius Nyang’oro, former chairman of the department, created thousands of paper classes.
According to the report, more than 3,100 students received irregular instruction in African and Afro-American studies paper classes, where students would not have to attend class or complete any assignments, except one — a paper due at the end of the semester that Crowder, a non-faculty member, would grade extremely leniently.
Wainstein and his team combed through 1.6 million emails and electronic student records and recruited a team of outside experts from UCLA, George Washington University and Princeton to review 150 student papers that were previously thought to be destroyed.
“Because of that thoroughness and the breadth of the investigation, I believe we now know all that we are able to know about what happened and how it happened,” said UNC-system President Tom Ross.
Ready to embrace UNC’s past failures, Chancellor Carol Folt spoke candidly during a press conference Wednesday and braced herself for the questions that had been looming for four years.
Wainstein’s report, which included interviews with Crowder and Nyang’oro who both had never participated in an investigation before, spelled out what had long been reported. Athletes were steered toward classes where they would have to do little work and would receive high marks.
“It’s a case where you have bad actions of a few and the inactions of many,” Folt said. “You need processes that protect integrity.”
A ‘University issue’
For the first time, Chancellor Carol Folt acknowledged the department of athletics’ involvement in the scandal that led to the resignation of beloved former Chancellor Holden Thorp and, eventually, criminal indictments in 2013 by an Orange County grand jury.
“Was this an academic or an athletic issue? Clearly it was an issue in both areas. It was a university issue,” Folt said. “They trusted us with their education, and they took these courses and they deserved so much better.”
Administrators still stand by the fact that the origin of the problem lied in academic impropriety — not the Department of Athletics and the pressure to make sure student-athletes remain eligible.
“From the beginning, I think the University has taken the position that these classes started in an academic department by a person employed in the academic side of the University — athletics took advantage of that,” Ross said.
Wainstein revealed instances where former football academic counselor Cynthia Reynolds and former women’s basketball academic counselor Jan Boxill, as part of their roles in the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes, would email Crowder requesting certain grades for student-athletes within her paper class so the player could be eligible.
Boxill, who is the former chairwoman of the faculty and a renowned expert in sports ethics, was also found to have written parts of her athletes’ papers for these classes.
Crowder, prompted by her own memories of struggling to excel in college, usually complied with Boxill’s requests for grade changes.
Bubba Cunningham sat uncomfortably on stage during Wednesday’s press conference. The current director of athletics arrived at UNC in 2011 — the year Wainstein’s report said many of the improprieties were coming to an end.
With every question, Cunningham quietly gave a quick response.
Would he comment on the timeline of the NCAA’s ongoing investigation and whether Wainstein’s revelations would impact that investigation?
“Trying to speculate on the end would be inappropriate at this time,” Cunningham said. “I have no idea how long it will take.”
In interviews with basketball coach Roy Williams, who brought UNC two national championships in 2005 and 2009, and basketball counselor Wayne Walden, Wainstein’s team found that Walden knew about the paper classes and that Crowder was grading the assignments, despite the fact that she had no training as a professor.
Now Walden was Williams’ main guy. The two had come to UNC with now-retired director of basketball operations Joe Holladay from the University of Kansas in 2003. Walden promised Wainstein that Williams had no idea his players were enrolled in classes that never met and were being graded by staff members with no background in academia. During the press conference, Wainstein said “his gut” told him to trust Walden’s claims.
Back to Cunningham for comment on whether Williams and other coaches implicated in the report would still have a job after Wednesday.
“This report we received today doesn’t give me any evidence to do anything right now relative to additional punishment,” Cunningham said.
What frustrated senior Taylor Webber-Fields most about the revelations this week was the bad reputation she believes will now hang over her degree. She plans to graduate with a degree in African, African American and Diaspora studies in the spring.
“They’re saying that this is an overall investigation of the tendencies of the University, but it’s been solely focused on the African American and Diaspora studies department,” she said in the open meeting Folt held for the students and faculty to discuss the report.
“There’s this general feeling of, ‘You’re getting a joke diploma,’ that it’s not important, that it’s not on the same level of academia as the rest of the school.”
Folt said she would champion for Webber-Fields and her peers in African, African American and Diaspora studies once they graduate.
“Folt’s response was satisfactory to me because it seemed like she would be an advocate for me or the school would be an advocate for me,” Webber-Fields said.
Nine up in the air
The University will take discplinary action — which could include termination — against at least nine employees, Folt said. The University had decided to terminate at least four people, she said.
She refused to release the names of the faculty members being terminated.
“We have pretty strict rules about privacy. We don’t give anybody’s name — ever — in the press so I’m not going to talk about them individually.”
By the end of the day, it seemed everyone was ready to close this ugly chapter of UNC’s history.
Lowry Caudill, chairman of the Board of Trustees, said Wednesday was painful, but worthwhile.
“I love this place. You can sit through and listen to what has happened so we can learn and be a better organization moving forward.”
Senior writers Jane Wester, Langston Taylor and Sara Salinas contributed reporting.