In its ongoing battle with the NCAA, UNC-Chapel Hill has taken on the enforcement agency’s jurisdiction and challenged whether it could reopen a 2011 investigation into bogus classes that helped keep athletes eligible.
In a less-noticed move, it also has questioned the NCAA’s accuracy on a piece of its evidence, saying the NCAA erred in partially basing a violation on a class that the university claimed had not been under suspicion. And UNC has protested that its challenge to investigators’ accuracywasn’t allowed into evidence late last year as legal arguments continued to slow the case.
The accuracy question, however, could boomerang on the university. In its challenge, UNC’s lawyer, Rick Evrard, stated in a letter last year that a class set up by one of the academic scandal’s central figures wasn’t found to be a bogus “paper” class. That assertion, however, appears to have been based on an inadvertent omission in a report that represents the most extensive public investigation into the classes.
Evrard contended in a Jan. 7, 2016 letter that when an academic counselor for athletes asked for a paper class to be offered in 2010, there’s no evidence it was done, and therefore, there was no impermissible benefit in that instance.
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The News & Observer reported on the class in 2013. Jaimie Lee, an academic counselor to football players in the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes, asked Julius Nyang’oro, the chairman of the African and Afro-American Studies Department, in an email to repeat a Swahili language class that had been held as a “research paper course” the previous summer.
That Swahili course was one of roughly 185 classes disguised as lecture-style but had never met, had no instructor and only required a paper at the end.
Lee’s request sparked an emoticon-laced exchange, and Nyang’oro offered to make a different class, AFAM 398 available in the summer of 2010. UNC’s registration records show such a class was offered that summer, with two students enrolled, at least one an athlete.
Evrard wrote to the NCAA that former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein’s extensive investigation did not find the class to be bogus. Evrard cited a section in Wainstein’s report that listed the bogus classes Nyang’oro created and a spreadsheet Wainstein’s team created that was supposed to list all of the known bogus classes. That AFAM 398 class isn’t identified in either.
“...AFAM 398 was not identified by Mr. Wainstein as an independent study class, a paper class or a bifurcated class,” Evrard wrote. The bifurcated classes were actual lecture classes, but students (mostly athletes) were allowed to enroll without attending, and were given high grades if they turned in a paper.
Joseph Jay, the lead attorney on Wainstein’s team, confirmed to The N&O in July that AFAM 398 was actually one of the bogus classes. It had inadvertently been left off the list. It is identified as an independent study class in another section of Wainstein’s report -- the one that described Lee and Nyang’oro’s interactions regarding the class.
It’s unclear how much digging Evrard did regarding the class. His letter makes reference to Nyang’oro’s interview with UNC officials and the NCAA in August 2011 when the scandal first surfaced. But the details regarding the interview appear to be redacted. UNC and UNC system officials have denied several N&O requests for a transcript of that interview.
Some of the strongest evidence that this AFAM 398 class was bogus comes from the professor who helped launch it, Reginald Hildebrand. In 2012, when details of the classes started to emerge, he wrote an essay conveying his shock and frustration over what had happened within his department.
Hildebrand wrote that his version of the class included a lecture from a colleague and was ‘definitely not a ‘no-show.’ ” But he described a second version of the offering:
“Until I read (an early investigation into the classes), I was completely unaware that another version of the ‘AFAM Seminar’ had been offered during the summer on four occasions. I was not informed or consulted about it, and if I had been I would have said that it was pedagogically impossible to conduct that seminar adequately during a brief summer session.”
The N&O asked Evrard and UNC officials last week if they had confirmed the summer 2010 AFAM 398 class actually met – that it was a legitimate class. UNC spokesman Rick White said Evrard couldn’t discuss the case.
As for UNC, White said: “As we’ve stated previously, per NCAA by-laws, we cannot comment further on the NCAA investigation.”
Correction: A previous version of this story inadvertently omitted the word “paper” from a quote about a Swahili class drawn from the Wainstein report. This version has been updated.
Much has been made of irregular “paper classes” at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which helped numerous student-athletes score high grades for little, if any, academic work.
But one aspect of the latest report on the scandal, this one from investigator Kenneth L. Wainstein, is worth a closer look: It wasn’t just about special favors for student-athletes.
The classes, which apparently offered no teaching and offered generous grading for term papers of dubious quality, persisted from 1993 to 2011. They provided more than 3,100 students with “one or more semesters of deficient instruction” within the African and Afro-American studies department, Wainstein reported.
Previous reports have illuminated the scandal, which started to emerge in 2011, but Wainstein’s is considered the most comprehensive. It was commissioned by UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol L. Folt, who took office in 2013.
How irregular were the courses? Wainstein reported that one “particularly popular class” was third-level Swahili, in which students who struggled at lower levels in the subject were able to satisfy a foreign language requirement “by writing a paper about Swahili culture in English rather [than] completing a regular Swahili 3 paper class in Swahili.”
The report raises questions about how athletes were steered into these courses. But many who took them were not athletes. The report found that student-athletes accounted for 47.6 percent of “paper class” enrollment from 1999 to 2011. That meant the majority were not athletes.
Who were they?
Some stumbled into the classes without knowing they were bogus. But many sought them out.
“As with any course that offers an easy path to a high grade, word of these classes got around,” the report says. Some academic advisers pointed students to them. The report recounts an incident in which a struggling student with an academic scholarship in a program known as Morehead-Cain scholars was referred to a “paper class” to bolster his grade-point average to avoid losing his grant.
Word of the classes also circulated widely within fraternities.
Two fraternity members told investigators that the classes were seen as “a ‘loophole’ in Chapel Hill’s otherwise demanding curriculum.” These members said that some of their non-athlete fraternity brothers took so many of the classes that they inadvertently wound up with minors in African and Afro-American studies.
This raises questions about how many administrators at one of the nation’s most prestigious public universities knew about the scandal before it broke — or should have known.
Wainstein concluded that it is fair to criticize the university for a failure of oversight. But he found “no evidence that the higher levels of the university tried in any way to obscure the facts or the magnitude of the situation.”